Mad Detective (2007)
I couldn't wait. IFC Films is releasing Johnnie To's Mad Detective on July 18th, but the Hong Kong DVD has been available for some time now (which Dave Kehr kindly let us know about) and I caved. To reunites with writing partner Wai Ka-fai for the first time since 2003's knockabout Buddhist action-comedy Running On Karma and once again they tap a spiritual/supernatural theme, with the fucked-up lead (To regular Lau Ching-wan) claiming to have the ability to see people's split personalities. After a string of successes solving cases "emotionally" instead of factually (he gets himself into the headspace of victims and killers, getting tossed down stairs, etc.), he slices off his ear as a gift for his captain. He's tossed off the force - and To never reveals how insane his tousled lead actually is, cutting deftly back and forth between Lau's visions and "reality", never judging or revealing their truth. That's left up to the proverbial viewer to decide.
Lau never tips his hand either, making his insane acts endearing, hinting at a structure behind his actions that never quite reaches the surface. The character is no easy read. Stylistically it's a cleaner, more subdued work than the previous slice of action perfection, Exiled, but it serves up a superbly timed climax, a Lady From Shanghai ode that the above photo gives you a taste of. Perfectly suited to the lead's shattered psyche, this hall of mirrors shoot 'em up ranks with the best of his work. Pay specific attention the final shots, as Lau's partner decides how to tell the next part of the story, actively constructing a future narrative whose motivations are as obscure as the preceding one.
In some ways it's a darker version of To and Ka-fai's My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, also starring Lau. In that bit of haunted house slapstick, Lau is a boyish ghost who tags along with a young slobbish widow suspected of offing her husband (he died a few days after the marriage). A film of false visions and abundant black humor, it's a sprightlier take on the subject matter of mystical visions - plus it wields an ending of surprising pathos which drove Spinster Aunt into an extended crying jag.
The prolific Mr. To has already released two more films after Detective. The first, Linger (2008) (trailer here) is a melodramatic soap that has received no attention, presumably because it's not an action film. According to Grady Hendrix's Variety blog it was dumped into minor theaters in HK with little fanfare. It clearly has no shot for U.S. distribution, so hopefully the DVD will be released soon. Then there's Sparrow (2008), which recently premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and has me all hot under the collar, being compared to The Young Girls of Rochefort and such.
The only thing that could get me as excited would be two Clint Eastwood releases in one year. Oh my.