Johnnie To's Mad Detective is one of the most deliberately complicated police procedurals I've seen in some time. As an introduction to the wild Hong Kong auteur's canon, it can be a bewildering experience, but a rewarding one, allowing this writer to get at the heart of what makes To stand out from other genre filmmakers working today.
The first thing you notice is the camerawork. To has found a committed fan in David Bordwell, perhaps the most knowledgeable man in the world on the subject of mise-en-scène and the meaning of a shot, and one can see why instantly: setting up what might be a usual pairing of mismatched cops, the camera instead instantly subverts expectations. It moves with a fluid grace as it tracks over the sight of an older detective with a knife readied for a fight, only to reveal a swinging pig carcass that he stabs repeatedly to mimic a killer's attack. The camera cuts to reveal the previous moment to be a POV shot as a young cop, Detective Ho Ka-On enters the room to find the other cops staring at the spectacle.
Before five minutes have elapsed, To has taken the formula and muddied it, opening with those cliché establishing shots of a precinct and the rookie entering before splitting attention between objective and subjective shots. The only thing the audience can trust so far is the printing on the Kowloon District door: everything else already carries the possibility of fabrication. We subsequently learn that the older detective, Bun, stabs the pig and mimics another crime -- having Ho place him in a suitcase and throw him down some stairs -- because he is psychic and recreating the scenarios allows him to see what happened. This just opens the can of worms.
The entire department admires Bun, to the point that no one ever bothers to question how he can see people's inner selves. But they also fear his mental imbalance, and when he offers his retiring captain his own right ear as a "present," the rest of the precinct makes the not altogether unwise decision to send Bun to pasture as well. Only years later, when a cop, Wong, goes missing and his gun shows up in the use of deadly robberies does Ho go looking for the mad detective to get to the bottom of the crimes
What is also remarkable about Mad Detective is the emotional range it conveys. To juggles broad comedy, suspense, tragedy and cerebral psychological thriller deftly, and if the film is inconsistent in tone, as I have heard some say, that can only be because, for all the supernatural elements of the film, it is one of the few cop films to express any kind of believable emotion. And if emotion is believable and human, it is always complicated and conflicting.
Paired up once more with his writing partner, Wai Ka-Fei, To delights in poking fun at cop clichés without making an outright comedy. Where most buddy cop films pair a reckless rookie with a wizened old detective, To's film gives us two totally unique characters. The older cop is the crazy one, and the young one isn't particularly ambitious or adept. Late in the film, Bun sees Ho's inner personality, a frightened, insecure child whose angry front cannot remotely disguise his fear.
To's constant leap through perspectives brings out the complexity in Bun and the way he sees the world. He lives with his imaginary wife after his real spouse left him, and it's heartbreaking when the camera cuts from seeing her interacting with Bun to a more objective angle that shows a desperate man trying to keep up appearances. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film has nothing to do with the corkscrewing narrative but an aside that shows Bun inviting Ho and his girlfriend to dinner, complete with Bun's "wife." Ho's girlfriend cannot take the absurdity and hides in the bathroom, but a sympathetic Ho makes a noble go of it, and the moment is surprisingly sweet. It's the one coherent bit of Mad Detective, and it's more affecting than the forced moments one expects of such thrillers.
Elsewhere, though, this is a pure exercise in style, and To's style is boundless. Wong's partner, Chi-Wai, is the culprit behind Wong's disappearance, and Bun sees seven distinct beings when he looks at Chi-Wai's inner personality, a person for each deadly sin and for major body parts. In the climactic shootout, the camera tracks through a hall of mirrors, alternating fluidly between objective shots of Chi-Wai moving through the room and subjective views of seven characters crowded around the one of them with the gun. Best of all is an overhead crane shot capturing shot and shattered mirrors on the ground reflecting the characters.
Mad Detective revolves around the MacGufffin of gun ownership. Chi-Wai got his gun stolen by an Indian thief, so he killed his partner and took his gun. When Bun heads out into the woods to recreate Wong's death, he confronts a spiritual vision of Chi-Wai, embodying the lost gun, taking the existential threads of a cop's badge and gun to an extreme, literal level. In the aftermath of the final showdown, the camera pulls back into full objectivity as the story moves into its most subjective and surreal moment, with guns changing hands so investigators will have an entirely different story than what we saw. I'm reminded of the climax of the Harry Potter series, which hinged on ideas of wand ownership, but To's film is sly and deconstructive where Rowling's ending was obtuse and clumsy.
"B-movie" continues to be used as a derogatory term, even a half-century after the director/critics at Cahiers du Cinéma proved that B-movies contained more ingenuity than the lavish prestige pictures, and Johnnie To may well be the filmmaker most qualified to continue demonstrating this today. Mad Detective is an off-the-wall cascade of pleasurable but conflicting elements that work only because they are unified by To's elegant style. Praise should also go to Sean Lau as Detective Bun: since his first acting nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1995, Lau has received nine more in the last 15 years. He flawlessly embraces the absurdities and the severity of the script, crafting one of the most unique characters in modern film in a performance that would be worth repeat viewings even if everything around him was mediocre. Lucky for us, it's all great. I'm routinely inspired by Asian cinema's capacity for aesthetic beauty and emotional and thematic power, but sometimes I forget how entertaining the industry can be as well. Johnnie To reminds me.