R: Notes on Mad Detective

Are you a Hong Kong policeman who lost his gun?
Ah, too bad! Leave the country, kill yourself, or maybe someone else…
Or call your crazy super-sensitive psycho ex-detective friend to get you out of trouble.

However, Mad Detective (2007) shows one interesting thing about the genre of action films. The characters, in this genre usually appear as types rather than singular individuals. Mad Detective makes types of the people’s minds.

Mad Detective's suspects

Mad Detective’s suspects

In the film, detective Bun is able to see the inner personalities of other people. These inner personalities appear to him as men and women completely different from the characters themselves, but representing their psychology. The embodiments of people’s minds have to be shown as strong types to become recognizable in split a second, which is usually their screen time. The problem is that such a direct view into the minds of people, together with the standardization through types, renders the characters quite flat. Instead of gradual understanding of the human psychology, we approach it immediately in a simplified form.

Even though Chi Wai, the bad guy the cops are looking for, has seven different personalities, he is not a ‘complex person’ as Bun describes him. To us he only has seven possible ways how to react to a situation. These possibilities include brutal violence, when the Fighter Badass Guy prevails in Chi Wai’s mind, and paralyzing fear represented by the Fat Tourist’s behaviour. We could expect that the final Wai’s actions will come as a mixture of influences of his inner personalities, but mostly there is only one that takes complete control over him. Usually the emotionless rational woman in a business suit, Wai’s logical mind, solves his problems. Also, the more inner characters, the less space they have on the screen. Some of these seven we cannot see for more than a few seconds of the whole film so that they only have a kind of presence, telling us that some possibilities are being left for Wai. However, we never see them. The complexity does not make itself visible to us.

The film allows us to see the psychology of the characters directly in form of type. This way it eliminates the barrier which usually stands between person’s face and bodily appearance and their inner personality. The most interesting part of becoming to know a character is, however, the gradual discovering of its abilities and workings of their mind. Mad Detective completely escapes this process and instead serves us the characters uncovered and ready to evaluate – good or bad? Directness leads to simplification.

There are two conclusions we can make about the work with characters. First, showing the characters as strong types makes it almost impossible to show any greater depth of their psychology. The multiplication of those types paradoxically only strengthens the impression of their flatness, because it shortens the time each character has for its presentation on the screen. Second, the direct access to an image of the inner personality also flattens the notion of psychology, because it reveals what we would otherwise have to gradually imagine. It casts of the mystery, residing in the difference of the body and psychological nature of the character.

Yes, this clarity of Bun’s vision is the film’s main idea that makes it stand out. And yes, it fits to a genre, in which the complicated plot prevails over the depth of characters. I am not saying that the film should have been made different, only that certain approach to imagining the psychology of characters leads to certain effects. In this case it is simplification through use of types, next time it could be something else.

Mad Detective (dir. Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai) is available on MUBI until 2nd December.


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