David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

November 2010

The camera tracks along a fearsome array of knives and cleavers. Cut to a young man, seen from behind, entering an office at Kowloon West police headquarters. Cut to a slow tracking shot that reveals a bulky, swaying shadow. A man backs into the frame holding a knife. The camera continues to glide until it provides a full view: a gigantic pig is hanging from the ceiling, and detective Bun lunges forward to stab it. Cut to show the young man, the novice cop Ho, staring at the spectacle along with other officers. The Mad Detective is tackling another case.

What will ensue is an urban thriller, showcasing chases, gunfights, and familiar types—the crooked cop, the overstrung old pro, the newcomer who needs mentoring. But this policier comes from Johnnie To Kei-fung and Wai Ka-fai, the moving spirits of Milkyway Image. Their off-center, curiously poignant approach to the genre makes Mad Detective one of the strangest, strongest Hong Kong films of recent years.

Johnnie To began as a television director, working in many genres before committing his energies to cinema in the mid-1980s.endnote1 He established himself as a versatile creator with such films as All About Ah-Long (1989) and The Heroic Trio (1993). He found his voice, he now says, with the remarkably masochistic cop film Loving You (1995), starring Lau Ching-wan, who would become central to the To repertory company. While To was reentering cinema, Wai Ka-fai was writing and producing television series and making his own 1995 directorial breakthrough, Peace Hotel.  The two joined forces in 1996 and shortly afterward established the Milkyway Image company.

Wai has occasionally directed films for Milkyway, notably the experimental Too Many Ways to Be Number One (1997), and he has made films outside the Milkyway orbit. Johnnie To has often flown solo as well, enhancing the brand with such acclaimed films as The Mission (1999) and Exiled (2006).  On their joint projects, Wai is usually considered the primary screenwriter, while To directs. But the collaboration has often taken unusual forms. Some films credit Wai as screenwriter and a third party as director; but in some of those cases, To took over the production and saw it to completion. Still other films credit Wai and To as co-directors. For these projects Wai is involved at every stage, although To invariably plans and executes the shots.

The Milkyway brand signifies more than unorthodox teamwork. Its motto might be taken from one of its most remarkable movies: Expect the Unexpected. The company aims to be sharply, even peculiarly different from the routine Hong Kong product. For example, Milkyway gained its commercial footing with star-laden romantic comedies, but many of those indulge in grotesque exaggeration, such as a love affair between two gluttons (Love on a Diet, 2001) and a mock-heroic paean to mahjongg (Fat Choi Spirit, 2002).

The main contribution of Milkyway has been its revitalization of the urban crime movie. Coming to prominence just when the great age of local film was fading, Wai and To look self-consciously back to the prototypes crystallized by John Woo, Ringo Lam, and other masters. The Milkyway Image sensibility recognizes what made the genre so appealing: blazing set pieces, delirious romanticism, a delight in pounding visceral energy, and larger-than-life heroes whose ethos derived from the chivalric swordplay tradition. Wai and To have drawn on these qualities, but by pushing them in fresh directions, they have conjured up the most demanding genre films ever to come out of Hong Kong. Their characters are not die-cast, the plots are labyrinthine, the images are at once lustrous, ominous, and deceptive. Milkyway has rewritten the rules of the crime film.

Take that opening sequence of Mad Detective. We know the formula: Establishing shot of Kowloon Police HQ; track with rookie cop as he enters the building and walks into the office; follow him in as he greets his new colleagues and notices one is an oddball. Instead, To’s direction splits our attention between the agitated Bun (the knives, the ballet with the hanging pig) and the timorous Ho. Already we’re caught off-balance: The shots don’t offer orthodox exposition or a firmly identified protagonist. The splitting of point-of-view will be carried on through the movie. The bulk of the film will crosscut between the two men’s approach to the investigation. Bun is the central character, but we will need Ho not only as a participant in the action but also as another mind that will help us grasp Bun’s dementia.

Milkyway characters are often opaque and contradictory, and Bun is a perfect example. The original Chinese title of the film, “Godly Detective,” might suggest an all-knowing intelligence. But the character for godly is also used in the phrase “godly nerves,” which is applied to someone who has become deranged. Bun is partly the master detective, specifically the modern figure of the profiler who risks his own sanity by plunging into the mind of the murderer. Mad Detective boosts the profiler’s empathic powers to the point of telepathy. Along one dimension, Bun can, by reenacting the crime, intuit the culprit. That’s the tactic we see in the pig-stabbing scene and the suitcase episode that follows.

But your standard profiler doesn’t have another of Bun’s talents: He can see the “inner personalities” of people whom he encounters. To him these alter egos become as tangible as the person in front of him. To complicate matters further, Bun hallucinates, thinking his wife is present when she is not. This strange mix of mental gift and mental disturbance is dangerous, as we see just before the opening title credit, when Bun offers his hacked-off ear as a gift to a retiring superior.

Characteristically, Wai and To do not explain Bun’s mental powers and defects. No neurosurgeon steps in to give a clinical diagnosis, as might happen in an American film. The multidimensional madness of the detective is instead largely a pretext for the sort of playful plot stratagems that have become a Milkyway hallmark.

Throughout the film we will shift constantly between watching what Bun perceives and watching things objectively or through Ho’s eyes. The device is spelled out twice, first at police headquarters when Bun divines a cop’s objections to him by visualizing a petty woman complaining. Next, more elaborately, Bun’s tailing of the suspect cop Ko is presented through a vision of Ko’s many personalities, embodied as a group of people striding along. The editing here has to be quite precise, severing our viewpoint from Bun’s in order to establish what is objectively there.endnote2 So we have Ho, following Bun as Bun tails Ko, to confirm that Bun is seeing Ko as a troop of subpersons.

Once established, this shuttling between subjective and objective presentation is varied as the plot develops. Right to the end, even during the mirror-image gun battle, we get unexpected glimpses of the shooters’ divided selves, signaling that we’ve suddenly been transplanted into Bun’s mind. Wai and To can even afford a quick shot of the Indian crook Shirma’s cowering inner self, leaving us to infer that we’re seeing him as Bun does.

But the cunning of Milkyway narration emerges much earlier. At the point when we’re told that Bun senses people’s multiple personalities, we probably don’t realize that we have already witnessed him doing just that. The scene occurs only a few minutes into the film and is staged as a perfectly mundane moment in a quickstop market: He watches one teenage girl urging another to shoplift.

Only later, or perhaps on a second viewing, do we realize that the pink-haired temptress is actually Bun’s vision of the first girl’s impulse to steal. What his scolding chases out of the shop is the vision, not a real teeny-bopper.

The quickstop scene initiates a second level of deception as well. In the market and on the way home Bun is accompanied by his wife May, yet we learn later that May has left him long ago. The whole quarrel between him and her turns out to be imaginary.  If we can speak of retrospective pathos, our recalling this scene later in the film may trigger it.

The sadness of Bun’s plight comes out more directly in a sequence at a café. Here what he thinks is a double date actually consists of him alone with Ho and his girlfriend Gigi. Bun imagines that May is at the table with them, sparkling and affectionate at his side. Yet when he finally meets May face to face, he immediately assigns her another personality, that of a severe harridan. When May isn’t there, Bun sees her; when she is there, he sees through her. A great deal of the film’s poignancy comes from the fact that Bun can never reconnect with his wife in reality.

So we shuttle between subjective and objective points of view, as Bun both sees into other people and imagines his wife to be at his side. These mechanisms give To and Wai a vehicle for their endless fascination with repetition and elision, the twin hallmarks of the Milkyway movie. Two pairs of cops, two points of view, two couples, two pistols: these dualities are just the start. Bun’s power to solve crimes depends on reenactments—at the food mart, at a mahjongg parlor—and some of those get replayed further. Bun tries to penetrate Ko’s mind by revisiting the restaurant and endlessly ordering the dishes Ko had ordered. Bun assumes that the dead cop Wong has been buried in the forest, so to reconstruct the crime he has himself buried. This triggers a replay of the early scene of Ko and Wong pursuing Shirma, but now fleshed out to reveal Ko’s murder. Yet Bun’s burial is already a repetition of Ho’s willingness to copy his master’s methods; when Ho occupies the grave, Bun gets his first clue about Ko’s villainy.

Yet all this repetition of situations doesn’t include repetition of key items of information. Redundancy about clues and hidden identities is central to the Hollywood-style thriller; the audience can be puzzled but should not be confused. The typical Milkyway film takes a more elliptical approach to storytelling. Key items of information may pass so quickly that we don’t notice their importance, and they may never be repeated more explicitly. The Mission is famous for this parsimonious approach; at first viewing it seems episodic, but after more viewings you can see dramatic crosscurrents underneath. Even more demanding are the reshuffled alliances and vagrant heads of The Longest Nite (1998). Only Milkyway could make a film (Throw Down, 2004), in which the audience might well neglect to notice that the protagonist is going blind.

We’ve already seen elliptical narration at work in the covert introduction of Bun’s shifting visions, but the strategy extends to smaller details. Consider the ear. We see Bun saw it off in the prologue, but on his next appearance, his layered haircut mostly hides that area. Was the ear reattached? Is the hair covering a deformed ear? No answer is forthcoming for many minutes. Eventually, during the fight that follows a literal pissing contest, we discover that Bun is using a fake ear that can become detached.

All of these forces—the reworking of genre conventions, the play with point of view, the doublings and repetitions, and a reluctance to repeat or clarify key pieces of data—can be seen in the round-robin of police revolvers. A policeman loses his gun: How many thrillers have been based on this premise? Here, the missing gun is Ko’s, snatched up by Shirma in the forest. Ko kills his partner Wong and takes his pistol. He then, as our mad detective divines, breaks into the police database and changes the gun’s registration number so that Wong’s number is now officially his. But then a string of killings takes place using bullets traced back to the pistol of the long-missing Wong. A new investigation starts. So the pistols continue to circulate: Bun takes Ho’s and Ho must borrow Gigi’s. The convention of the stray gun (already toyed with in To’s PTU, 2003) has been multiplied by four.

The climactic confrontation, as pure a piece of cinematic virtuosity as any to come from Hong Kong in recent years, carries this multiplication further by setting a shootout in a warehouse full of windowpanes and mirrors. Shirma has been tracked to it, and Ko, Ho, and Bun converge there. The men stalk one another. The split and layered reflections evoke not only the climax of Welles’ Lady from Shanghai but also the confrontation of two doppelgangers at the finale of The Longest Nite. Four killers now instead of two: the Mad Detective scene doubles the earlier one numerically as well as dramatically. A barrage of fire leads to the four men facing off. A brilliant overhead shot shows Ko’s various personalities, who have also stalked Bun through the mirror maze, caught in splinters shining on the floor.

After the last shot has been fired and three men lie dead, Ho realizes that Bun was right about Ko’s perfidy. But now an official story must be told, and every bullet accounted for. Ho retrieves his own pistol from Bun’s grasp. After phoning Gigi to come and be ready to swear that she was there wielding her gun, Ho sets about swapping pistols. Yet what pistol should go where? Ho must match the guns to the bullets in the bodies, but more profoundly shouldn’t he assign guilt where it belongs? When Ho starts redesigning the death arena, To reiterates the bird’s-eye view, pulling the camera back and spinning slightly. By shuffling the pistols Ho is starting to stage different versions of what happened—first making Bun the innocent victim, then making him Ko’s executioner.

Wai Ka-fai’s plotting makes it hard for us recall which gun is which. As in other Milkyway films, we get a shell-game of identical objects. But here the implications aren’t as comic as the byplay with crinkly plastic bags in To’s sequence of Triangle (2007), and the switches don’t have the élan of the ploy with the proxy automatics in The Mission. In the last permutation that we see, Ho wraps Bun’s fingers around the pistol used in the robberies, making him guilty of Ko’s crimes—as cruel an outcome as could be imagined. The shot ends before Ho’s new scenario is completed; for all we know, he might shuffle the guns once more.

As the camera cranes back and back, Ho’s grave, hesitant revisions of the fight diagramatically play out the mystifying circulation of pistols in the story. His maneuver suggests as well the dynamics of a film whose pleasure resides partly in gaps and repetitions that keep certainty just out of reach. Mad Detective engages us in a formal game that, thanks to its teasing opacities, becomes as eccentric, single-minded, and oddly touching as its protagonist.

Thanks to Shan Ding of Milkyway Image for background information. Thanks as well to Nick Wrigley for permission to republish this essay, which appeared in slightly different form in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema DVD release of The Mad Detective. That release is still available on UK DVD and Blu-ray here [also Amazon.co.uk DVD and Blu-ray].

1 : To made a swordplay feature, The Enigmatic Case (1980), in 1979 before returning to television. He has said on many occasions that he felt he needed to learn more about directing. His return to theatrical features began with Happy Ghost 3 (1986), although he continued to make some hour-long TV films afterward. To’s fullest account of his career can be found in Stephen Teo’s interview with him in Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007), pp. 215–244.

2 : For more on the editing of Mad Detective, including an interview with editor Tina Baz, see my blog entry “Truly madly cinematically.” Several other blog entries discuss Milkyway Image; to browse them, see the category entry Johnnie To Kei-fung.

David Bordwell
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