Inspector Bun has developed a reputation for solving crimes with his clairvoyant power, which enables him to see manifestations of the different sides of an individual’s personality. His career comes to a crashing halt, however, when he inexplicably severs his ear and offers it to the chief as a retirement gift. Years later, Inspector Ho approaches Bun for help in an unsolvable case, concerning a series of crimes utilizing the gun of a police officer who disappeared some time ago. Bun’s unorthodox methods achieve results but also inspire distrust in his colleagues. As the investigation threatens to bust open a cover-up masterminded by another officer, the trail that leads to the identity of the guilty parties becomes increasingly murky and treacherous.
Mad Detective is an intriguingly odd combination of police procedural and mystical thriller, in which the complexities and contradictions of an individual’s personality are expressed in physical form. The protagonist, Inspector Bun (Hong Kong action and comedy star Ching Wan Lau), attempts to solve crimes by personally re-enacting them, not unlike the FBI profiler in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. He is aided by a sixth sense which extends his intuitive powers even further; like the psychic character in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, he has visions of events that he originally had no involvement in, and is even able to see the different psychological sides of a person as separate living entities.
Bun is confronted with his biggest challenge yet in the form of a suspected killer with as many as seven alter egos. While his colleagues go about the investigation in a typically rational manner, Bun urges his partner to “apply emotions to investigate, not logic”. This approach only goes so far with the other officers though, as Bun is the only one with the psychic ability. At the same time, we sometimes see Bun himself as a combination of personalities – his deceased wife makes frequent appearances, which develops further significance later in the film when we learn that she is still very much alive.
With Mad Detective, crime film veteran Johnnie To (perhaps best known for Election and its sequel) and frequent collaborator, codirector Ka-Fai Wai (writing with Kin-Yee Au), have taken the rusty framework of the police thriller and fashioned it into an unpredictable character study, allowing us to share the visions of a highly unconventional character. In his world, a mirage can speak volumes about a person’s background or intentions, painting a more revealing picture than the drab so-called reality that usually grounds proceedings. Many familiar elements are still there – corrupt cops, broken marriages, the climactic Mexican standoff (or Oriental deadlock in this case) – but the film never loses its footing among them, and ends with a ruthless statement on the futility of cowardice.
For the most part, it’s all played very straight, despite several opportunities for humor at the protagonist’s expense. The stylish photography utilizes neo-noir lighting typical of the genre, while the score is quite sparse and restrained. Somehow the tone of the film avoids becoming too weighty or overbearing though, and the fast pace prevents the viewer from getting bogged down trying to decipher the meaning of the various apparitions that materialize at key moments.
Mad Detective may disappoint those who approach the film with their Category III checklist in hand. The misleading application of this rating implies far more explicit violence and general unpleasantness than this film has to offer – it’s just not that kind of an evening. There is a brief, unexpectedly gory scene near the beginning of the film that the directors refused to cut to earn a more moderate rating, but other than that there is little here to offend. Despite the restrictive rating, Mad Detective was a substantial success in its homeland – perhaps partially due to the fact that it is the kind of headscratcher that rewards multiple viewings. Suitable for mature audiences and alter egos.