Cannes Film Review: ‘Blind Detective’

This madcap mystery-romance sustains a light, bouncy tone and a decent hit-to-miss laff ratio even in scenes involving strangulation, dismemberment and cannibalism.

 Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, Guo Tao, Gao Yuanyuan, Ziyi, Lang Yueting, Lo Hoi-pang, Bonnie Wong, Lam Suet, Philip Keung, Eileen Yeow. (Cantonese, Mandarin (Swatow dialect), Portuguese dialogue)

A serial-killer thriller wrapped in an unruly slapstick comedy with generous servings of food porn, “Blind Detective” is a deranged and delirious smorgasbord of a movie. Even devotees of Hong Kong genre master Johnnie To and his frequent collaborator, producer/co-writer Wai Ka-fai, may not be entirely sure what to make of this unusually demented romp, a madcap mystery-romance that sustains a light, bouncy tone and a decent hit-to-miss laff ratio even in scenes involving strangulation, dismemberment and cannibalism. The vigorous if overlong result should keep To’s international fans entertained, but may skew more cultish than his recent record-setter, “Drug War.”

Perfectly positioned in Cannes’ midnight sidebar, “Blind Detective” makes a goofy companion volume to To’s 2007 thriller “Mad Detective,” also built on a high-concept Wai premise about an eccentrically gifted/cursed sleuth. In this case, the role of Chong, the blind detective of the title, is a showcase for star Andy Lau’s most unhinged, physically nimble performance in some time; whether he’s stumbling into furniture, waving his walking stick excitedly or sniffing out a crook’s telltale scent, the actor seems to be enjoying himself no end.

Chong is brilliant but also testy and demanding, and he’s had a sizable chip on his shoulder since his condition forced him to leave the Hong Kong police force years ago. He’s ideally paired with Tung (Sammi Cheng), an eager-to-please rookie cop who’s looking to beef up her investigative skills, and who turns out to be on the same manic wavelength as her chosen mentor. One of the pic’s most enjoyable funny-freaky motifs — reaching a giddy peak of insanity in an early sequence involving a hammer, a helmet and a TV set — is the duo’s insistence on reconstructing each crime in painstaking fashion, going so far into the process that it no longer resembles detective work so much as an over-the-top Method acting workshop (one that necessitates numerous changes of wardrobe, courtesy of costume designers Steven Tsang and Stephanie Wong).

One soon loses track of all the genres traversed by the cheerfully nonsensical plot (scripted by Wai and three other writers), which finds Chong and Tung initially foiling a rooftop acid attack by a serial offender, then teaming to solve the long-ago disappearance of Tung’s childhood friend Minnie and other cold cases. Also woven into the overindulgent two-hour-plus running time are Chong’s crush on a tango dancer (Gao Yuanyuan) and ongoing rivalry with a police chief (Guo Tao); a love triangle featuring a pregnant woman (Eileen Yeow) and a teppanyaki chef (Ziyi); and not one but two twisty, nightmarish climaxes. All this is coordinated and choreographed with such rambunctious physical gusto and relentless, near-balletic feats of slapstick that “Blind Detective” comes perilously close to resembling a dance musical of sorts, ushered playfully along by Hal Foxton Beckett’s alternately romantic and frenzied score.

Lacking the elegance and finesse of To’s best recent work (including “Sparrow” and “Vengeance”), it’s an unapologetically lowbrow, screw-loose effort, with a cheaper, more functional look to Cheng Siu-keung’s 35mm lensing and other aspects of the production (shot in Hong Kong with brief detours to Macau and the Chinese city of Zhuhai). Yet the film has its own wickedly inventive sense of style. Chong may not be able to see, but he can imagine plenty, and much of the story’s ghoulish humor derives from his habit of visualizing and communicating with murder victims, their ghosts intervening to help him solve each crime in trial-and-error fashion. Allen Leung’s editing simply dazzles here as it weaves between reality and imagined flashbacks, keeping past and present, the living and the dead on one crazy continuum.

This is the seventh time Lau and Sammi Cheng have been paired romantically onscreen and the first time since To’s 2004 romantic comedy “Yesterday Once More.” The actors’ high-spirited chemistry thus comes as little surprise, and their sometimes grating but endearingly energetic performances suggest they’re as tickled by their reunion as their fans are likely to be. Audiences are advised not to go in hungry, given all the Chinese cuisine on mouth-watering display throughout; Lau’s Chong seems to be stuffing his face in every other scene, and surely this is the first time a killer has been unmasked while stir-frying bok choy.

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Cannes Film Review: 'Blind Detective'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Midnight Screenings), May 20, 2013. Running time: 129 MIN. Original title: "Man tam"

Production: (Hong Kong) A Media Asia Film Distribution release of a Media Asia Film Prod., Emperor Film Prod. Co., Sil-Metropole Organization, China Film Co., Beijing Rosat Film & TV Prod. Co., Media Asia Film Distribution (Beijing) Co. presentation of a Milkyway Image production. Produced by Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai. Executive producers, Peter Lam, Albert Yeung, Song Dai, Han Sanping, Li Shaohong. Co-producers, David Chan, Albert Lee, Lam Ping Kwan, Han Xiaoli.

Crew: Directed by Johnnie To. Screenplay, Wai Ka-fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi. Camera (color, widescreen), Cheng Siu-keung, To Hung Mo; editor, Allen Leung; music, Hal Foxton Beckett; production designer, Bruce Yu; art director, Horace Ma; costume designers, Steven Tsang, Stephanie Wong; line producer, Elaine Chu.

With:  Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, Guo Tao, Gao Yuanyuan, Ziyi, Lang Yueting, Lo Hoi-pang, Bonnie Wong, Lam Suet, Philip Keung, Eileen Yeow. (Cantonese, Mandarin (Swatow dialect), Portuguese dialogue)

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