Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Psycho Sleuth

I remember having to review Fantasia (Gwai Ma Kwong Seung Kuk) in 2004, and found the film a little amusing, mostly because of its spoof of various Hui brothers movies of the 70s, especially The Private Eyes' hilarious kitchen fight and Sam Hui's kungfu-obsessed character. But what really stood out in the otherwise mediocre fare was Lau Ching Wan's performance. His impression of a pelican during the mahjong table scene is surely one of the best comedic performances in Hong Kong film. And he doesn't even say a word!

The moment he appears as Detective Bun in Johnnie To's Mad Detective, he looks completely lost in his own loony world, weird hair and all. He is the titular figure, and he pretty much holds up the entire film on his shoulders. He even wins our sympathy as a dejected spouse and a man unable to control his "gift" which ultimately destroys his life and career.

That said, Mad Detective is also To's new masterpiece, an impressive piece of cop mystery and psychological ping-pong game that benefits from top-notch editing and a clever script.

While the Election films and Exiled have been wowing western audiences and introducing them to one of Hong Kong's finest directors, To's greatest moments were his earlier work such as The Longest Nite and Expect The Unexpected, and even my personal favourite, PTU. But one of the films that everyone hardly talks about, that's probably one of To's most underrated, is Running On Karma, aka Mr Fit. I, myself, was fooled into thinking it was just another Andy Lau vehicle strictly for his fans, what with the prosthetic body suit and all. But it turned out to be one of the most entertaining and affecting thriller/dramas I'd seen. I mention it here because it shares some conceptual similarities with Mad Detective, that of men with supernatural gifts but are encumbered by those very gifts.

The similarities probably end there, as Lau takes to his role with much relish. His Detective Bun has the uncanny ability of seeing every person's inner demons, in the shape of ordinary-looking human beings but who have incredible influence over the person's thoughts and actions. This is how he solves crimes and becomes known for it, until one day he's forced into cold storage when he offers his earlobe as a parting gift for his retiring boss. But years later, a cop goes missing in a forest but his gun turns up at several robberies around town, prompting young cop Ho (Andy On) to seek Bun's help in solving the case. But of course, Bun's unorthodox method soon lands both of them right smack in the middle of an intricate web.

To has a penchant for exploring the psyches of uncontrollable men, guys who operate by their own set of rules and couldn't give a damn what the world thinks. Here, he takes it to the extreme with Bun, who is truly out of this world in every sense of the term! It's almost cautionary how To handles that aspect of the character and the way the character fits into the scheme of things. The perfect crime solver comes with a price, a very heavy price. If that's what you want, can you handle it? Ho admires Bun and even emulates his methods, but as Bun warns him: "You're not me."

The film builds at a comfortable pace, piles on the intrigue and the conflicts, until its gripping final minutes. These last moments are of a truly breathless, taut atmosphere that's horribly constricting as it all comes to a deadly, unpredictable standoff. That final scenario (I won't give anything away) is almost a cliche of so many action films, but in To's hands, it's quite something else.

Lau and To have always been a great combination (Where A Good Man Goes, A Hero Never Dies). And with Wai Ka-Fai back in the fold too, you have a remarkable film with many memorable moments that's surely one of the best to come out of Hong Kong in years. (Yes, Lam Suet's here too!)

It's also great to hear that it's doing good business at the Hong Kong box-office.

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