Mad Detective had been touted as the long awaited re-team of Johnny To and Wai Ka Fai, who together have made Running on Karma back in 2003. The return of Lau Ching Wan to a To-Wai movie (since My Left Eye Sees Ghosts) is also more than welcome, and Mad Detective to me lived up to its hype, despite having certain obvious recycled elements from To's earlier films.
But this doesn't mean that the movie felt familiar. Sure, the iconic elements of a To movie were all there, including the saga of the missing police handgun, and the oh-so-stylish Mexican stand-offs (that we've seen in recent To movies in Exiled and Triangle) and the inevitable resolution, though how this one panned out, deserves the loudest of applause for its edge-of-your-seat-who-comes-out-unscathed revelation. And the end result is both satisfying, for a movie that had engaged through all its minutes, and yet frustrating, though the good thing was that there isn't any cop-out edits just to satisfy censors or sooth faux morals.
Mad Detective tells the story of Bun (Lau), who is termed as the title says because of his extremely unorthodox methods to solve crime - he re-enacts them at the very venues they are committed, getting into the minds of the criminals, and through this manner, able to identify who the perpetrator is. Needless to say his crime solving rate is high and he beocomes a legend, until a crazed moment saw him cut off his right ear to present to a departing boss, and with that, an early discharge letter from the Force.
The story fast forwards 5 years later, with detective Ho (Andy On) investigating a case of a missing cop and his gun, which was found to be used in a series of armed robberies. While suspicion is strong on the partner Chi-wai (Lam Ka Tung), there is absolutely no shred of evidence linking him to the crime. In his desperation, Ho turns to Bun, very much against protocol, and enlists his help in solving the case.
That's basically it, as we see in more detail what Bun's abilities are in depth. He's part profiler, part sage, and to many, all insanity with his constant talking to himself, and banged up attire sans socks. What I thought made it a close to perfect thriller, was that it constantly kept you guessing whether Bun is indeed what the title is, if it had taken a leaf out of Oxide Pang's creation of the C+ Detective with some supernatural moments, of if it was solely a disorder of the mind. If it shows you compelling evidence that you deem is a smoking gun, in no time are you presented with doubts that will cloud your judgement. You're given a glimpse of how the method in the madness works, and more often than not, find yourself second-guessing all the time, just like how Ho does.
And to that effect, I would warrant a guess that some in the audience will be left perplexed and confused, but my advice is not to give up on it. There are many wonderful moments especially when Bun's ability is fleshed out for the audience to see, and as such provided plenty of cameo appearances like Lam Suet and Cheung Siu Fai, playing personalities that were personifications of an inner man's thoughts, desires and fears. A pity though that not all personalities shown were provided screen time to do something more. A cautionary tale too about not judging a book by its cover, as even uncanny abilities to read a person might not be able to sniff out something that's regressive and well concealed, the true intentions of anyone.
Lau Ching Wan took a long hiatus before returning to the big screens here (since The Shopaholics, and the lovely My Name is Fame only made it straight to disc), and this comeback is nothing short of majestic in having him in his element, doing almost a one-man show if you will. You laugh at his antics, cry at his predicament in being so dogged in his persistence, admire his unorthodox methods and philosophy approaching investigations (to use emotions), yet cry along in pity when you suspect he's slowly degenerating into madness. Lau has charisma enough to make you empathize with his Bun, into a character you root for, despite his obvious difference. Andy On holds his own as the greenhorn investigator well enough in scenes opposite Lau, while Lam Ka Tung is just plain menacing as the accused, expressing his frustration in being the prime suspect, being both the cat and the mouse in the hunt for the truth.
What I admire about the movie, is how a simple idea can be branched into something complex, but yet within grasp, so hats off to the writing-directing team of To and Wai Ka Fai. In essence, this is a story that is told with its cards close to its chest, providing great balance in letting the multiple cats out of the bag at the right time. Simply superb!