Blind Detective (Man Tam)

Hong Kong (2013) Dir. Johnnie To

Johnston Chong (Andy Lau) is a former police detective known as the “God of Detectives” due to his incredible success rate, forced to leave the force due to his degenerating eyesight. Now blind, Johnston makes a living solving cases for the police cash rewards and it is on one such case where Johnston meets female inspector Ho Ka-tung (Sammi Cheng). In awe of Johnston’s abilities, Ho enlists his help to solve a personal case involving her missing friend Minnie

This slightly offbeat romantic comedy-crime-mystery-thriller-drama by Hong Kong legend Johnnie To has not been well received by critics, despite being one of his most anticipated films of recent years, in part to being the first collaboration between To and megastar Andy Lau since 2001’s Fulltime Killer and the Lau and Cheng reunion since 2004’s Yesterday Once More. The end result is admittedly hit and miss but not completely deserving of some of the vitriol aimed at it; with such high expectations though it is understandable why disappointment was the most common reaction.

At over two hours the story from regular To collaborator Wai Ka-fai is stretched beyond it’s premise which seems to have been recognised hence the bulk of the movie being Johnston and Ho working on other cases instead of searching for Minnie. In one of the more amusing segments of the film, the first case is set in a morgue where Johnston and Ho re-enact the scene of the crime as Johnston believes it to have taken place. This makes humorous use of a hammer and crash helmet in this well crafted slice of black comedy.

Similarly Johnston applies this approach to Minnie’s disappearance, suspecting she was the victim of a serial killer who preyed on young heartbroken girls. Here Johnston has Ho literally adopt the roles of each of the victims to get an idea of how they felt at the time they were dumped and how they reacted to this heartbreak. Ho is unfortunately too willing to comply, going as far as being beaten up and getting a tattoo while Johnston happily plays the role of abusive boyfriend.

With two veteran and dynamic leads the inevitable romance is tentatively teased for the most part, with Ho clearly falling for Johnston while he has eyes…er…designs on a pretty dance teacher Ting Ting (Gao Yuanyuan) whom he adored before losing his eyesight. Ho jealousy is barely contained but she gets the last laugh when Johnston’s former colleague and rival Inspector Szeto (Tao Guo) has a revelation Johnston won’t want to hear.

What makes this a surreal experience is how To lets us into Johnston’s mind by showing us the visions and machinations as he processes the information he has in order to crack the cases. In these moments presented in a chilly, ghostly blue haze where his vision is restored again, the victims of the cases appear next to Johnston giving him clues as to what happened, scolding him for getting it wrong. By now the comedy is long gone and Johnston and Ho are about to reveal the truth about Minnie’s disappearance but not after a peculiar red herring involving a macabre taxi driver who openly admits to eating the eyeballs of his female victims.

The length of this film really is it’s biggest enemy along with the pot pourri of genres Johnnie To tries to accommodate. A good thirty minutes off the run time and a tighter focus on the script and this would have been a more successful outing. The idea and central premise has great promise and one would have expected someone of To’s experience and ingenuity to make it work. Quite what went wrong remains something of a mystery.

Johnny To successfully gave us an idiosyncratic policeman in 2008’s Mad Detective and there are various elements of that film reproduced here (the re-enacting of the cases) to suggest that perhaps To was hoping lightning would strike twice. But that film was a straight up police drama with some light touches of black humour; this film lays its comedic intentions out from the onset. Some of it is quite clever, some of it is cheap laughs at the expense of Johnston’s blindness; what is agreed is that it wears thin before the first hour is up with a second hour still to go, which is much darker and largely laughter free. The finale is suitably grisly as we’ve come to expect from To and the twist is well concealed but might be too late for some.

Where there is no argument is in the commitment the two leads give to their roles. Andy Lau has done it all from comedy to drama to thrillers to historical outings, as well as being the biggest selling Cantopop music star, and it seems that he is having a good time a Johnston, taking it seriously when he has to, and for laughs elsewhere. His essaying of a blind man is well observed (pardon the pun) ensuring that his performance is free from the slightest slip up.

His energetic co-star Sammi Cheng, also a top selling pop star, literally throws herself into this role with the type of hyperactive aplomb usually seen from comedy queen Sandra Ng. Cheng’s manic carefree abandon here feels a little excessive for some scenes, undermining the moments later on when she has to be serious, suggesting Ho is something of a schizophrenic. To regular Lam Suet plays a small part in this film while mainlander Tao Guo is a great foil for Lau.

So, Blind Detective is, in a nutshell, a bold experiment that didn’t quite work due to a lack of focus with the script and a surfeit of ideas and genre hopping tendencies. Johnnie To is capable of so much better and hopefully the reaction to this film will galvanise him to up his game and deliver something akin to his prior successes.