To state the blatantly obvious, Hong Kong cinema the way it was in the late 80s and early 90s is never, ever going to come back. Nor for that matter is the Hollywood of the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls era. That’s why I eventually just gave up on fool’s game of constantly bemoaning the current state of Hong Kong films and waiting for some kind of mythical revival. The economics of the world we live in are such that there’s not going to be a whole lot of awesome films made anywhere anymore.
But that’s exactly why going to the cinema and watching Johnnie To’s new one “Blind Detective” last weekend was such a pleasant surprise. I’m one of the world’s biggest Johnnie To fans and have dutifully tried to watch as much of his oeuvre from the last two decades as I can. Said oeuvre has of course tended towards sombre crime dramas with a relatively high dose of social realism (at least by Hong Kong standards). On the other hand, this new one is a quirky one-off which single-handedly makes you almost belive for a moment that the early 90s are back in Hong Kong cinema. Far removed from almost any other Johnnie To movie I’ve seen, it’s essentially Johnnie trying his hand at a genre-hopping farce that the likes of Wong Jing used to pump out during the golden era. Wong Jing is of course still around himself but hasn’t made anything really interesting for a long, long time.
Apparently, the script for this film was produced by four different writers, and that does show in the schizophrenic nature of the story. Part macabre police procedural about a serial-killer bumping off heart-broken women, part cheesy rom-com pairing Andy Lau’s eponymous blind detective (hilariously named “Johnston Chong”) with Sammi Cheng’s feisty but inept policewoman, plus myriad other confusing sub-plots including one which finally ties some of it together at the end. On paper this would look like the biggest pile of ridiculous garbage ever, but on screen it works because of the sheer exuberant energy brought by the director and Andy Lau. Johnnie To sets up slapstick set-pieces based around the Cantonese love of watching people beat the crap out of each other and yell really, really loud. Meanwhile Andy absolutely relishes the chance to ham it up as the romantically frustrated blind detective, in the most comical role I’ve seen him in for a long time. Seems like this film has got fairly mixed reviews online, with a lot of critics dismissing the genre-hoping aspect of the film as a turn-off. You absolute morons – the pursuit of great entertainment with an absolute disregard for genre was what many of the great Hong Kong films of the golden age were all about.
To sum up, a tremendously entertaining film that’s almost like a golden age Hong Kong flick with a dash of Takashi Miike added, but being a Hong Kong commercial film still bizarrely wrapping-up on a wholesome family oriented note.
Given that most of the people involved here are industry veterans, there’s no way you could really say this points to some sort of renaissance of the Hong Kong golden age (damn, I said I wasn’t going to fall into that trap). Still I doubt there will be a better Hong Kong film this year, though I’m still nursing hopes for the imminent release of Sex Duties Unit.