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Cannes 2013. Dialogues: Johnnie To's "Blind Detective"

Adam Cook & Daniel Kasman discuss Johnnie To's madcap new film, a crime-comedy-romance that (joyously) doesn't know when to quit.

BLIND DETECTIVE (JOHNNIE TO, HONG KONG)
MIDNIGHT PROJECTIONS

The second in our series of Cannes dialogues between Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman is on Johnnie To's Blind Detective, which screened out of competition as a Midnight Projection.

ADAM COOK: Blind Detective stands out among Johnnie To’s recent work as one of his most outlandish and over-the-top films. In some ways, it feels like it meets halfway between his earlier comedies, made before he became such a rigorous craftsmen, and his present formalism. That being said, it retains a certain looseness and spontaneity that distinguishes it from just about anything he's made. How do you define this film within his oeuvre? 

DANIEL KASMAN: I've seen a lot of To but not in any way a majority, and have especially large gaps in his earlier work (80s thru early 90s) and in a certain amount of comedies which certainly never make it over to the US officially. This is definitely a shining example of his sublimely burlesque comedy. I'm not sure I'd say his latest work is more formalist than his earlier films, but you are right, this feels considerably more loose than his recent, archly formal films (action movie Drug War, melodrama Romancing in Thin Air, romantic comedy Don't Go Breaking My Heart). This has a rambling kind of feel, episodes and jokes piled on one another with plotting left huffing and puffing behind—quintessentially the fingerprints of co-writer and co-producer Wai Kar-fai, who really brings welcome weirdness to To's storytelling and mise en scène. Here Wai seems to nearly be given full conceptual reign. Set pieces aren't action based but rather grossly comedic. The central conceit of Andy Lau being a blind investigator is itself a constant expert and charming performance piece of comedy. This starting point is gloriously complicated in a manner making this the spiritual (in both senses of the word) sequel to the Wai co-directed Mad Detective, because here blind Andy seems to be able to have inspiring visions of the solutions to crimes...except the solutions are nearly always wrong. Combined with a buddy-cop romance with Sammi Cheng, the movie charmingly lurches from one episode and gag to another, one genre to another. (The pattern-like movement of the plot, even in its looseness, still has the musical structuralism of To: theme and variation.) It even gets very, very dark.

COOK: Lau's blindness is really cleverly integrated into every decision in the film from a narrative and directorial perspective—it's what guides the movie's style. I was taken aback by how the film comes out swinging comedically and never lets up, setting up a frantic pace of gags that Lau and Sammi Cheng skillfully realize. Indeed, Wai Ka-fai's brain seems to be the source for most of the film's ideas. I'm thinking of the way Lau's character tries to teach Cheng how to get in the head of the criminal and how to interact with a crime scene in order to piece together what happened. The result is something like a method acting lesson in which they each act out the parts of murderer and victim in a morgue. Also, I don't know who else could come up with an action scene in which two characters dance in order to dodge projectile sulfuric acid being flung in their direction. This is, simply put, one of To's purely fun—and surprising—movies. I never could get a handle on exactly where it was going, either tonally or in terms of its storytelling. In spirit, it made me think of Howard Hawks' Monkey Business with Andy Lau hamming it up not unlike Cary Grant. As always, it seems difficult not to link To to classical Hollywood.

KASMAN: Monkey Business is a great touchstone here. The self-awareness of the actors within an absurdity which is nevertheless sold convincingly is quite similar to Hawks' up-play of hamminess for effect (and, a bit later than that film, distancing and commentary). The rooftop meet-cute action-dance you mention is emblematic of the gag-style: virtuosic, movement based, antic in energy and rambunctious in tone. I can't get over the fact that one of the overriding concepts of the film—Lau's blindness gives him crime-solving vision, and that he is teaching this to Cheng—is continually undercut. Action is staged and restaged based on evolving fantasies. The man is simply hallucinating—but with a heart. It's quite a warm film, which is a welcome relief for me at least, because I found both Don't Go Breaking My Heart and Romancing in Thin Air very cerebral in tone (this may be related to their extreme application of formalism, though I assume you disagree on their feeling). This is never not charming, and never not knowingly silly. There are some interesting production details: a Chinese co-production necessitates random excusions to the Mainland (which seems populated only by adulterers, a serial killer, and ex-cab drivers in various states of personal failure); and, unless my eyes deceive me, this is shot digitally and some of it looks very digital, in a way that doesn't quite work with the sublime gloss To usually applies to his 'scope frames. Lau and Cheng sometimes feel laid bare in the sun, and Blind Detective escapes the artifice of its movieness and resembles some shoddy TV production. Yet in a way this feeds back into the film, into its greater sense of freedom, its silliness, its can-do attitude willing to try pretty much anything.

COOK: His blindness, and unnatural crime-solving ability, is an ingenious MacGuffin of sorts. It makes little sense but I never questioned it. You're right to assume I feel differently about his recent melodramas—I actually feel the weight of their romances more, even as it deconstructs them formally. Here though, it's the film itself that is romance: its constant barrage of off-the-wall humour and implausible situations come from a place of such goofy conviction, it's a cinema of such endearing abandon. As far as the film's digital sheen, it actually may be worth noting that we saw this film in the Salle Bazin, a smaller auditorium in the Palais that I've noticed has a problematic projection. During Jia Zhangke's Touch of Sin, seen in the same spot, there was a blurring that somewhat compromised the properties of the image. So, it's possible this played a role in your impression. That being said, we're definitely a long ways away from the unmistakeably celluloid texture of Breaking News, Mad Detective, Sparrow, etc. 

KASMAN: You could be right about the digital look being projections problems and not qualities of the film; these days it is impossible to tell, which is incredibly frustrating. I saw the same blurriness in Touch of Sin, but it was projected in a different theater. Was that, then, a DCP problem? Who knows. Blind Detective seems to be dismissed by a large number of critics here in Cannes. I would assume this may be related to the fact To's international reputation is fundamentally founded not upon his genre work, but rather his work in masculine genre worlds: thrillers, action movies, etc. If one were to only regard To from the viewpoint of his international releases (though I assume his comedies and romances get wide play around Asia), no doubt Blind Detective's rampant zaniness and lack of narrative rigor could be baffling. But the fact is that the Festival de Cannes always lacks both genre films in general and comedies specifically. This is why last year the two most refreshing highlights were Miike's exuberant For Love's Sake and Hong Sang-soo's hilarious In Another Country. One gets the feeling, at a festival where pomp, prestige and self-seriousness are the overriding atmosphere, that a film like this is unclean, desecrating the reputation of the art of the cinema. Or perhaps Cannes audiences just have lousy senses of humor. Viewing cinema is always a subjective experience, even if we may pretend it's not; and nothing is more subjective than what one finds funny (or not). Still, it isn't just that Blind Detective is a riot, but that To's orchestration of its hijinks has its own pleasures and expressions.  Part of watching a To film, like for example watching a Steven Soderbergh film (to approach this from a very different angle), is in watching and admiring how To actually makes the film. They always seem like problems that need to be solved by cinema.

COOK: ...And in the middle of the conversation we've discovered the film was shot on 35mm, so that certainly highlights the key role projection circumstances play in the aesthetic impression of a film. It's funny that there's always this resistance to genre (fun?) in film festivals, and especially here in Cannes. The irony is that I think Blind Detective may be the most texturally rich and structurally complex film I've seen here. It has the most going on, not just in terms of story, but in the details of its execution, and yet it's received on a lesser scale than some fairly dull, obvious, and ultimately, easier films, that have played here. There's no doubt in my mind that out of every film I've seen here the two that required the most filmic skill to make were Miike's Shield of Straw and Blind Detective. Both are infinitely more inventive and creative than Farhadi's The Past, for example, and yet there's this default position toward these films, determined by the caché of their subject matter. Moreover, it may be Farhadi's film, of these three, that really does nothing, and suffers from its contrivances—meanwhile, Miike's and To's films survive their plot-holes or implausibilities because they act as nothing more than mere mechanics, an excuse to get at what films at Cannes should be getting at: cinema, its expressive capacities, and testing the limits thereof. 

Keep up the wonderful coverage, guys! And it’s really refreshing to read a take on Shield of Straw that goes against the grain. I hope a longer analysis is somewhere in the horizon! I’m glad to hear that Miike and To both delivered for you. Most of the critics at Cannes never seem to know what to do with either auteur. Well, most of the critics at Cannes never seem to know how to talk about film, in general.

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