The 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)