Mad Detective (神探, Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2007)

mad-detectiveThe border between “eccentric” and just “insane” can be quite a thin one but that tiny liminal space of uncertainty is where the hero of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s Mad Detective (神探) resides. The titular Mad Detective, Bun (Sean Lau Ching-Wan), is about as unreliable a narrator as they come owing to the fact that he experiences frequent hallucinations and delusions meaning that absolutely nothing of his perception can be taken at face value. Despite his unorthodox approach, Bun is a fine a detective with an almost supernatural crime solving ability but, tragically, sometimes he sees more than he would like of human nature.

The day rookie detective Ho (Andy On) joins the force, he walks in on an unusual scene. Knives and cutting implements are lined up on a table while a pig’s carcass hangs from the ceiling. Veteran cop Bun then enters into the mind of a killer by viciously stabbing the pig carcass (and lovingly caressing it afterwards), before tucking himself inside a suitcase which he asks Ho to throw down the stairs only so he can then leap out and shout “The guy at the ice-cream store did it!”. A montage of newspaper cuttings testifies to Bun’s track record, but his career is over when he suddenly decides to cut off his own ear and present it to his boss at his retirement party.

Not so long after, two cops enter a forrest and only one leaves. That’s one problem, but the missing cop’s gun has been used in a series of robbery/homicides which is another. Exhausting all leads in trying to find out what happened between gun losing Wong (Lee Kwok-Lun) and his shady partner Chi-wai (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) in a dark forest 18 months previously, Ho turns to Bun despite the misgivings of his colleagues. Bun’s wife begs him not to go back to police work, fearing for both his life and his mental state but Bun would rather live crazy than bored and so it’s back to burying himself alive and chatting with ghosts among other strange pursuits undertaken in the name of law enforcement.

Bun’s major talent is his ability to see people’s “inner personalities” which take the form of personified aspects of their psyches. We see through Bun’s POV as the figures in front of him change without warning – fighting one moment with a lady cop in a men’s bathroom but turning to see an overweight veteran in her place at the next. Bun comes to suspect Chi-wan thanks to his overly complicated personality which has seven different “ghosts” – an amusing sight when they all end up piled into the back of his tiny car. This goes someway to explaining the bemused looks Bun often attracts as he chats with people no one else can see.

Reactions to Bun’s outburst in a convenience store seem like they might just be mild embarrassment at his causing a scene, but could also easily be because he’s shouting at someone who isn’t really there. Whether “real” or not, it’s clear that Bun’s emotional intelligence and ability to read people are key to his crime solving talent. As he later tells Ho, it’s not about logic, it’s about emotion. Through “extreme profiling”, Bun “becomes” the killer, experiencing their emotions to get to the heart of the crime. Bun, like Manhunter’s Will Graham, absorbs too much of the world he sees around him and is unable to reconcile his reality with the commonly accepted one. Quite mad, but also brilliant, Bun’s genius makes him dangerous in a hundred different ways.

To and Wai create doubles and dualities left, right, and centre. Fittingly enough, Mad Detective takes inspiration from The Lady from Shanghai for its shoot out finale which occurs in a house of mirrors. This time it’s not just Bun’s vision which is uncertain even as he can see multiples of ghosting personalities, but ours too as reality fractures into tiny, reflective fragments. Ho, by the film’s conclusion, may have absorbed too much of Bun, but also perhaps of the worst aspects of his profession. Bun’s tragedy is his innocence – he literally sees the bad the in people and tries to exorcise demons through exposing their presence, but Ho’s is cowardice in his refusal to truly look at the people in front of him rather than blindly follow the nearest available leader. A supremely complex and original thriller, To and Wai’s Mad Detective is a fascinating psychological journey constructed with unusual rigour and as oblique and elliptical as it is entertaining.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cold War (寒戰, Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2012)

cold war

Reworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in June 2013.


Listen up!  You’re going to have to pay attention to this review because there’s an awful lot going on this film. If there were a prize for most subplots squeezed into 102 minutes there wouldn’t even be room for any other candidates on the nominations list. If you like your HK action thrillers super complicated (if a little on the ridiculous side) and filled with some truly explosive (!) action sequences Cold War (寒戰) is definitely up your street.

Whilst a major explosion rocks a busy public area in Hong Kong, a crazed drunk hurtles through the streets before crashing his car into the central reservation in a quite spectacular manner. Apparently unharmed, he then rants at the traffic police that his uncle is a judge so they can’t touch him – a quick phone call seems to indicate he might be mistaken in his uncle’s feelings towards him but in any case the situation changes dramatically as the police are suddenly ambushed and kidnapped. The kidnappers then attempt to ransom the officers and equipment to the HK police authorities who are already a source of some press interest regarding possible corruption and general incompetence. It is imperative that they regain their men and capture the culprits as quickly as possible to avoid their reputation being even further damaged.

However, there is also considerable friction between the leading players at HQ and some uncertainty over who is favoured to become the new police chief – the young bureaucrat or the grizzled street veteran. This situation is further complicated by the fact that one of the missing patrolmen is the son of current section chief MB Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fei). His subordinate, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok), feels this makes him unsuitable to lead the current investigation and so seeks to have Lee removed from his post and take over the position himself. The pair also attract the attention of an officer at ICAC who’s convinced one or both of them must have more to do with the case than it seems, meaning each is effectively fighting a war on three fronts – firstly trying to rescue the police officers, then unmasking the perpetrators and finding out what they want with the HK Police force, and finally sorting out who’s up for the top job at police HQ whilst also keeping Internal Affairs off their backs.

No matter which way you put it Cold War is still extremely convoluted and fails to make all of its various plot elements hang together in a coherent way. It’s also unfortunate that the culprit is a little predictable (largely thanks to the actor’s mustache twirling performance) but when the final reveal does come it’s baffling in its pettiness, not to mention the total implausibility of such a complicated plan. Perhaps its unfair to criticise a film like this for having a problematic plot structure, perhaps fans of the action genre don’t look for finely crafted plotting as much as they look thrills and technically impressive action sequences – after all, we can’t all be Infernal Affairs.

It has to be said that Cold War does deliver in the action stakes with some extremely high production values which surpass even the heights of previous HK action films. From the opening car crash to the motorway car chase and explosive finale there are several simply jaw dropping moments throughout. When it comes to the big and brassy set pieces, Cold War is pretty much unrivaled but perhaps lacks the personal, intimate touch of other genre favourites. Tonally it walks a fine line between a sort of quirky humour and slightly absurd feeling where you can’t be sure whether you’re actually watching a comedy or not – some viewers may find all this a little too silly but others may revel in its ironic tone.

Cold War is certainly a flawed film, a little ridiculous but nevertheless enjoyable. It seems as if it also wants to make serious points about the justice system, media and police force but ends up pulling all its punches. If you stop to think about any of the plot, it makes very little sense but if you can let that go and just enjoy the superb action sequences and great performances from the leads Cold War is definitely one of the more impressive action thrillers to come out of HK in recent years.


 Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)