Everyone loves Johnnie To. Everyone. You may not even know who the hell he is, but trust me--you love him. You just don't know it yet. He's Hong Kong's baby right now, and everything he touches seems to turn to gold. In short, Johnnie To has it. Fairly prolific by today's standards, he turns out around two films a year. And unlike certain other prolific Asian directors, his work is mostly highly regarded, even in "regular" critical circles (i.e. not Asian film fanatics).
(One major exception I can think of: Roger Ebert. He isn't really picking up what To's putting down. But--and I mean no offense to Ebert when I say this--Roger Ebert is a worthless old cunt who needs to pass the ubiquitous film critic torch to somebody who doesn't remember when a bowl of soup cost a nickel. He is a confused, bedraggled, unattractive old man who is given to pawing at the screen and trying to grab the images he likes. But like I said, no offense. All due respect and all that.)
As a self-proclaimed Asian film fan, I have to bow my head in shame and reveal that I've only seen four Johnnie To films. I've seen Election and Election 2, of course. Everybody's seen those, and for a good reason. Then there's Exiled, which was the best western I've watched in quite some time. (This is especially impressive when you consider that technically it's not even a western. If Exiled sounds familiar and you don't know why, you may be remembering it from an earlier post of mine. If you like Sergio Leone, please please please watch this movie. I can't emphasize that enough.) The fourth film was one that I just watched a few nights ago, and one that may even be coming to DVD in the US sometime in the near future: Mad Detective. Was it as great as the rest of 'em? Read on to find out! (Hint: it was.)
The titular mad detective is Bun, a strange, seemingly clairvoyant Hong Kong cop who just happens to be a little psychotic. He claims to be able to see people's "inner personalities," and this naturally gets him into no end of shenanigans. The film opens with a few scenes from his heyday, solving crimes no one else could even get a lead on using his "unconventional" methods of re-enactment and divination. Then, at his boss's retirement party, Bun cuts off his own ear and offers it to the old man as a present. The department takes this as a sign that Bun should probably retire himself, and they kick him off the force.
Present day. Up and coming detective Ho is trying to solve a case of a missing cop. Ho, who is mildly obsessed with Bun, ends up enlisting his help on the case. Lacking any real evidence, all they've got to go on are Bun's visions, which seem to point to the missing cop's partner. Against all logic, they pursue their suspect throughout the film. Bun continues to unravel psychologically, and it isn't long before Ho is falling apart right alongside him. Long story short: some serious shit goes down, and it all comes together in a climax that rivals... well, most climaxes.
What's really surprising about Mad Detective is how well all of this "divination" and "inner personality" stuff plays out onscreen. When I first read what the movie was about, I naturally assumed it was going to be cheesy. How could it not be? Multiple actors crowding around playing different aspects of one character's personality? Come on! Even Johnnie To couldn't pull that off without losing dramatic tension, right? But it works. And it works really well. Imagine one character pointing a gun, with seven different sets of hands pulling and pushing, seven different voices telling him whether or not he should shoot. Seven different variations of his thought process, all fighting to get their way. With Johnnie To at the helm, what could very well be a ridiculous scene turns out brilliant. If you're new to To's films, this is probably something you should just go ahead and get used to.
A few reviews I've read mention that Mad Detective often leaves the viewer confused as to what's real and what's only taking place in Bun's mind. This is totally accurate. The strange thing is, these reviews pass this off as a negative aspect of the film. As with just about any film (or novel, or whatever) with an insane protagonist, Bun's unreliability plays a huge part in Mad Detective's tension and development. I guess these critics haven't read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? I don't know. I can't really explain it. If anything other than perfectly obvious linearity bothers you, maybe this movie ain't your bag. I'm not really going to force the issue.
I was pleased that someone else picked up on the obvious reference to Orson Welles's Lady from Shanghai in the amazing climactic shootout. This actually wasn't the only point in the film that I felt Welles's influence, but it was certainly the most clear. Actually, in every To film I've seen so far I get the sense that it's the work of somebody who has watched Touch of Evil about a million times. (I mean that as a compliment, by the way...) And there are plenty of other influences, obviously. Kurosawa, for one. Elements of both Rashomon and Stray Dog were peppered throughout, and arguably some of his noir work as well. During any stylized shootout one can't help but feel the pull of John Woo, naturally. And the final Mexican standoff could very well be a nod to Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, though I'd be more likely to draw the connection to Ringo Lam's City on Fire (which was of course the "inspiration" for Tarantino's film). Actually, now that I think of it... that particular brand of gunfight goes back even more obviously to Sergio Leone, whose work To is clearly quite familiar with (once again: see Exiled). Shit, it's practically straight out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
All in all, I really enjoyed this supposedly "minor" work from Hong Kong badass Johnnie To. I don't think it quite upended Election 2 as my favorite (of what I've seen, anyway), but it's definitely worth checking out. Hopefully it'll get a little more recognition once it's released in the US.