Johnnie To, the Hong Kong director of films such as Election (2005) and Exiled (2006) worked once again alongside Ka-Fai Wai, the film consultant and director responsible for films like Fulltime Killer (2001) and Running on Karma (2003) to create this obscure crime thriller titled “San Taam” or “Mad Detective”.
On paper, the story of a cop that teams with a supernaturally gifted detective to attempt to locate a serial killer sounds simple yet interesting, but the film itself delivers a much more surreal and dark tale than the synopsis lets on.
We follow the character of Bun, the Mad Detective that the title is speaking of, who gained such a reputation due to his unconventional and bizarre methods of solving crimes. Bun, as a way to find criminals in the cases he was appointed, would put himself into the minds of the perpetrators by visiting the locations and acting out the actions of those he wished to find. Bun was successful with these methods, though they did alienate him from his fellow officers, and eventually, after cutting off his own ear to present to his retiring boss, found himself with a letter of discharge.
We fast forward five years and Bun is confronted by a detective, named Ho, who asks him to help him with a case he is struggling with in which a police officer and the gun he was assigned had gone missing, with the gun being linked to a number of armed robberies. Bun, after much deliberation and a lot of anger from his wife, finally agreed to assist Ho and the two of them embark on a hunt for the missing cop and the gun. We follow Ho and Bun as they visit locations and Bun puts himself into scenarios in order to find answers he is seeking to help him with the case.
The film keeps you guessing throughout and plays with the mind of the viewer, causing you to ask questions in your mind about Bun, Ho and the case they are investigating. It is a dark and twisty thriller that is powerfully acted and brilliantly woven.
Ching Wan Lau, who plays Bun, is excellent and brings a great deal of depth to his character, a character that in some performers’ hands could easily become too comedic or too silly, but with Lau it doesn’t, it remains levelled and balanced throughout the movie, bringing us a character as memorable as the story itself.
Andy On, who plays the character of Ho, and has appeared in films such as Three Kingdoms and True Legend, is a terrific contrasting character to that of Bun, a more straight laced and psychologically healthy man. It is commendable to see him hold his own against the insanity of Lau’s “Bun” with such a calm yet inexperienced detective character that could have got lost in the shuffle had it not been played so well.
Mad Detective is an oddball film that will pass many people by, but I recommend seeking it out and watching it, especially if you are fond of crime thrillers. This film offers more than most thrillers do today and will surely appeal with enough twisting and turning occurring to keep you guessing and pondering until the final moments.
The writers and directors of the film should be credited with taking a simple idea and, through well imagined characterisations and great writing, allowed it to become a much deeper and unusual experience than it could have been. I’ve seen plenty of crime and thriller films from China, Japan and Korea yet this one stands out to me as one of the very best and one of the more original films I’ve seen in the last decade.
Mad Detective is available on DVD and Blu-ray, through Eureka, now.