Blind Detective: Cannes Review

Blind Detective Cannes Midnight Screening Still - H 2013
Festival de Cannes/PA

Blind Detective Cannes Midnight Screening Still - H 2013

Tiresomely frenetic crime-comedy-romance has strong commercial prospects at home in Hong Kong but will elsewhere induce more groans than guffaws.

Hong Kong superstars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng reunite for their seventh big-screen collaboration in Johnnie To's comedy thriller, premiering in Cannes' Midnight Screenings.

Hong Kong director Johnnie To's search for laughs takes him from cornea to cornier in Blind Detective (Man tam), a cartoonishly broad mashup of genres that mistakes hectic shrillness for comic energy. But as the first collaboration of HK superstars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng in nearly a decade, it has the makings of a solid summer box-office proposition in the territory -- especially in the wake of To's 2012 money-spinner Drug War. Overseas commercial prospects are much dicier, but To's cultish reputation among international cinephiles makes it easy to envisage more than a smattering of festival bookings over the coming months.

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This is the seventh collaboration overall between the versatile Lau and sparky Cheng, and their fourth with To -- the last time that the so-called "box office golden team" worked together was 2004's Yesterday Once More. And while multi-award-winning singer/actor Lau has maintained his usual Stakhanovite work-rate in the interim, 'Queen of Pop' Cheng's big-screen appearances have been more intermittent -- To's Romancing in Thin Air was touted last year as a 'comeback' role."

And once more, the duo make for an appealing double act: Lau as former cop Chong (Anglicized as 'Johnston' in the Cannes subtitles) and Cheng as serving-officer 'Goldie' Ho. Chong/Johnston lost his sight four years ago. Since then, he's made a living from the bounties on long-abandoned cold cases. Chong/Johnston's heightened remaining senses are less of a factor in his success than his remarkable, quasi-supernatural powers of deduction, which involve projecting himself mentally into crime scenes to understand the thought processes of the perpetrators. 

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He schools Ho, who has lightning-quick reactions and bull's-eye aim, in his unorthodox approach -- which sees the pair dressing up in all manner of zany costumes as they immerse themselves in their "roles" like overzealous method actors. The actual crimes under investigation, which include a morgue murder and a serial killer targeting lovelorn young women, are primarily an excuse for elaborate, spookily-lit flashbacks and incongruous bloody violence, especially in a third-act sequence in a psychopath's charnel-house lair. 

At such junctures, To relies heavily on Lau's and Cheng's well-established screen presence, though even this expert duo are sometimes allowed to go too far over the top, just as some of the supporting performances cross from the broad to the embarrassingly amateurish. It doesn't help that two actors, including Zi Yi in the quite important role of Johnston/Chong's ex-partner 'Szeto Fatbo,' have had their lines awkwardly post-dubbed by other performers.

This quaint relic of old-style East Asian cinema stands in contrast to the widescreen slickness of Siu Keung Cheng's widescreen cinematography, which exerts appeal throughout this punishingly overlong, overcooked confection. Stir in frequent helpings of larkish blind-man slapstick and what results is a misshapen and unsatisfying stew of different genres. 

This isn't the screen's first example of a sightless investigator, of course. And viewers with long memories may recall that neither of Blind Detective's two main U.S. tube forerunners -- James Franciscus vehicle Longstreet (1971-72) and Steven Bochco's Blind Justice (2005) -- made it to a second season.

Venue:  Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition - Midnight Screenings)

Production companies:  Media Asia, Emperor
Cast:  Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, Suet Lam, Zi Yi, Guo Tao, Gao Yuanyuan
Director:  Johnnie To
Screenwriters:  Ka Fai Wai, Nai Hoi Yau, Ryker Chan, Xi Yu 
Producers:  Johnnie To, Ka Fai Wai
Executive producers:  Song Dai, Peter Lam, Han Sanping, Li Shaohong, Albert Yeung
Director of photography:  Siu Keung Cheng
Production designer:  Bruce Yu
Editors:  Allen Leung, David Richardson
Music:  Hal Foxton Beckett
No MPAA rating, 129 minutes