When I posted my top 10 movies of 2008 last week, I noted that it wasn’t a particularly great year for movies and that I had a really hard time compiling the list. I also noted that some of my “Should Have Seen” movies had the potential to unseat my number 10 movie. Indeed, I even mentioned one I had ordered already: Mad Detective. It was delivered earlier than expected and I watched it last night. I’m now in the awkward position of having to amend my top 10 list. This is something I didn’t want to do, which is why I waited so long to post my list in the first place, but what’s a guy to do? So I’m updating my top 10.
At first glance, Mad Detective seems like your typical police procedural with a Hong Kong twist. But it quickly becomes apparent that there is more going on here, even among typical Hong Kong cinema conventions. The story follows Bun. Once a master profiler who consistently solved impossible mysteries by reenacting the crime from both the perpetrator and the victim’s perspective, he has since become something of a nutcase. He’s kicked off the police force when he cuts off his ear and presents it to his police commissioner as a retirement present. It seems Bun’s talents have taken a toll on his sanity. Five years later, a young cop named Ho enlists the retired Bun’s help in solving a series of murders committed with a police gun. As the film proceeds, you learn more about his talents and his madness.
Bun claims that he can see people’s “inner personalities.” Directors Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai do not explain Bun’s powers through a lot of exposition, relying instead on subjective shots from Bun’s point of view. They effortlessly mix these subjective shots with objective shots from the young detective Ho’s point of view. So when Ho sees a man walking down the street, Bun sees seven people (one for each personality within the man) walking down the street. Once this dynamic is established, things proceed at a fast pace, alternating between objective and subjective views of the investigation. Bun’s madness isn’t explored deeply, but you can figure it out from the visual cues. For instance, there is an interesting dynamic between Bun and his wife that is explored but not explained except through visual means.
This may sound like an annoying gimmick and I’m not usually a fan of movies that play confusion for depth, but I have to say it worked really well here. Perhaps it was the pace of the film or the central mystery, but there is a certain giddy wackiness that strangly grounds the film. The directors are clearly enjoying themselves, and the film ends up being quite entertaining. The film employs all manner of wide angle shots and as you might expect, some excellent editing (which is necessary given the nature of the story being told). There were times when I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I was just along for the ride and trusted that To and Wai would end things right.
The climactic confrontation is among the best set pieces I’ve seen all year. It takes place in a warehouse filled with mirrors, allowing the directors to show the inner personalities in reflections. Johnny To is a master of such set pieces and shootouts, and the final standoff is superbly executed and the films closing shots are haunting (I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s chilling and thought provoking).
The film was released on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray series (Eureka is supposedly the UK’s answer to the Criterion Collection). The picture is fantastic, but the extras are somewhat lacking. Still, you do get an excellent French Q&A session with Johnny To, and he answers questions about several films from his prolific career. You get some interesting info out of this, like the fact that Kaedrin favorite The Mission was shot in just 18 days and was largely improvised (The Mission was on my top 10 for 2000). Johnny To has become one of my favorite directors and he’s clearly the best director working in Hong Kong today. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent film Triangle, in which To shared directing duties with Hong Kong legends Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam. I saw Triangle during the 2008 Philly Film Festival. To’s segment at the end of the film is great and completely blows away Hark and Lam’s segments… In this movie he’s working with frequent collaborator Ka-Fai Wai, who I’m much less familiar with, but who seems to mix well with To.
It’s certainly not for everyone, but it hit all the right notes for me and it definitely belongs on my Top 10 of 2008. Unfortunately, it’s not available on Netflix yet, though it is listed and should be coming at some point. If you get a chance to see it and if the ludicrousness of the premise doesn’t bother you, it’s well worth a watch. ***1/2