Hong Kong genre-jumping auteur Johnnie To’s films are invariably pretty and intelligent (though not always clear-headed and restrained), and his specific achievement here is in pushing neo-noir conventions (already a hyphenated set of narrative rules developed from Chinatown through Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential and beyond) into post-neo-noir territory. His multiple personality-seeing tragicomic detective Bun (Lau Chin-wan) is no hard-boiled Raymond Chandler P.I., but he’s also well beyond Memento’s revenge-seeking amnesiac. He combines elements of both — and the languid fatalism of Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye — into a terrific tangled ball of contradictions, eccentricities and unwavering determination.
The opening scenes make hilariously, abundantly clear that Bun belongs to that school of film detectives who do best thinking like and becoming the killer they’re tracking. By comparison, Bun’s young partner On is a little less intuitive — though not unfeeling, as a wonderful sort-of-double date scene shows — more practical and level-headed. That said, by the end of Mad Detective signs that he’ll inherit his mentor’s split personality-visualizing ability are piling up. Unlike other To genre-pushers like Election or Breaking News, the gulf between young and old isn’t so wide here, and generational differences appear to be reconcilable.
Most of the pleasure in Mad Detective — beyond the perpetually panning cinematography and dramatic whooshiness of every sound effect — comes from the agile interactions between Bun and endlessly mirrored and multiplying personalities, while colleagues simply see a very odd interaction between two people. Playing this game, Mad Detective raises the stakes until the all out climactic schiz-fest, where metaphoric mirroring gives way to the real thing, and To updates a particularly amazing early noir ending.