There are almost 300 films on average scheduled to take part in the 11 days that encompass the Toronto International Film Festival. Dozens of genres from all over the world play during the festival, allowing you to easily explore and discover the work of filmmakers and actors you may have ignored in favour of atypical mainstream US fare. One such auteur that has evaded me is Johnnie To, the acclaimed Hong Kong writer/producer/director. Just mentioning his name in certain company evokes serious discussions of action movies and hard boiled thrillers from the past two decades.
Knowing this, I ventured into To’s latest film, Blind Detective, with a certain amount of excitement and trepidation. Was I setting myself up for failure? I had discovered Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil at the festival in 2010 and adored it for how thrilling and uncompromisingly brutal it was. Would this be a similar, startling discovery?
To save you from disappointment, I will say that I should have started with another To film instead of jumping headfirst into this one.
Johnston (Andy Lau) is the titular blind detective – a former inspector forced to resign, now living his life and making ends meet by solving cold cases for police rewards. After having one large reward taken from him because of his blindness, he encounters Ho (Sammi Cheng), another police inspector. She appreciates his talents, and asks if he would assist her in tracking down an old acquaintance of hers who has been missing for well over a decade.
To tries his best to blend the romantic comedy, buddy cop and thriller genres together for Blind Detective. Save for some small sections, he fails at almost every turn. The film clocks in at 129 minutes, and plays like a random mix of cobbled together ideas and drawn out thoughts. Everything in the movie is connected, but it never seems to answer the question of why or how. They just simply exist until the next random thread is thrown into the picture. Random subplots are thrown in for good measure, but they do nothing for the characters or the encompassing story. They are there simply to pad out the story into something that runs on for far too long and loses track of anything it wants to say.
Worse is how contrived and silly the love story between Johnston and Ho is. The main source of comedy in the film comes from their interactions together, where Johnston is totally oblivious of how madly in love Ho is with him. He puts her through hell, forcing her to inflict numerous acts of violence and torture on herself just to help him solve his cases. We get it: he’s blind and cannot see how gorgeous she is, so he does not care what he does or forces her to do until he finally finds out the truth. This is such brilliant comedy! And while it is fun to watch for a short while, it becomes redundant and just plain mean-spirited all too quickly. Lau and Cheng have a varying amount of fun in their roles, and have great chemistry together. But that can only help satisfy the constraints of the film’s plot for so long. When we have a lead character cut up the entirety of her arm to both prove a point and show how much she loves and cares about another, there is a serious issue with the film.
Not surprisingly, the idea of how Johnston works and solves cases despite his disability is where the film finds its true strength. He stages and recreates the crime scene as best as he can, and then through sound and movement, begins to put together the motives. For some bizarre reason, he even shoehorns himself into the scene and becomes a part of the crime, interacting with everyone else who is involved. These discussions are all really bizarre, but really help strengthen Johnston’s resolve to solve them. To makes all of these scenes very dreamlike in quality, with a washed out and grey tone to each. Seeing Lau interact with these characters is even more curious, as he has the ability to see in these “dreams”, allowing him to have visibly different facial reactions than he does in the scenes where he is blind. It is very interesting to watch play out, and I can only imagine the film would be significantly stronger if there was more emphasis on these sequences.
Overall, Blind Detective is a mess of a film. It has some great ideas and some genuinely funny moments, but it is a ridiculous mash-up of three very different genres that do not all belong together. To can try all he wants to make these elements connect, but his efforts all go to waste. Watch the film for its intriguing crime recreation sequences in the lead character’s mind, but try to ignore everything that happens in-between. Your time will feel a lot less wasted.