Mad Detective or San taam (2007)
Mad Detective or San taam (2007) is an ingenious, if slightly tedious and ultimately flawed, police procedural out of Hong Kong, directed by Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai who shared the screenwriting credits with Kin-Yee Au. The point of the film is to strike a balance between three usually distinct subgenre elements. In conventional plots, when the police investigate a crime, the detective works diligently to solve the case, where necessary engaging in violence — hopefully only in self-defence. In this instance, however, our “hero”, Inspector Ho Ka On (Andy On) is a young and very inexperienced detective who’s somewhat out of his depth. Yes, he’s had an exemplary track record through the academy, but the real world is far more challenging than he ever imagined it could be. Caught up in a complicated case in which a detective has disappeared, but his gun has been used in a series of robberies, he decides to contact an older detective for help. This despite the fact this man was forced to retire on mental health grounds. So we meet Inspector Chan Kwai Bun (Lau Ching Wan) who cut off his ear as a leaving present when his then boss retired. It’s not unusual for fictional detectives to suffer varying degrees of mental disability. The device adds to the suspense element: will the detective solve the crime despite being as crazy as a loon. However, this detective’s mental health problems are complicated by what may be a type of supernatural ability. It’s at this point that the basis of the film gets somewhat confused.
We’re used to the idea of profilers who are able to put themselves in the shoes of the criminals and get insights into their characters and motivations. There are various ways in which this empathetic process are conducted. Some walk around the crime scenes, talk with surviving witnesses, and generally look at the ceiling until analytical inspiration strikes. This man Bun is far more active, physically replaying the crimes, where necessary using his finger as if it was a gun and threatening to shoot people. The camera shifts point of view so we see the detective re-enacting the crimes on the street, in a bank, a convenience store, and so on. But we also see the crimes as he sees them, and understand why he’s able to make the deductions. However, not only does he recreate crimes in his mind, he’s also accompanied by a woman he believes is his wife. They have a very strong relationship with her able to give him a better sense of balance about the world. Finally, he sees people not as unique individuals, but as the embodiment of sometimes multiple personalities. This is somewhat confusing because, for example, when he looks at the police officer, Ko Chi-wai (Ka Tung Lam), who was the partner of the missing detective, he sees seven separate personalities. Each one of these personalities is given a physical reality when we see Chi-wai from Bun’s point of view.
In a scene near the end, we have a rerun of the shootout in a room of mirrors. This is a terrible cliché but, in this instance, it’s more interesting because, as the mirror fragments fall to the ground, we get to see different characters reflected in the shards. It represents a compelling way of capturing the notion that a person’s mind can be fractured into separate personalities. However the directors couldn’t make up their minds how to use the different elements. The result is a confusing lack of consistency which prevents the film from achieving any degree of coherence. There should be a rigorous separation of points of view so that we only see the alternate personalities when Bun is actively involved in each scene. That way we can understand how and why he relates to the young detective as if the latter is literally a young boy and why the fictitious woman has replaced his real-world wife. But we see different personalities offering help and advice when he’s not in shot. These “characters” appear in the cast list. Hence, for example, Suet Lam and Jay Lau play two of the personalities “existing” within Chi-wai’s mind, and we see them interacting and talking to Chi-wai. This breaks the convention and spoils the logic of the film. Are we to assume Chi-wai and other characters have comparable multiple personality disorders when we see the world from their point of view? The directors can’t have it both ways. Either everyone is crazy and has multiple personalities, or the ingenuity of the plot device with Bun able to detect multiple personalities is lost.
This is a shame because the disappearance of the police officer and the continuing use of his gun are the basis of an interesting puzzle to solve. With more discipline to show the mind of a mentally disordered retired detective at work, Mad Detective or San taam could have been a very good film. Sadly, it just ends up being a bit silly.