Synopsis: 2007’s largest grossing film at the Hong Kong box office – the smash-hit Mad Detective – is one of the freshest and most satisfying films from that country in a decade. The traditional Hong Kong police film is turned on its head: the imaginative twist being Detective Bun (a role created for Lau Ching Wan) who has the ability to ‘see’ people’s inner personalities or ‘hidden ghosts’. Breaking new ground and establishing breathtaking cinematic rules, Johnnie To’s latest giddily entertaining collaboration with Wai Ka Fai radically raises the level of storytelling in modern film.
Sun taam 8.0
eyelights: its unique concept. its style.
eyesores: the lazy writing that its concept engenders.
‘Sun taam’ is a film that I never saw coming. In fact, until a few days ago, I had no idea that it even existed: a friend lent it to my gf the other day, suggesting that she watch it. His gf also recommended it. I have no idea how they heard of it and how they got their hands on it, but it’s not even available in the US. This copy was a barebones Canadian DVD.
However they found it, I’m really glad that they tossed it our way: ‘San taam’ is one of the most original crime stories in a while – certainly since Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy‘. It’s not an especially well-written or directed film, but what it has on offer is a very unique perspective: a protagonist who is, for all intents and purposes, schizophrenic.
Our hero, Bun, is a former inspector who had become a legend in the police force for solving unsolvable crimes. Time and time again, due to an ability to extract clues in the most unconventional and abstract fashion, he would bring criminals to justice. He was a superstar until the day that, inexplicably, he offered up his ear as a going away present to his supervisor.
Forced into retirement, and separated from his wife, he has been languishing. One day, he is sought out by Ho Ka-On, a younger detective who has always admired his work. Unable to solve a case he’s working on, Ho asks Bun to help him piece it together. From that moment on, Ho is ((and, by extension, we are) privy to the madness that infects Bun’s every move.
There’s not a lot that can be said about ‘Sun taam’ that isn’t spoiler-heavy, thereby ruining the suspense, so I will try to keep to the main conceit: that of Bun’s condition, which is both an ability and an ailment.
From the start, we are witness to strange behaviour: Bun stabs a pig’s carcass repeatedly while crying, much to the dismay of supervising officers, Bun asks one of his colleagues to zip him up in a suitcase and throw him down the stairs, thereby providing him with clues. Then comes his grisly gift to his supervisor – by far the most disturbing moment of the film.
Although we know that Bun is disturbed, we don’t necessarily know what is going on inside his head. At least not yet. Over the course of the film, we begin to understand one aspect of his ailment: he is able to see the inner lives of the people he comes in contact with. At first it is unclear that these people are manifestations of his mind, but it becomes apparent soon enough.
It’s a visually interesting touch as well as a terrific plot device: characters are frequently played by different actors to match their inner selves, which can change at any moment, depending on circumstances – one character, a suspect, has seven inner selves struggling together at any given time. It can make for some fascinating sequences when Bun is interacting with them.
The problem with using this sketchy gimmick is that it allows for some weak writing: given that everything goes on in Bun’s mind and much of it is inexplicable, the writers have a tendency to simply write his behaviour off as “crazy” and don’t bother to justify anything to us. Sometimes Bun just looks at a news articles and clutches the answer out of thin air, with no explanation to us or the other investigators.
And what about his gift to his departing superior? What made him think that cutting of his ear would be a cherished and/or appropriate gesture? When asked by Ho what the story behind that was, all Bun can reply is that “it was a gift”. Um, no guff, genius! I think that we had all understood that by now. Surely the filmmakers didn’t think that we hadn’t clued in, did they?
But, let’s say for the sake of argument, that Ho’s question was too broad, and that there was room for Bun to misunderstand its meaning. Well, why didn’t Ho clear that up right after, asking a more precise follow-up question? As an investigator, you would think that he’d be used to being more inquisitive. Except that he doesn’t ask, leaving it for all of us to just keep wondering.
Which leads me to the one big question that lingers in this whole film: What about the body?
‘Sun taam’ revolves around a disappearance and potential murder. Throughout the picture, the police keep searching the woods for a body or a burial place for it; even though they’ve been through it countless times, they haven’t found a clue. At some point, it is established that the person they seek has indeed been murdered in the woods. Except that we never find out what the killer did with the body – how did he/she hide any evidence of foul play?
Again, that’s a problem with the writing. It’s so focused on the gimmick that it doesn’t tie up the ends that come loose in the course of its 90-minute runtime. In fact, the whole ending becomes one big jumbled mess of contrivances, which sort of spoils what could have been a twisted but excellent police procedural. How it won multiple Best Screenplay awards is beyond me.
Having said that, the ‘Sun taam’ does a fine job of exploring the characters’ humanity to a larger degree than many of these films do, and that’s a major boon. It also features an excellent cast and some creative direction by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai (who have been writing-directing partners over the course of many years, and on many motions pictures).
Despite the loose writing, ‘Sun taam’ is an engaging and entertaining crime-drama with just enough twists and action to make it exciting. The concept alone is so very cool that it’s a wonder that they didn’t make a sequel or spin-off to it yet. There’s surely many more ways that an insane detective could solve crimes and wow audiences, so why not make a series of it?
I might not be mad for them, but, If they were all of equal or superior quality, I would watch all of them without reserve.
Date of viewing: July 6+7, 2013