Whereas Johnny To’s gangster sagas are usually efficient, operatic and serious-minded, his frequent collaborations with co-writer and co-director Wai Ka-fai often come equipped with some goofy supernatural twist. In the duo’s latest, Mad Detective, the conceit is that detective Bun (Lau Ching-wan) is an investigative ace as well as a complete loon who reenacts crimes in order to crack them and claims to be able to see people’s “inner personalities.” A superbly amusing opening finds Bun solving the case of a body found in a suitcase by zipping himself up in luggage, being tossed down stairs and then popping out to pronounce that the ice cream man did it! His intuitiveness, however, is matched by insanity, and he’s soon fired from the force for slicing off his ear and giving it to his boss as a retirement gift.
Years later, he’s recruited by straight-laced inspector Ho (Andy On) to help get to the bottom of a cop’s 18-month-old disappearance, a standard procedural setup that quickly turns bizarre when Bun goes to talk to the missing officer’s partner, Chi-wai (Lam Ka-tung), and discovers that the man has seven distinct personalities—including a cold businesswoman, a gluttonous coward and a ruthless tough guy—following him around. From there, Mad Detective gets progressively weirder until it becomes apparent that little about the story is rooted in solid terra firma, including Bun’s feisty relationship with wife May (Kelly Lin).
To and Ka-fai’s widescreen lensing is both elegant and sharp, its distorted angles and flaring white lights generating a sense of unease that complements Bun’s instability and Chi-Wai’s fractured self. Aside from a Lady of Shanghai-ish finale inside a heavily mirrored building, To dispenses with his trademark, expertly choreographed gun-standoff action, though its absence is less frustrating than is development of Chi-Wai’s multiple personas, which seem ripe for fleshed-out exploration but are generally relegated to being background gags. Nonetheless, the tale’s bizarre energy benefits from the directors’ refusal to get bogged down in weighty psychological analysis, instead allowing Bun’s craziness to infect the film until the narrative’s off-kilter choppiness seems distinctly in tune with its portrait of a world short on both sanity or morality.