Tone is one of the most important though less-commonly discussed facets of filmmaking, one that is almost entirely disregarded in Johnnie To‘s fascinating mess, Blind Detective, an entry into the Cannes Film Festival’s small MidnightScreenings branch.
Chong (Andy Lau) is the titular blind detective, a formerly-sighted member of his profession who, in light of the blinding incident, takes on missions of his own accord, much to his frustration. His partner is Tung (Sammi Cheng), an incompetent rookie cop who wants to enhance her detective skills, and so goes about trying to solve the 1997 disappearance of her childhood friend Minnie. Along the way, the pair encounter far more than they bargained for, making this would-be training exercise a very real assignment indeed.
Even audiences acquainted with To’s work are likely to find his latest effort particularly demented, meshing silly slapstick with grisly murder in a mix that less beguiles and more sours, in part due to the unreasonable 129-minute runtime, outstaying its welcome by a good forty. The meandering approach only exacerbates what can best be described as a complete tonal failure; one minute To has his characters re-enacting crimes by way of slapstick violence, and the next attempts to broach genuinely savage, violent murder with a not-so-healthy dose of cannibalism. It places an uneasy air around the picture which will confuse many viewers even if only at a sub-conscious level.
Lau is unquestionably a talented actor, though his skill-set isn’t best harnessed here, more a result of the film’s script than anything, which sends Lau – and, to be honest, pretty much everyone else also – into a hyper-active mode of affectation, spending far too much of their screen time screaming as loudly as possible like an on-call court jester. The result is that the film feels very much like an attention-seeking child, begging your approval, though only losing your favor the longer it persists.
A few nice ideas do abound, specifically the buddy teaming of Lau and Cheng, each character mirroring the other’s flaws; Chong is blind yet insightful, while Tung is able to do the heavy lifting, though lacks the analytical insight to be a great detective. It’s a unique pairing that has its own charms – largely due to the easy chemistry between the actors – though usually ends up suffocated beneath the noisy, charmless comic shtick.
To the director’s credit, the film is sumptuously filmed, and 99% of the complaints are with Wai Ka-fai‘s script, which hurls a scarcely coherent mixture at the wall and simply hopes that some of it sticks. However, it’s difficult to imagine anyone coming away from the film fulfilled; the slapstick works for kids, the violence for adults, but nothing for everyone. It is a daring if totally misguided hybrid of two very different films that may suffice for the director’s fans, though will likely be remembered as a sloppy curio farce above all else.
The Upside: The deranged humor does raise a few laughs, and the performers – especially Lau – do well with what they have.
The Downside: The tonal mixture does not work at all, and the film’s runtime is woefully self-indulgent.
On the Side: Blind Detective marks the seventh time that Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng have played love interests on screen.