And the hot streak continues for Johnnie To. While the latest from the prolific action auteur lacks the blistering intensity of the Election films and the extreme high style of Exiled it reunites him with a pair of favored collaborators - screenwriter and co-director Wai Ka Fai and star Lau Ching Wan - and the result is an entertaining, surprising piece of work anchored by a powerhouse performance from Lau.
Bun (Lau) was a legendary cop in his day, his techniques were unusual but incredibly effective. He claimed to be able to "see" the inner personalities of people and would use that ability to crack cases nobody else could get a grip on. Because he was so successful his odd behavior was accepted as a necessary eccentricity but on the day Bun presented a retiring chief with one of his own ears, freshly carved from the side of his head, as a going away present, people realized something was very, very wrong. His eccentricities recognized as a form of mental illness Bun was put out to pasture, fired from the force and left to live a solitary life accompanied only by the voices within his own head.
Jump forward five or so years. Ho (Andy On) has been assigned an uncrackable case, the case of an officer missing for eighteen months after simply disappearing while chasing a suspect through a forested area, his gun since used in a number of crimes. The missing officer's partner is the obvious suspect but nobody has been able to turn up any sort of clue. When Ho is issued one of Bun's old guns with his equipment he takes it as a sign that he should look up the eccentric genius detective who he served with for the two brief days following his graduation from the academy and prior to Bun's forced departure. Bun's ability to "see" may be their only hope to crack the case but Ho quickly learns that, if anything, Bun's illness has progressed in the intervening years, leaving him highly erratic, irrational and unpredictable.
Lau Ching Wan has been mysteriously absent from serious dramatic roles for some years now and his absence has been entirely baffling. When on his game Lau is an absolute giant and he is very much on his game here. His portrayal of Bun neatly balances the comic with the tragic, his certain belief in what he sees rocked by the occasional moment of lucidity where he recognizes his own illness. In contrast to Ho's carefully reasoned approach, Bun is a seething mass of competing impulses, his behavior governed entirely by the whims of the moment. "Don't use logic to investigate", he argues, "use your feelings!" He does exactly that, frantically reenacting crimes, the supposed death of the missing man and the behavior of his quarry in an effort to get inside the moment and better understand it. To and Wai keep the perspective of the film fluid, constantly shifting from Bun's warped perspective to that of those around him and in doing so capture both Bun's own confusion at the shifting realities around him and everyone else's at Bun's erratic behavior. The one great trick of the film - using multiple actors to portray different aspects of a single person's personality when viewed from Bun's perspective - is not only immensely clever but also immensely effective and the duo of To and Wai pull it off flawlessly.
Compared to the fire that drove the Election films and the pyrotechnics of Exiled the far more character oriented Mad Detective can feel much smaller than it really is. The emphasis here is not on style, camera tricks or action - though there is a healthy dose of that - but on the portrayal of a man lost in his own mind and taken on those terms Mad Detective is a resounding success.