Warning: the following post contains partial spoilers.
Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai's Mad Detective (2007, Hong Kong), from a screenplay by Wai and Au Kin Yee, represents To and Wai's first directorial collaboration since 2001's superlative Fulltime Killer, with which it shares a heightened sense of its own status as cinematic form - beyond To's ever-present generic awareness. Here this increased emphasis is procured both visually, in the conspicuous lens flaring that pairs with To's ubiquitous low-key lighting, and narratively (no doubt owing, at least partially to co-writer, co-director Wai's contribution) in the re-introduction of the figure of the double - or in the case of Mad Detective, septuple.
Mad Detective orbits around Lau Ching Wan's soon-to-be ex-detective Bun, whom we first see investigating a crime by being kicked down a flight of stairs while voluntarily inside a suitcase; he then offers an ear that he has chopped off to honor a retiring officer. Suffice it to say that Bun is the eponymous detective. Following a subsequently-introduced officer's 18-month disappearance, Lau is invited to assist for his investigatory brilliance. Yet it is less his analytic abilities, as we soon see, than his facility to see through to a person's true personality that accounts for his unique skills as a detective. To and Wai handle this plot element by fluidly replacing the film's characters with separate performers to represent their inner-selves, or in the case of the missing cop's partner, his seven selves (including a sweaty, overweight replacement and a sexy, female superego). Consequently the lightly surreal effect of the pair's strategy at times simulates the perceptual experience of Bun and his seamless transitions between reality and fantasy - an alternation supported well by the assertive nature of the cinematic image.
Mad Detective culminates, fittingly, in a Lady from Shanghai-inflected house of mirrors where the picture's multiple doubles (and septuples) replace figural reflections. With each in search of his missing gun - a generic staple, to be sure - To and Wai's generic revision racks into focus. At this juncture, the filmmakers have crystallized their reframing of internal character conflict by contrasting it with its generic predecessors: the bodies are reflected by other figures with the shattered glass on the ground beneath. While ultimately Mad Detective may not mark the height of To's commercial cinema powers, To and Wai's film nonetheless reinforces the pair's collaborative identity, while offering more than serviceable revisionist filmmaking.
Mad Detective screens Sunday, June 22 at 7:20 PM at the IFC Center in New York. It is also available on a Mei Ah region 3 DVD with English subtitles.