Movies · Reviews

Foreign Objects: Mad Detective (Hong Kong)

By  · Published on March 24th, 2010

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…

Hong Kong!

A couple months back Foreign Objects visited Hong Kong with Johnnie To’s latest film, Vengeance. The movie is a major stylistic achievement and at times very cool, but it’s severely lacking when it comes to substance or logic. To’s camera-work, set pieces, and eye for visuals are at times mesmerizing, but the nonsensical behaviors and events depressed the entire endeavor. That critique can probably be said about much of To’s work, but sometimes… sometimes he gets it all right.

Inspector Bun (Lau Ching Wan) is unmatched when it comes to solving murders, but his methods are more than a little unusual. As a handful of detectives stand around him watching in silence, Bun circles a pig carcass hanging from the ceiling of the police station. He jabs at it with a knife, stabbing and slashing as he holds back apparent emotions, until the dead animal finally falls to the floor. He then asks a rookie cop to zip him up in a suitcase and toss him down the stairs, and once the suitcase finishes rolling to the bottom Bun pops out and declares emphatically that “the killer is the ice cream shop owner.” Of course.

The scene ends with a party for the police chief where Bun literally slices off his own ear to give to the man as a gift…

After possibly one of the best character introductions ever we jump to a few years later as Bun and his wife are visited by Inspector On (Andy On) who’s requesting the now-retired detective’s assistance on a case involving a missing policeman. It upsets his wife, but Bun reluctantly takes on the case and we quickly learn that the man has a gift, and a curse, that often helps in his investigations. He can see a person’s inner personality. A young girl in a store debating with herself about shoplifting some makeup actually appears to Bun as two people… the girl herself, and a second girl urging her to pocket the item and run. Bun’s ability, as well as his investigative skills and sanity, will be put to the test as he attempts to ferret out a possible killer who may be targeting him next.

Mad Detective has all the trappings of a successful To film with few, if any, of the flaws. He tones down his flair a bit but his style is still stamped throughout in manic camera work, beautifully staged set pieces, and at least one standoff with everybody pointing guns at everyone else. The film is less grounded in reality than Vengeance or any of To’s other more straight-forward pics, but it still manages to be a more logical and coherent world. No explanation is given as to Bun’s abilities and yet we easily go along for the ride, and while that makes for a movie almost as crazy as its lead character it never goes so far as to lose the audience’s attention. And you will need to pay attention as Bun’s gift means some of the characters we’re seeing onscreen are only there because he sees them in his head. Mad Detective takes that uncertainty and weaves it through a narrative built on equal parts mystery and discovery towards an ending both satisfying and rewarding.

Johnnie To gets most of the name recognition, but Mad Detective is actually the latest directorial collaboration between he and Wai Ka-fai. The duo have made several films together over the years, and sometimes they end up being some of the best work of either man’s career. Fulltime Killer and Running On Karma are two solid examples of movies that stretch beyond their genre boundaries with the inclusion of real character, creativity, and heart. Their latest film continues that trend with the creation of one of the more indelible characters in Hong Kong cinema.

The viewer is drawn to Bun’s eccentric behavior first through curiosity, then with laughs, and finally through emotional concern. Lau gives his character several standout scenes highlighting both his personality and his predicament… one finds him re-enacting some robberies with his finger acting as a gun, and another involves his wife and the visible combination of love and madness roiling in his eyes. Lau gives us a character similar in many ways to TV’s Monk in that he’s a brilliant crime-solver with an emotionally affecting mental illness. Where the two part ways though is in the severity of that illness as evidenced by Bun’s gift of self-mutilation to the police chief. He’s not just a quirky personality. He’s nuts.

Mad Detective is another fantastic film from the collective minds of To and Wai. Its blend of mystery, humor, and the unexplained is held together beautifully through Lau’s heartfelt and oddball central performance. Hong Kong genre films usually prefer action and gun-play over heart and soul, but this flick manages to somehow combine them all into an entertaining, suspenseful, and occasionally whimsical movie. And of course, being a To film it also looks extremely cool in the process.

You should see this movie any way you can, but the ideal way to watch it (IMO) is on the Master of Cinema Series #2 blu-ray from Eureka! (available here from The image is stunning and a visible improvement over the artificially brightened DVD releases and televised versions. Extras include a thirty-minute Q&A with Johnnie To, another half-hour of interviews with To and some of the cast, and a booklet featuring an essay on the film by David Bordwell. The extras are all English subtitled and provide an interesting insight into the film and into what drives To’s passion for film-making. Best of all, the blu-ray is region-free and will work on any blu-ray player.

The Upside: Stylish visuals; quirky sense of humor; fantastic lead performance ; both a mystery and a strong character piece

The Downside: Potentially confusing at times

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.