VENICE – Most really smart sleuths in crime fiction pick up on external clues, but Kowloon cop Bun (Lau Ching Wan, pictured) in “Mad Detective” identifies villains by recognising a person’s inner personality or personalities, as the case may be.
It’s a gift with serious complications because while his huge leaps of logic often lead to arrests, he loses grip of his mind and is fired from the police force. In the film’s taut, amusing and exciting story, directed by Johnny To and Wai Ka-Fai, he is brought back to help investigate the disappearance and possible murder of a fellow police officer.
Announced at the last minute as the “surprise movie” in competition at the Venice Film Festival, “Mad Detective” is concise and artful. It will appeal to movie-goers who like cop stories fast and furious but also complex and witty, especially as it mostly eschews the ultraviolence of many Hong Kong crime pictures.
Lau Ching Wan is outstanding as loony copper Bun, who lives up to his extreme reputation by slicing off his right ear as a retirement gift for the departing police chief. He explains later, wearing a false ear, that he did it because the man had no inner personality.
Bun’s technique involves such things as climbing into a suitcase that is pushed downstairs in order to picture a crime and re-creating robberies using his finger as a gun before astonished witnesses. In the middle of a storm, coming across a street with sunshine on one side and rain on the other, he sees it as a sign of being on the right track.
When young officer Ho (Andy On) asks for his help to solve the case of a missing cop named Wong — who chased a suspect into the woods and hasn’t been seen since — Bun immediately suspects that he’s dead. He digs a grave among the trees and climbs in to better identify with the situation, but Ho insists that he must experience it. Ho, however, lacks the instincts for the task and emerges from the dirt considerably shaken.
Not until Bun buries himself does he fully grasp that Wong is dead and that his partner Chi-wai (Lam Ka Tung) killed him. Not only that, but he believes Chi-wai has seven different inner personalities and is guilty of the subsequent crime wave involving Wong’s stolen gun. Trouble is, Bun hasn’t been taking his medication and the wife he’s always talking to isn’t actually there.
Directors To and Wai get first-rate work from cinematographer Cheng Siu Keung and editor Tina Baz as the film starts to reveal all the different personalities that only Bun can see. In a giddily entertaining climax in a hall of mirrors cleverly created by production designer Raymond Chan, two detectives have a gunfight with two villains, or possibly nine.
Orson Welles would applaud.
Venue: Venice International Film Festival; Cast: Lau Ching Wan; Andy On; Lam Ka Tung; Kelly Lin; Directors, producers: Johnny To, Wai Ka-Fai; Screenwriters: Wai Ka-Fai, Au Kin Yee; Director of photography: Cheng Siu Keung; Production designer: Raymond Chan; Music: Xavier Jamaux; Costume designer: Stanley Cheung; Editor: Tina Baz; Executive producer: Charles Heung; Production: Milky Way Image Co.; No MPAA rating; Running time, 89 minutes.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.