I’d heard of Johnnie To before I ever went to the Vancouver Film Festival, having read David Bordwell on him at his website. I’d even seen a few of his movies before: dubbed versions of the Heroic Trio films during my first brush with Hong Kong movies in the late 90s, and Election 2 on Instant Netflix (under its American release title, Triad Election, I watched it not knowing it was a sequel). But seeing Sparrow at my first trip to VIFF in 2008 was a revelation. I knew To as a Hong Kong action director, John Woo with more shadows, less Chow Yun-Fat. But Sparrow was something else entirely, that same heroic bloodshed world but with a Jacques Demy twist. Light, colorful, whimsical and warm. In the years since, I’ve dipped in and out of To’s Milkyway world (including a lengthy run through his filmography earlier this year, in preparation for a They Shot Pictures episode about him), loving almost all I’ve seen, including Written By by his longtime collaborator Wai Ka-fai, which I saw at VIFF 2009. I missed Vengeance that year and Drug War last year (though I caught up with them a few months later at the San Francisco and Seattle Film Festivals, respectively. Neither fest holds a candle to VIFF, of course) and, much to my dismay, my train leaves town in the middle of the screening of his latest film, Blind Detective at this year’s VIFF. So, as part of my warm-up for the festival, resorted to other means to see it (it’s out on Blu-Ray in Hong Kong already, pretty easy to find).
The big draw in Blind Detective is the reunion of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng. Pop stars and cultural icons, it was the series of romantic comedies they made with To in the early 2000s that essentially saved his Milkyway Image company from collapse. The first few years of the studio saw the release of several dark gangster dramas, mostly ghost-directed by To, that failed to find much of an audience. But Needing You, an office romance with Lau and Cheng, proved to be a big hit and for years thereafter To would mix wacky romances in with his more serious crime films. Cheng and Lau each made six films with To from 2000 to 2004, including two where they were paired together (Love on a Diet and Yesterday Once More). But after 2004 neither worked with To again until 2012’s Romancing in Thin Air (in which Cheng stars opposite Louis Koo, who is playing a very Andy Lau-type movie star). This period also coincides with a more serious turn in To’s work. From 2005 until 2011, he didn’t make a single romantic comedy, and with the notable exception of Sparrow, the films are serious melodramas (albeit often darkly sardonic ones) all taking place in the triad gangster world (except for the strangely inert romantic drama Linger, from 2008, a more straightforward, less interesting version of the 2002 Cheng vehicle My Left Eyes Sees Ghosts). But in 2011, To returned to the romance genre with the lush screwball Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and 2012’s meta-epic Romancing in Thin Air.
Johnnie To’s filmography is so dense and so vast, that part of the fun of each new release is in finding the connections between it and his previous work. Drug War, for example, forms part of a trilogy with Expect the Unexpected and PTU, each film a procedural following a team of cops tracking a group of criminals and ending in a dramatic gunfight. The 2009 film Vengeance forms a rough trilogy about groups of hitmen with The Mission and Exiled, all ultimately about the pointlessness of the revenge demands in the Triad honor code. Similarly, both his 2011 films deal with the fallout of the financial crisis, with Life Without Principle‘s crime drama highlighting its effects on the various middle and criminal classes and drawing somewhat unexpected parallels between them, where Don’t Go Breaking My Heart uses the crisis as a plot point that barely registers as a blip in the lives of its upper class financier characters, consciously recalling the fanciful milieux of Depression Era screwball comedies. Romancing in Thin Air is a summarizing film, one that incorporates and synthesizes elements of romantic films from throughout To’s career into a single grand statement on the cathartic power of cinema; it’s To’s 2046. Blind Detective presents a couple of interesting contrasts. The most obvious is with 2007’s Mad Detective, which has a similar title and is also the story of a young cop enlisting the eponymous former cop to help solve a recent crime. Lau Ching Wan’s Mad Detective approaches his investigations with the same techniques as Andy Lau’s Blind Detective: he goes through the criminals’ motions until he sees exactly what they did, and we see his vision of the recreation on-screen. These visions recall as well Running on Karma, in which Andy Lau plays a former monk who can see people’s karma, the crimes they committed in past lives. Again, he’s called in to help a young detective solve a crime. Like that film as well, there’s a strong romantic element to Blind Detective, though it’s played here as comedy where in Karma it’s tragedy (there’s a smaller tragic love story in Mad Detective as well). The new film then represents not only the third part of a “vision”-based crime solving trilogy, but a synthesis of To’s comedies with his crime films. (Yesterday Once More accomplished something similar, in combining elements of the romantic comedies with To’s Running Out of Time caper films). The violence in these films is at times stomach churning, the dark and depraved killings clashing tonally with the wide-open romanticism of To’s heroes, as if to say “the world is scary and terrible, but. . .”
Most interesting to me is the formal contrast between Blind Detective and Drug War. The latter might be To’s tersest film: its characters are almost entirely defined by action, with no back story, no history, no personal lives or small talk. They are professionals, cops and criminals alike, and the story is relentlessly forward-moving, like the long non-stop drives the cops must endure as they crisscross the country pursuing the crooks, it never lets up until the explosive finale. Blind Detective, though, meanders here and there, taking its time, losing itself down subplots of other, unrelated crimes actual (with To stalwart Lam Suet) and romantic (with Gao Yuanyuan, who sparkled in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart but is clearly outshone by Cheng here) all while indulging in Andy Lau’s prodigious appetite (this may be the most food-obsessed of all Johnnie To’s movies, even more so than Love on a Diet, which was largely about Andy and Sammi wearing fat suits and eating everything they came across). Where Drug War is tension and suspense and momentum, Blind Detective is leisurely digression. It’s the Hatari! to Drug War‘s Scarface.
Similarly, Andy Lau’s performance is in contrast to his prior work. His character resembles the one he played in Tsui Hark’s very popular Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Like that film, Blind Detective is a mystery rather than a noirish gangster melodrama like most of To’s crime films, and Lau plays the Holmes/Poirot figure. But where Detective Dee matches Lau’s suave star persona, the Blind Detective is something new. He looks and dresses like the coolest guy on the planet Andy Lau of previous To collaborations Running Out of Time and Yesterday Once More, but he’s wildly antic, shouting his lines and gleefully running with abandon from one inspiration to the next. (One of the film’s best jokes involves someone finding Lau’s partner, Guo Tao, to be the “cool” one of the pair). At times Lau almost seems to be parodying Lau Ching Wan’s manic To performances (most obviously the one in Mad Detective). More than 30 years after his breakthrough in Ann Hui’s Boat People, I can’t recall a more buoyant, more childlike, more aggressively open Andy Lau.
At over two hours long, this is one of the longest of Johnnie To’s films (they usually clock in around 100 minutes). It’s even longer than the Sammi Cheng-starring wuxia farce Wu yen, a similarly digressive tale, but one that tends to sag with the accumulation of subplots and wild gags. Blind Detective never drags. The more time we get to hang out with Andy and Sammi, the better. And the more romantic comedies from Johnnie To, the better as well. For too long they’ve been shunted aside in favor of the supposedly more “serious” crime films. His next film is Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, and I can’t wait.