By Chuck Williamson
In Blind Detective, Johnnie To reunites with Hong Kong megastars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng for a screwball-mystery-thriller that’s one wire fox terrier and two working retinas away from becoming a Cantonese Nick and Nora Charles redux. Lau and Cheng effortlessly infuse To’s film — itself a slapstick variation on 2007’s Mad Detective with a splash of Milky Way rom-com froth — with an infectious charm and comic interplay, recalling some of the sudsy joie de vivre of MGM’s Thin Man series. Trading in the bottomless highballs for crab legs and mango-flavored ice-cream, the pair slip into the sort of flirtatious repartee and screwball antics that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Nick and Nora drawing room mystery.
Blind Detective, for the most part, leans less on its genre mechanics than on the romantic tête–à–tête of its leads. Continually sidelining its mystery-thriller narrative (scripted by Milky Way mainstay Wai Ka-Fai), it swerves headfirst into comic tangents purposefully designed to show off their sparkling chemistry and playful streak of rom-com animosity. At the same time, Lau and Cheng also bring to To’s film an element of mischief and madcap physicality, swinging from the rafters in a fashion far removed from the urbane, martini-soaked stylings of their classic Hollywood counterparts. Blind Detective amplifies their romantic sparring into a punchdrunk brand of physical histrionics, letting their screwball antagonism teeter somewhere on the edge of literal combat.
A “whodunnit” prone to rambling excursions and comic digression, To’s film epitomises the sort of episodic reel-to-reel plotting David Bordwell describes as a common component of mainstream HK cinema. At its most basic level, Blind Detective concerns Johnston (Lau), the eponymous super-sleuth, who ekes out a living by cracking cold cases with his preternatural deductive skills (visualised here as a sort of extrasensory sight-beyond-sight). Johnston quickly finds an unlikely protégée in Ho (Cheng), a junior police investigator haunted by the decades-old disappearance of her childhood friend. Ho hires Johnston to help her investigate this mystery and soon becomes something of an ersatz apprentice, honing her detective skills under his “tough love” tutelage. From there, the film leapfrogs over its procedural setup into a series of broadly comic set-pieces, exhibiting an almost punk rock disregard for narrative cohesion or tonal consistency. Skirting away from more straight-laced mystery-thriller conventions, Blind Detective thumbs its nose at the exigencies of economical storytelling and spirals out into a thousand different (and only tangentially related) directions. Through it all, Lau and Cheng trade barbs and faceplant with aggressive comic gusto, unleashing an arsenal of pratfalls, facial tics, and pantomimic horseplay that compliments the film’s preoccupation with the broad spectrums of violence.
This, as it turns out, might be the method behind Johnnie To’s madness. Falling squarely within the HK cinema tradition of tonal whiplash, To’s film does not skirt around its potentially off-putting synthesis of frothy screwball comedy and hard-edged crime procedural, but rather calibrates the two halves for maximum discomfort. To’s refusal to scrub away the grime-flecked textures or tone down the harsh metallic blue lighting — even during the film’s crudest comminglings of broad comedy and blunt violence — creates a purposeful disconnect, a seams-out admixture where the film’s two conflicting tones might smash into one another. Blind Detective plays with the contrast between benign or flirtatious forms of violence and its annihilative extremes, often letting rough-and-tumble slapstick slide effortlessly into self-flagellation and abuse. This unsettling contrast is perhaps put to best use in an early comic set-piece, where Johnston and Ho wreak havoc in a morgue as they attempt to reconstruct the crime scene of an unsolved murder. A masterpiece of choreographed mayhem and comic juxtaposition, this sequence pairs up full-contact slapstick with scenes of outright sadism; the two flail around and pummel one another like Keystone Kops, playing to the back row as they transform this brutal crime (of which we see only isolated snippets, intercut to hilariously jarring effect) into a vulgar comic burlesque.
Even the film’s central relationship gradually transforms into romantic trial by fire, a courtship fraught with violence and haunted by past traumas. This is, after all, a film where would-be lovers two-step their way through a rooftop acid attack, where sexual rejection turns slapstick recreations of self-harm into the genuine article, where life-and-death encounters with serial killers prompt last-minute confessions of love. In the world of Blind Detective, love will (quite literally) tear us apart.
Chuck Williamson is a film critic for the magazine.