Original title: Man Tam
D: Johnnie To / 130m
Cast: Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, Tao Guo, Yuanyuan Gao
Notable for the re-teaming of Lau and Cheng – they last appeared together in 2004’s Yesterday Once More, also by To – Blind Detective is a mad, eclectic mix of crime thriller, romance, humour Hong Kong style, action, and whodunnit. Lau plays Johnston, a retired detective who lost his sight while chasing a criminal. This setback doesn’t stop him from investigating cases, though, and while attempting to apprehend the perpetrator behind a series of acid attacks he meets Officer Ho (Cheng). She realises Johnston has a gift: that even though he is blind he can still “see” in a way that allows him to solve crimes. Tormented by the disappearance ten years before of a childhood friend, Minnie, Ho asks Johnston to look into the case; she is certain that Minnie was abducted and killed, and hopes Johnston will be able to find the culprit. He agrees to help her but for a fee, and with the proviso that he instructs her in how to become a better detective.
This means Ho finds herself helping Johnston solving a variety of cold cases instead before she manages to get him to focus on Minnie. As events unfold, Ho finds herself drawn to Johnston, and despite his methods being highly irregular, she also finds her respect for him deepen. And one of the cold cases leads them to a serial killer…
For the most part, Blind Detective has all the hallmarks of a first-rate Hong Kong crime thriller: moody photography and lighting (courtesy of Siu-keung Cheng), strong yet unambiguous characters, a linear narrative punctuated by explanatory flashbacks, an unhurried pace, and a serious approach leavened by a combination of often very dark humour and strangely apt slapstick. What it also has is a compelling narrative, a clever visual style – witness Johnston’s “imagining” of the crimes he and Ho investigate – superb performances from Lau and Cheng, and a central mystery that is as challenging as it is artfully resolved. To directs with a sure hand, making each scene count both individually and as part of the whole, taking risks with the material and coming up trumps each time; it’s a bravura display from a director who rarely gets it wrong and whose movies almost always surprise with their virtuosity and confidence.
You can tell that Lau is having a ball playing Johnston, whether he’s instructing Ho to let him hit her with a hammer, or gradually piecing the clues together surrounding Minnie’s disappearance, or realising how dependent he’s become on Ho, with each successive scene Lau brings us a character we grow to like and empathise with, and this despite an initial arrogance that is mostly off-putting. This isn’t the type of role that Lau usually plays and it’s good to see him broaden his range. Cheng more than matches Lau, giving us a rookie officer who grows in both stature and experience, while retaining a soulful vulnerability that makes Ho all the more endearing. Both performances are accomplished, and the chemistry between the two actors adds to the movie’s (already substantial) surfeit of riches. The supporting cast, including Tao as the unfortunately named Fatbo, are uniformly good, and there’s yet another outstanding performance, this time from the young actress who plays the teenage Minnie (alas, finding her name amongst the few available credits is really difficult). It’s a small role but well handled and convincingly played.
On the downside, there are too many “foodie” scenes – it’s supposed to be one of Johnston’s character traits – and the denouement is a trifle rushed, while Johnston makes as many implausible leaps of faith in his deductive reasoning as he does actually interpret the clues around him. You might also question the punishment that Ho allows Johnston to put her through but the guilt she feels for doing nothing when Minnie was in trouble acts as an emotional counterweight for this. There’s also a subplot involving a woman (Yuanyuan) Johnston was in love with before he became blind, but which adds nothing to the movie overall. These problems aside, Blind Detective remains another impressive string to To’s bow.
Rating: 8/10 – given a less than rapturous welcome in its homeland, Blind Detective nevertheless works well on many levels and is entertaining throughout; at times anarchic, the movie presents a new twist on the disabled detective genre and deserves a wider audience.