Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng and director Johnnie To reuniting for a film after nine years of waiting? “Hell, yes!” was my first impression when I heard about Blind Detective.
But reading sources and news about the film, it was a bit disconcerting that the film was a mystery. Something that Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng had never collaborated on before. And the hesitance changed to borderline puzzlement when I saw the trailers. One of the trailers markets the film to be a serious mystery film filled with implications of cannibalism, murder and other disturbing details. But another trailer markets the film as a Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng lovefest. So which one is it? Well, after viewing the film, it turns out that the film is both the latter and the former. Bound to give whiplash to those not familiar to films of Hong Kong. Blind Detective (Manh Tham) both delights and befuddles me in the best ways. That is reminiscent of the best of the slipshod 90’s Hong Kong cinema.
Andy Lau stars as Johnston (or Chong Si-teun), the titular blind detective who is self-employed after leaving the force due to his unfortunate ailment. Known as a legend in the police force to the point of being taken advantage of by his former partner. Szeto Fatbo (amusingly played by Guo Tao). He goes after cases that pays well for his financial benefit as well as his guilty pleasure of sensual delights: food. Sammi Cheng plays Goldie (or Ho Ka-tung). A police inspector who lives on her parents’ trust fund and is physically capable for her job. But not intellectually so.
The two meet while foiling (using improvised dancing?) a man who had planned to pour Hydrochloric acid on unsuspecting bystanders. She hires Johnston to school her on the art of investigation as well as to find a missing girl. Who is a former friend of Goldie’s from 20 years ago. The two are on the case and they also go on other cases involving a man killing his workmates over money, an incredibly tall woman who had robbed five jewellery stores and a cannibalistic serial killer (played by the scene-stealing Philip Keung Ho-man) who had murdered young women over a long span of almost two decades.
You gotta give credit to director Johnnie To for a film like Blind Detective. Especially in a time of Hong Kong films losing their distinct identity due to China co-productions and aping Hollywood blockbusters. What could have been another romantic comedy that appealed to the China market (much like the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart films), not only did To make a distinct Hong Kong film. But he made a farcical romantic comedy that revolved around murder. That’s one hell of a challenge he sets out for himself. And on that note, he mostly succeeded. The film can see as a melange of almost every Johnnie To trademark.
Having the two leads and their delightful chemistry, the distinct stylish look (reminiscent of PTU), the off-kilter storytelling (reminiscent of Mad Detective), the disturbingly grisly violence (reminiscent of Running on Karma) and even some gun-play (the distinct blood squibs are present). Blind Detective is a film that will delight Hong Kong Johnnie To fans. As for fans who make up his international fan-base, they will probably leave the film befuddled.
The overacting of the leads is so loud, so insistent and so assaultive, it will definitely turn off some people. The tone shifts are so abrupt that you could hear necks cracking in the cinema. And the storytelling is not assured as Johnnie To’s previous films, due to the many plot holes (i.e. How can a person survive in a locked closet for 27 days?) and many subplots, adding to the overlong running time. So what is it that makes Blind Detective enjoyable despite of its flaws? The cast, for one.
Known as the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of Hong Kong, the two rekindle their chemistry. That was so prominent in the previous films, as if no time had passed. Everything from their conflicts (both verbal and physical) and their bonding to their declaration of feelings for each other, it is still a delight to see both of them on-screen together. But seeing this a a Johnnie To film, they both give fantastic individual performances. Andy Lau (Luu Duc Hoa) is very convincing as a person afflicted to blindness and he overacts his ego in such an entertaining way, that it almost feels genuine. His character is a selfish buffoon who gradually sees the errors of his ways, but Andy Lau’s charisma smooths the rough edges of the character.
It was nice to see Lau play a character instead of just playing himself (i.e the disastrous Switch). Sammi Cheng is even better as the combative police detective, as the role evidently shows that her acting has improved over the years in terms of her dramatic chops. Essentially the brawn to Andy Lau’s brain. She handles the physicality of the role really well. Especially when she encounters the cannibalistic serial killer. The chemistry is so palpable, that it makes the overacting seem surprisingly human. And it even overcomes the fact when you realize the age of the actors (I’m looking at you, Charlene Choi!). One problem about the pairing though is the romance.
The supporting cast are fine, with a few standouts. Guo Tao is both dopey and amusingly tough as Szeto Fatbo. While Gao Yuanyuan is alluring in a small role as Tingting, a ballet teacher Johnston fancies. Lam Suet is hilarious as a murder suspect who is addicted to gambling but by far the best standout is Philip Keung Ho-man as the cannibalistic murderer. Wearing the victim’s clothes (whom are female, by the way) and looking incredibly grimy. He is both funny and scary in the role.
Another plus for the film is Johnnie To’s enthusiastic direction. The cinematography is sleek and garish, the handling of the comedic scenes are reminiscent of mo lei tau at times and the crimes are depicted in a realistically brutal fashion. And there are some surprises that are quite smart to witness. Like how the characters attempt to solve cases. The characters attempt to act out, in a very exaggerated fashion. The many hypotheses of how the crime takes place and see if they can piece out the elements of motive, modus operandi and so on.
It can see as a comedic riff on the investigative methods of Mad Detective or a funny commentary on method acting. But it pays off for the benefit of the story. It is moments like this that make the film fun and also distinctively Hong Kong. Even the slipshod moments of the action film (phim hanh dong trinh tham) have a nostalgic quality that made it quite receptive to Hong Kong audiences.
Blind Detective is an ambitious Johnnie To entry (in terms of his romantic comedy work) that can wildly entertain as well as polarize people. But for those who can handle the tone shifts and the overacting will have a lot of fun. Just don’t watch this film on an empty stomach.