Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 2013)

Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 2013)

The big draw in Blind Detective is the reunion of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng. Pop stars and cultural icons, it was the series of romantic comedies they made with To in the early 2000s that essentially saved his Milkyway Image company from collapse. The first few years of the studio saw the release of several dark gangster dramas, mostly ghost-directed by To, that failed to find much of an audience. But Needing You..., an office romance with Lau and Cheng, proved to be a big hit and for years thereafter To would mix wacky romances in with his more serious crime films. Cheng and Lau each made six films with To from 2000 to 2004, including two more where they were paired together (Love on a Diet and Yesterday Once More). But after 2004 neither worked with To again until 2012’s Romancing in Thin Air (in which Cheng stars opposite Louis Koo, who plays a very Andy Lau-type movie star). This period also coincides with a more serious turn in To’s work. From 2005 until 2011, he didn’t make a single romantic comedy, and with the notable exception of Sparrow, the films are serious melodramas (albeit often darkly sardonic ones) all taking place in the Triad gangster world (except for the strangely inert romantic drama Linger, from 2008, a more straightforward, less interesting version of the 2002 Cheng vehicle My Left Eyes Sees Ghosts). But in 2011, To returned to the romance genre with the lush screwball Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and 2012’s meta-epic Romancing in Thin Air.

Johnnie To’s filmography is so dense and so vast, that part of the fun of each new release is in finding the connections between it and his previous work. Drug War, for example, forms part of a trilogy with Expect the Unexpected and PTU, each film a procedural following a team of cops tracking a group of criminals and ending in a dramatic gunfight. The 2009 film Vengeance forms a rough trilogy about groups of hitmen with The Mission and Exiled, all ultimately about the pointlessness of the revenge demands in the Triad honor code. Similarly, both his 2011 films deal with the fallout of the financial crisis, with Life Without Principle’s crime drama highlighting its effects on the various middle and criminal classes and drawing somewhat unexpected parallels between them, while Don’t Go Breaking My Heart uses the crisis as a plot point that barely registers as a blip in the lives of its upper class financier characters, consciously recalling the fanciful milieux of Depression Era screwball comedies. Romancing in Thin Air is a summarizing film, one that incorporates and synthesizes elements of romantic films from throughout To’s career into a single grand statement on the cathartic power of cinema; it’s To’s 2046.

Blind Detective presents a couple of interesting contrasts. The most obvious is with 2007’s Mad Detective, which has a similar title and is also the story of a young cop enlisting the eponymous former cop to help solve a recent crime. Lau Ching-wan’s Mad Detective approaches his investigations with the same techniques as Andy Lau’s Blind Detective: he goes through the criminals’ motions until he sees exactly what they did, and we see his vision of the recreation on-screen. These visions recall as well Running on Karma, in which Andy Lau plays a former monk who can see people’s karma, the crimes they committed in past lives. Again, he’s called in to help a young detective solve a crime. Like that film as well, there’s a strong romantic element to Blind Detective, though it’s played here as comedy where in Karma it’s tragedy (there’s a tragic love story subplot in Mad Detective as well). The new film then represents not only the third part of a “vision”-based crime solving trilogy, but a synthesis of To’s comedies with his crime films. (Yesterday Once More accomplished something similar, in combining elements of the romantic comedies with To’s Running Out of Time caper films). The violence in these films is at times stomach-churning, the dark and depraved killings clashing tonally with the wide-open romanticism of To’s heroes, as if to say “the world is scary and terrible, but. . .”

Most interesting to me is the formal contrast between Blind Detective and Drug War. The latter might be To’s tersest film: its characters are almost entirely defined by action, with no back story, no history, no personal lives nor small talk. They are professionals, cops and criminals alike, and the story is relentlessly forward-moving, like the long non-stop drives the cops must endure as they crisscross the country pursuing the crooks it never lets up until the explosive finale. Blind Detective, though, meanders here and there, taking its time, losing itself down subplots of other, unrelated crimes actual (with To stalwart Lam Suet) and romantic (with Gao Yuanyuan, who sparkled in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart but is clearly outshone by Cheng here) all while indulging in Andy Lau’s prodigious appetite (this may be the most food-obsessed of all Johnnie To’s movies, even more so than Love on a Diet, which was largely about Andy and Sammi wearing fat suits and eating everything they came across). Where Drug War is tension and suspense and momentum, Blind Detective is leisurely digression. It’s the Hatari! to Drug War’s Scarface.

Similarly, Andy Lau’s performance is in contrast to his prior work. His character resembles the one he played in Tsui Hark’s very popular Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Like that film, Blind Detective is a mystery rather than a noirish gangster melodrama like most of To’s crime films, and Lau plays the Holmes/Poirot figure. But where Detective Dee matches Lau’s suave star persona, the Blind Detective is something new. He looks and dresses like the coolest guy on the planet Andy Lau of previous To collaborations Running Out of Time and Yesterday Once More, but he’s wildly antic, shouting his lines and gleefully running with abandon from one inspiration to the next. (One of the film’s best jokes involves someone finding Lau’s partner, Guo Tao, to be the “cool” one of the pair). At times Lau almost seems to be parodying Lau Ching-wan’s manic To performances (most obviously the one in Mad Detective). More than 30 years after his breakthrough in Ann Hui’s Boat People, I can’t recall a more buoyant, more childlike, more aggressively open Andy Lau performance.

At over two hours, this is one of the longest of Johnnie To’s films (they usually clock in around the HK-standard 100 minutes). It’s even longer than the Sammi Cheng-starring wuxia farce Wu yen, a similarly digressive tale, but one that tends to sag with the accumulation of subplots and wild gags. Blind Detective never drags. The more time we get to hang out with Andy and Sammi, the better. And the more romantic comedies from Johnnie To, the better as well. For too long they’ve been shunted aside in favor of the supposedly more “serious” crime films. His next film is Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, and I can’t wait.

Further Notes on Blind Detective — October 11, 2014

Rewatching Blind Detective, another couple of things jumped out at me beyond what I wrote above.

It’s more intricately structured that it appeared to me at first, with a series of doublings between Andy Lau’s detective Johnston and his suspects. The serial killer in particular is signified as an evil version of Lau: he dresses like his victims, he eats a lot, and he’s obsessed with eyes.

Also: Lam Suet is a cab driver just like the serial killer (also the role Lau plays in the imagined recreations).

All of the crimes revolve around not-seeing, or at least hiding in plain sight. One killer hides a body, implicating a victim in his crime, a couple of killers hide in closets, the initial killer hides in the crowd, the hordes of people wandering and shopping the busy streets. The serial killer hides far out of town, and goes untracked for so long because his victims, rejected lonely women, are ignored and unseen by the world at large.

The dancing motif is present right from the first meeting of Lau and Sammi Cheng, their fighting off the acid-thrower being performed as a series of tango steps. I don’t know much about the tango, but it seems like a dance where not looking at your partner (or looking at them with a particular kind of intensity) is especially important.

There’s also a great touch when Lau finally talks to Gao Yuanyuan, the dance instructor he’s had a crush on since before his blindness. They dance and he’s much better than her: she keeps stepping on his toes. Because she’s caught off-guard by him, or because he’s practiced so much that he’s surpassed her?

Interesting too that Gao, the center of the love triangle in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is here the love interest that the hero must get over in order to begin a relationship with Sammi Cheng, which is kind of the same role the two actresses share in Romancing in Thin Air, where it's Louis Koo who is rejected by Gao.

Both this and Romancing involve the hero creating a narrative to help Sammi get over a trauma. In the first movie, Louis Koo literally makes a film to help her resolve the loss of her husband. In this one, Lau uses his Method acting-like approach to detective work to create a narrative that ultimately solves (explains) an event from Cheng’s youth that’s haunted her for her whole life.

Both Running on Karma and Mad Detective use the same visualization approach to solving crimes. But those films are more spiritual, with karma and (possibly) ghosts aiding the police work. Blind Detective is resolutely materialist, turning the scene in Mad Detective where Lau Ching-wan eats an improbable amount of food into a two-hour movie.

The film is relentlessly monochrome, Andy and Sammi almost always clothed in black or gray, with only a few bursts of color (Gao Yuanyuan’s red dress, the rich browns of the serial killer’s mountain hovel) breaking the noir color palate. There’s a signature To shot: overhead on a black street at night, three streetlights forming white spotlight circles that a young girl (imagined) runs through. This is in contrast to the whites and greens of Romancing and the popping blues and reds of Don’t Go’s screwball fantasy world. Typically To’s comedies are very colorful while his dramas are more stark. Here he takes the slightly distorting wide-angle lenses of his comedies and puts them to use in the sombre world of crime, mixing his tones visually as much as the script does in narrative.

I just read the five reviews of Blind Detective linked to on its wikipedia page and they are uniformly bad. Not just in their view of the film, but in their writing and analysis. The laziest possible critical ways out. (Broad acting! Tonally inconsistent! Looks great! Silly and therefore a step back from his serious films like Drug War or Election!) That wouldn’t be a big deal, there’s no shortage of awful film criticism in the world, except that I’m pretty sure that the reason this didn’t get a release in the US of any kind is because of these reviews in influential publications (The Hollywood Reporter, Screen Daily, Film Business Asia (which gave it a 2(!) out of 10)). At least Justin Chang’s review in Variety does the film justice. Of course, it’s not on the wikipedia page. This is an under-publicized problem with our system of art house and foreign film distribution: quite often the critics with the biggest or most influential platforms are, through ignorance or overwork or any of the random mood-altering events that can color your initial impression of a film, terrible at determining which films we should be allowed to see.