Mad Detective

What I intend here, and you, my reader, could not have guessed, is to do a post à la Bordwell, a) about a film I recently watched, and with b) around 2000 words and c) 10+ snapshots.

The motivation behind this is simple: I am starting to realize that there is a limit on what people can read serious material online.

A brief history

Milkyway Image was founded in 1996. In the following years, despite the general collapsing trend of Hong Kong cinema, Johnny To, Patrick Yau and Wai kafai cooperated in a series of films that manage to boast artistic value, or box office success, and sometimes both.

David Bordwell, in his introduction to Milkyway Image, Beyond Imagination, selected ten films that he believes to be the best of the nine years. These films include Too Many Ways to be No.1 (1997), Expect the Unexpected (1998), Dark Flowers (aka The Longest Nite, 1998), A Hero Never Dies (1998), Running Out of Time (aka Hidden War, 1999), The Mission (1999), PTU (2003), Running on Karma (2003), Throw Down (2004), Election (2005).

Now it is year 2008. And we seem to be in a better position to do the job. So to Bordwell’s list I would add The Odd One Dies (1997), Exiled (2006), Mad Detective (2007), to replace the last three.

In many ways, this last film, Mad Detective, can be regarded as summarizing the ten years of achievements of Milkyway. The tragic and yet often ridiculous fate of the individual seems to recall the first four; the narrative tension between police/criminal, Expect, Dark, Running, PTU. The formal arrangement of the final confrontation, Mission, Election, Exiled.

I have no doubt a psychoanalysis reading is highly applicable here. The visible multiple personalities, the ear cut off (Van Gogh?), the shattered mirror, etc., all point to a classical case of schizophrenia. Yet the English title does not do full justice in that the word “shen” in the original title can mean a lot of things. As a noun it can be “god” or “spirit”; as an adjective both “legendary, miraculous” or “boundless” or “out of mind”. In fact, when it refers to madness, it is only a little inhabitualness or weirdness of the behaviour, but never a case for pathology. “Mad Detective”, therefore, vulgarizes the original intention.


So far the most interesting review I came across suggests this film to be read as a Nouveau Roman à la Robbe-Grillet. The proof: repetition. The way our detective solves a case is nothing but to reenact the experience. Therefore he needs to put himself into a suitcase, to bury himself alive, to eat the same meal ten times, to perform a robbery without a gun, etc. And to this may I add: everything comes back in full circle (a Robbe-Grillet signature). When the film ends, the same kind of woman ghost Ko has comes onto Ho and dictates his action. It is Ho who has lost his gun and shot inspector Bun, but he is going to fabricate a story and blame it on someone else—exactly the same thing Ko did.

And the author even cites Jean Ricardo, saying, “a novel should not be the narration of an adventure, but the adventure of narration,” which makes me thinking seriously, for a moment, of the possibility of adapting Djinn to the big screen.

In another level of repetition (generally called intertexuality though), the film reenacts a classical moment of the history of cinema, that is, the denouement of Lady from Shanghai. Comparing these two sequences, it is easy to see how Johnny To pay homage to Welles while still manage to provide enough challenge for the task.

ghostly procession:



shattered glasses:


ghosts in the mirror:


overhead shots:


deep space composition:




What interests us most in this film, however, is the clever way it is narrated. I notice in Bordwell's interview with the editor, Tina Baz, he is informed (again) another golden rule of HK filmmaking:

a key piece of information should be presented three times, preferably in different ways. Once for the smart people, once for the average people, and once for slow Joe in the back row.

This is great, I said to myself, maybe Bordwell can give us another book, called "The way Milkyway tells it", which will be fun to read. I also painfully realize that I am not in the smart category--I didn’t realize it the first moment I saw it. This first moment, as Bordwell puts in the footnote, is the scene where Bun chastise the "two girls" in the convenient store. Bordwell claims, "given the way in which that story action is presented, we can’t say that that his powers are established there." What is the way the action is presented, then?

Let me describe. At first, you hear offscreen voice of a girl enticing someone to steal a lipstick.

Then, cut to the source of sound.


Followed by two reversed shots of Bun, who notices what is going on and steps ahead and reprimands them. Then, cut back to the two girls, startled.


The girl in red hair looks around, as if she is not sure if Bun is addressing her. But she starts to step back. In the meanwhile, the other girl in school uniform looks puzzled.

Cut back to Bun, closer. Cut to the red hair girl, this time singled out, therefore making it clear that Bun is addressing her.


Finally, the red hair girl fled. We have an insert from a different angle, as Bun flings something at her.


The school girl calmly put the Dior lipstick back.


In this sequence, there are many clues indicating that Bun is addressing a character that is invisible to the other diegetic characters. Subtle as they may be, a real "smart" spectator can readily pick them up. These clues are:

First, if Bun can hear the voice, which explicitly solicits shoplifting, why characters closer to these two girls cannot hear it? The shop owner, for example, is just right to the frame and closer than Bun in his initial position. The other customer who is getting stuff from the fridge is even closer. She is capable of hearing whispers between these two girls, if that is a possible explanation, although the volume of the voice is not exactly that low.

Second, the look on the school girl's face is most revealing. She is slightly puzzled, but remains calm, as if Bun is addressing thin air. She did not react to Bun's rant, nor did she react to the red hair girl's reaction of it. She did not follow her out of the store, as she probably would if they are friends. She did not even LOOK at the direction she fled. Come to think of it, I can almost be sure than To's instruction onsite would be something like "just imagine you are there alone."

This, of course, is subtle. But just imagine there are really two girls. Her performance as such would be unnatural. Again, what is natural or unnatural is in the eye of the beholder and can be ambiguous at a given moment. A spectator tends to suspend judgement, until further evidence is revealed. In a film such as Marienbad, this wish is never granted. In Mad Detective, it is, and in a clear way, so that even slow Joe in the back row can get it, as Bordwell demonstrates in his post. What I would not agree with Bordwell, though, is what is "established" in this scene. In my mind either Bun's power is in fact established, albeit on the margin of our consciousness, or I would say nothing is ever established in film, since what we take as established might prove to be mistaken, as in The Six Sense, Abre los ojos, or The Other.

Another lesson we learn from this scene is the extent to which we trust the film to explain itself. First, we are all casual viewers. We do not stare at everything on the screen. Even if we wanted to, we cannot figure everything out. All we can get are the salient features. The case for voice, as I note above, will slip for most people. And even if we get suspicious at a certain point, we do not distrust the film (the film can certainly be nonsensical), but rather our own comprehension of it. This trust, nevertheless, has a limit. The amount of trust we can give a film is determined by how much it appeals to us in ways other than its narrative strategy (I hope I can explain this in detail later).

There is something else that is also intriguing in the narration of Mad Detective. This is the ghost of Bun's former wife. At first, we start by believing it is a case of Ghost (1990). Then there comes a twist. When Ho breaks into Bun's apartment, he is attacked and handcuffed by a woman who claims to be Bun's former wife.


Now, the way she speaks and moves is far from the sentimentality we experienced in previous scenes. If she was a gentle and lovable ghost before, now she turns into a harsh and self-righteous person. This sudden change of personality prompts a reevaluation of our comprehension. So she is not dead. But there is more. A new ambiguity arises, that is, is Bun imagining her lovable wife (he is mad), or is he really seeing her (he is empowered), as is the case with other persons? Obviously, the film is all about this, the double and mutually compatible meaning of "shen". Interestingly, in the next scene, Ho shouts, "you don't have a wife at all. The wife you see doesn't exist at all." These two lines end up in the subtitle as "Your wife is no longer with you. You are seeing an illusion."


This subtle difference may pass unnoticed elsewhere. But here unfortunately it is all that matters. What really exists? We can at least answer this question from three different perspective. From the character's mind, from the diegesis, and from the spectator's view. Every image exists. Therefore what is depicted in that image exists since it has to exist first and then be filmed (let us forget about CGI and animation for now). When cinema presents us with an omnipresent view, more things exist for us than for any character in the film. What is intriguing, however, is to get into the diegesis. In other words, we are not to see what we see, but to see what they see.

In the scene that follows, Bun confronts the "ugly side" of his wife. Here, it becomes clear that what really is diegetically present is the ugly woman. Notice how Lin xilei first enters the car and sits in the front seat. And then the ugly woman enters and sits on the same seat. Lin appears in the next shot, shoved to the back seat. Here we follow an implicit rule set by the film so far: a "personality" figure needs to be justified by coalescing onto its real world presence.


But Bun refuses to understand the difference. Pretending not to recognize the ugly woman, he asks, "who is she?", to Lin on the back seat. Of course he knows her, but he does not recognize her. Eventually we are led to the narrative main line and its climax. The wife episode just phases out, without being completely resolved.

So far I have exceeded the 2000 words limit set by myself. I do have more to say, but to keep a casual look of the post, I have to stop here.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sounds really like Nabokov's "Humbert Humbert" in the beginning sentence of this blog...

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