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Blind Detective
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by Jay Seaver

"All the crime and comedy you might want to see."
5 stars

I know that I have made comments about how it's a shame that we'll likely only see a good sleuth in one movie a few times in the past, but it seems especially relevant here because the makers of "Blind Detective" seem to feel the same way. There are enough cases and subplots crammed into this movie to give a TV series a pretty good start, and a manic energy that makes it a terrific comedy as well as an intriguing mystery.

The blind detective of the title is Johnston Chong (Andy Lau Tak-wah), an ex-cop forced into retirement by retinal detachment who spends his time solving cold cases and hunting down fugitives for reward money. It's during one of these jobs - for which former partner Szeto Fatbo (Guo Tao) poaches the credit - that he meets Goldie Ho (Sammi Cheng Sau-man), a cop who is great at running suspects down but not so much the puzzle-solving aspect. She wants to hire Johnston to track down a friend who disappeared when they were teenagers in 1997, and he agrees - and starts using her as an assistant on some other cases he's got going.

Because director Johnnie To and and his collaborators at Milkyway Image are best known for their lean, intense crime movies, it would be easy to expect Blind Detective to fall into that category. There are certainly moments where it does - Johnston & Ho get involved in some gruesome murder cases - but more often, it's going for the big belly laugh, whether it be from slapstick built around Johnston's blindness to full-scale knockabout humor. The characters banter and bicker in roughly equal measure, and while they do take the occasional moment to earnestly describe what motivates them, they are not just serious people that ridiculous things happen to, but characters driven by their own inherent goofiness.

Andy Lau dives right into this as the title character; Johnston is more than a little bit of a jerk, and Lau doesn't underplay his petulance or shallowness at all, even as he's displaying a sharp wit and fierce intelligence that makes the character charismatic and kind of sexy. It's the sort of comedic performance that often doesn't get the sort of credit it deserves, even though it's got to be pretty tricky to establish a character in just the right way that his waking up in a strange room and walking smack into a wall is hilariously deserved even if one does feel sympathy for him. Sammi Cheng is a complementary sort of funny, playing Ho as eager and enthusiastic even as she gets frustrated with her new partner. She's good at the slapstick, and something else again once Ho realizes that Johnston really has no idea how attractive she is. It's a fun twist on this sort of relationship that the actors get to play out with looks and expressions well before they express anything directly.

They've got a fun supporting cast, too, with Guo Tao, Lam Suet, and Gao Yuan-Yuan special standouts - the latter somewhat surprisingly, because she's in a role that's not often written and played as funny. It's always a good sign when a comedy gives even the characters who could just be around to advance the plot some way to make the audience laugh, and this movie succeeds in spades on that account, to the extent that even a serial killer comes off as pretty zany when Johnston & Ho track him down.

And if that working out isn't enough to convince you that Johnnie To is one of the best and most capable directors working today (presuming you didn't already hold that opinion), I'm not sure what else could convince you. The script by frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai and a number of co-writers is not the strongest he's ever had, to the point where it might have been a complete disaster with a lesser director at the helm - it has some awkward jumps as both a mystery and a romantic comedy, and there's a point toward the end when things may tip too far in one direction for anyone to reconcile. Instead, it's a surprisingly well paced and balanced movie, bouncing between four or five sub-stories without losing track of the main thread and making twisted jokes while still allowing the characters to be sincere. The action is much closer to the nimble antics of Sparrow than the serious, intense shootouts of Exiled or Drug War, and To can turn from fighting to physical comedy to fantasy on a dime.

Indeed, looking at his recent output, there's a part of me that wonders if he'd prefer to make romantic comedies despite the fact that crime pays, so to speak. Here, he's disguised one as the other, and while the result may not be one of his masterpieces, it is tremendously entertaining.

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originally posted: 06/21/14 11:00:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Johnnie To

Written by
  Ka-Fai Wai

  Andy Lau
  Sammi Cheng

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