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Mad Detective
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by Jay Seaver

"A cop well worth his crazy."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I want a "Mad Detective" series; if not as films, then as TV, books, or some other medium. I don't know if that's exactly an unreasonable request; when you come up with a crime-solving character as original as Bun Chan-kwai coupled with a performance as entertaining as Lau Ching-wan's, you don't just stop at one killer thwarted.

Bun, you see, is nuts. When we meet him, he is solving a murder by getting inside it, repeatedly stabbing a pig carcass to simulate the murder and then having newly arrived Inspector Ho (Andy On) pack him in a suitcase and throw it down to flights of stairs. After that, he cuts off his own ear and presents it to his retiring chief as a present, just before the title "Mad Detective" appears on the screen. Five years later, as one might imagine, he is off the force, hallucinating his wife May (Kelly Lin) and claiming his crime-solving acumen comes from being able to see suspects' "gwai". He's thoroughly insane, but Ho comes to him with a case he's been unable to crack: Eighteen months ago, Detective Wong Kwok-chu disappeared chasing a suspect, with his gun since being used in a series of robberies. Bun immediately focuses on Wong's partner, Ko Chi-Wai (Gordon Lam), but Chi-wai presents him with almost too much to work with - seven "gwai".

(Note that the English subtitles translate "gwai" as "inner personality", although it apparently literally means "ghost" or "demon". Based on how they are used in the movie, maybe "inner demon" would have been best.)

Bun's intuitive detective skills mean we've got a pretty good idea, barring last-minute revelations of what the situation is, and thus the entertainment comes from watching him (a) dig up the details to prove it and (b) be crazy. That turns out to be a thorough hoot to watch; Bun is one of those mad geniuses who is thoroughly aware of how others see his behavior but just doesn't care. He acts out, provoking suspects and exasperating Ho. The May in his head alternates between being a safety valve and an enabler. Lau's performance is fantastic; he gives us Bun as a morose leftover of a man who fairly explodes with energy when his particular skills become useful once again, just absolutely nailing the sweet spot where Bun is hilarious but not someone you'd want anywhere near you.

The rest of the cast, of course, doesn't get to have quite the same amount of fun, although Kelly Lin does enjoyable double duty as the ultra-supportive May in Bun's head and the tough-as-nails cop in the real world. Andy On has Watson duty, and pulls it off with just the right amount of humor and empathy- indeed, a surprising form of empathy toward the end. Gordon Lam plays Chi-wai as mostly innocent and frustrated at Bun's persecution, in part because most of the villainous side of him is seen by Bun and the audience in the form of his gwai.

Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai direct and produce, with a script by Wai and Au Kin-yee. They barrel straight ahead, not wasting a moment of time and keeping the audience on their toes. The mystery story makes sense, and the pacing is such that we never really worry whether Bun has incredible powers of observation, some sort of supernatural ability, or anything else; we just go with him. The action scenes are well done, fast-paced but still clear. To is one of the world's best at telling a story without loading the screen up with a bunch of flourishes that call attention to his work, although he and Wai have some fun with visualizing the difference between how Bun sees the world and how it is objectively.

Mad Detective does what a good detective story should - it gives us an interesting crime and a great character to follow in the solving of it. In fact, it actually goes above and beyond that duty in the last act, and despite some initial skepticism, I found myself liking the final turns that moved the movie beyond just being an eccentric detective story quite a bit.

But to say more would be telling, and "Mad Detective" deserves to be seen on its own merits.

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originally posted: 07/10/08 00:16:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Johnnie To
  Wai Ka-fai

Written by
  Wai Ka-fai
  Au Kin-Yee

  Lau Ching-Wan
  Andy On Chi-Kit
  Gordon Lam Ka-Tung
  Lam Suet
  Kelly Lin

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