Sunday, December 21, 2008


Cast: Ching Wan Lau, Andy On, Ka Tung Lam, Kelly Lin, Flora Chan
Director: Johnnie To, Ka-Fai Wai
Runtime: 89 min.
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Thriller

        I have always been curious of how much do we really know about ourselves. I guess we all are. I mean, my principles and my moral code, might very well be a bad joke. You know, dropped at the first sign of trouble. For real. A rather tedious corporate training session I once had to attend spoke of the Johari window, which consists of the quadrants that kinda maps the human psychology and the manner in which our behavior is influenced. Two of those quadrants got me interested the most, and both of them are the ones Not Known to Others. By fascinated, I mean in the movie sense. You see, deception and self-discovery are two of the most tried themes of the psychological thriller genre, and often to the point of exploitation. And even between the two it is the latter that always fascinates me. “Who am I”, might as well be the most mysterious and enigmatic of all questions that have evaded us, and that includes God and space.
        Such might be the central theme of Johnnie To’s first collaboration with Ka-Fai Wai since 2003’s strangely brilliant Running on Karma. Imagine the opening scene. A young cop walks into a room, where four or five other cops are intently watching a man at work. What he seems to be doing comes across as odd. There’s a pig hanging from the ceiling, and the man is stabbing at it from various angles, and with varying intensities. He is Bun (Lau), and he already seems to be a special detective. And there’s still lot more to come. He rushes to a nearby table and pulls a suitcase from underneath it. He summons the young cop who just walked in. He places himself inside the suitcase, and asks the young cop, Ho (Andy On), to zip the suitcase from outside and push it down the stairs. Young Ho seems to be too obliged to wonder why. But we do. The film obliges by cutting to a newspaper article that reads – “Student killed in multiple stabbing”. We gain some much needed clarity, and we are fine when Ho pushes him down what feels like three or four flights of stairs, and we wonder that the man inside must be really odd. Odd as in crazy. But more than that, we worry he might have a couple of broken bones and maybe internal bleeding. Maybe concussion. We are eager to unzip him, and Ho in his part obliges yet again. To our utter relief the man inside is fine, and only slightly disoriented. More importantly he has solved the murder case, and he announces the killer. This man, Bun, is indeed special.
        But then, there’s still more to come. The chief of Hong Kong police department is retiring, and everyone is bidding him farewell. Bun though is lost deep in his respect for the man. He is lost, totally, and in an instantaneous gesture he cuts his right ear and gives it as a present. The film cuts to the title, and assets a point well made. No explanation needed. This man, Bun, might indeed be mad.
        But then, so was Sherlock Holmes. And so was William Graham. And so is Batman. What’s Bun’s madness then? He can see people. As in, he can see people. He can see distinctly the set of different personalities their selves consist of. As in, like different physical entities. He sees a man, and he sees all the personalities within him as different people, walking together. Let me give you an example. If he were to lay his eyes on Bruce Wayne, he would notice a giant monster, Clint Eastwood, T-101 and God, walking together. If he were to see The Joker, he would see only The Joker. But these are extraordinary individuals. Bun only has ordinary individuals to observe, individuals whose inner personalities could be plotted on the Johari Window. As far as I can infer Bun only can perceive the personalities that lay in the Blind Spot, Arena and Fa├žade quadrants, and the Unknown might expose the limitations of Bun’s special clairvoyance.
        Now, this is the set-up for the set-up. As in, the groundwork laid for the actual plot. I wouldn’t reveal much else, except for that five years have passed since Bun cut of his ear and the police have fired him. Detective Ho, one of the men deeply influenced by Bun, decides to seek his help and guidance to solve the case of a missing cop. And that is where I’ll part ways with the plot description by adding that you can expect a rather bloated Hollywood remake anytime now.
        Most thrillers end up being about what, or how. Mad Detective is about why. We know the suspect, and Bun follows him. Bun tightens his noose around him. But how does he do that. He digs deep into the emotional aspects, and seeks those signals. It is kinda like method acting, only that he has extra sensory perception to record almost every ounce of why a person behaved in a particular way. The emotion behind the motivations. The film moves thus too, and it isn’t gunning for some cheap, lowbrow last minute twist in the tale. It doesn’t betray us. Instead it uses its characters as leverages to understand the others, and it does it with great subtlety. Not with expository dialog, but by action. This is that rare thriller where we understand, and probably empathize why a character does what he does. Not everything is logical airproof like To’s other recent thrillers (Exiled), but then it makes sense in a more delirious sense. It makes sense in a more emotional way. The film uses extensive use of dolly zooms, of frenetic edits, of reverse angles, of odd camera angles just so to shake us off balance. Often the space is all cramped up, and we are deliberately confused. In a way all of these techniques lend a poetic feel to the proceedings, as in a ballet. It is all about a state of mind, and film tries its very best to make us audiences feel that. And it succeeds. One of the more fascinating tricks the film employs to very good effect is the consistency of point of view shots. We see the same physical space from Bun’s POV, and we are edited to Ho’s, with great clarity. That is mastery at work here, we’re confused when we’re supposed to be, and we aren’t when we shouldn’t be. How rare is that in today’s thrillers? And then, there’s great pomposity at work too, like in that climax. Mirrors and mirrors everywhere, and we are sure and unsure at the same time. It is like the film intends to make its job tougher, and we applaud that it has the guts to believe in itself that it can pull it off.
        A small element keeps bothering me though, something which keeps me from going full throttle on the praise. As I got down to recording my feelings and my thoughts once the film ended, I kept coming back to the whole subplot involving Bun’s wife. Why was it there? Was it intended to create a doubt in our mind? A kind of confusion? I’m not sure that is the case, and then I saw an interesting pattern. One that stemmed from To’s previous films and their themes of masculinity. When you choose to see the film, which by all means you should, you should notice the kind of dress all the women wear. At least most of them. In their black business suits, they are supposed to look like that conniving bitch. I wonder, do we really look at business-class women executives that way? Is what we feel part of the Blind Spot, or the Unknown? I don’t know, and I guess neither do we.

1 comment:

Amar said...

Neither do we. :)