It’s not always an easy thing to understand what is going on in Johnnie To’s and Wai Ka-fai’s psychological mystery Mad Detective – and that’s definitely on purpose. The film is like a hyper-stylized melding of Seven and Fight Club, a seedy and violent noir detective story with an injection of the supernatural.
The film opens with a scene meant to prepare you for grotesque visuals and the spiritual oddity of the story. Chan Kwai-Bun is a fantastic detective, and we first see him punching and then knifing a pig hanging upside down – ostensibly in an attempt to glean some insight into a current case. Moments later, he’s cutting off his own ear and giving it to his boss as a retirement gift. Hence, “mad detective”.
Later, we learn there’s more to his madness: Bun has the ability to see a person’s “inner personalities”, the identity that a person hides from the world. His little ear gift gets him fired, but his prowess as a detective did not go unnoticed during his time at the office.
So, Mad Detective follows that hard-boiled trope of bringing back the retired P.I. For one last case, and this case is a doozy: Ho Ka-On and Ko Chi-Wai are partners, and they were working with a colleague named Wong Kwok-Chu. When the three were pursuing a suspect, Wong disappeared, and now his gun is being used in a series of robberies. This is the case that Bun is called in to help solve.
The resulting investigation has the twists and turns that one would expect of a standard noir film: betrayals, false leads, and a conspiracy at the center of it all, but because Bun can see inner personalities, or “ghosts”, there is a distinct supernatural feel to everything. In some cases, you’re not quite sure if Bun is talking to someone who actually exists, or if he is talking to someone in his mind. It adds confusion to the story, for sure, but that’s the point.
As Mad Detective unravels and reveals more of its mysteries, it becomes clear that To’s film is something special, a carefully calculated film noir with mind-bending psychological elements.
Saturday, December 23, 7:15 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
This film is part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Johnnie To: Expect the Unexpected series running from October 26th to December 28th