Credit: SDAFF
by Daniel Gorman Film

Detectives vs. Sleuths — Wai Ka-Fai [SDAFF ’22 Review]

November 17, 2022

Writer/director Wai Ka-fai is likely best known in the West for his collaborations with Johnnie To and their Milkyway Image production house (which the duo co-founded). To has enjoyed significantly more distribution in America than Wai, probably something to do with that old chestnut about comedy from different cultures not traveling well. Indeed, while To is celebrated as an action auteur, his films written by Wai are delightfully eccentric, frequently straddling the line between serious drama, crime procedural, and slapstick-inspired antics. Wai’s new solo project, Detective vs. Sleuths, is something of a companion piece to these earlier films with To, namely Mad Detective (2007) and Blind Detective (2013). It’s a loose, thematically linked pseudo-trilogy, involving police officers with unique abilities that are as absurd as they are psychologically debilitating. Mad Detective involves an officer who can see suspects’ true inner selves; when he begins tracking a killer with multiple personalities, the film visualizes it by surrounding the criminal with other actors. Blind Detective finds, you guessed it, a blind officer who can recreate crime scenes in his mind. Detective vs. Sleuths follows this lineage with an incredibly convoluted plot and a complicated visual schema that literalizes on screen what our intrepid — but possibly insane — detective senses while investigating a series of linked crimes.

To/Wai mainstay Lau Ching-wan plays Jun Lee, a former detective who was kicked off the force after claiming that the police botched two important cases, shown via flashbacks during a brief prologue. One, dubbed “The Butcher,” involved police finding a field full of corpses and then shooting the prime suspect in front of his young daughter. The other, dubbed “The Devil Cop” case, is shown in more elaborate detail; a masked man guns down two beat cops while using a third as a human shield. He then arranges all three bodies to make it look like one of the cops killed the other two. Lee doesn’t buy the official story in either of the cases, and bursts into a press conference shouting wild theories while waving a gun around. He’s shot and wounded, and the film jumps ahead 17 years.

Now, the lone survivor of The Butcher case, Chan (Charlene Choi), has grown up to become a policewoman. She’s married to Fong Lai Shun (Raymond Lam), the cop who rescued her all those years ago. They begin investigating a murder scene that has police file numbers spray painted on the ground, recognizing them as old cases belonging to Jun Lee. Reluctantly deciding to enlist his help, they find him living on the streets in a makeshift hovel surrounded by his old case files, strewn about like one of those interlocked conspiracy theory vision boards. Soon enough, a group of killers calling themselves  “The Chosen Sleuths” begin killing more people.

The catch is that they all worship Jun Lee, believing his theories as to the real identities of various murderers, and blaming the police for either pinning the crimes on the wrong people or not solving them at all. Further complicating matters is Jun Lee’s abilities to see the victims of the Chosen Sleuths, both before and after they’ve been killed. It’s as bizarre as it sounds — a vigilante group hunting down killers using a former cop’s files, while that same former cop speaks to the victims (all murderers themselves) in an effort to apprehend their killers. Confused? It’s a lot of information at first, but Wai keeps things moving swiftly yet clearly. Eventually, the true identity of the Chosen Sleuth’s leader is revealed, and both The Butcher and The Devil Cop cases become important parts of this vast, winding narrative. No one is who they seem, and the grand mastermind behind it all has everyone hoodwinked.

It’s thrilling to watch Wai put all these puzzle pieces together, juggling various narrative threads and weaving together an intricate web of deceit and obfuscation. Working with another longtime Milkyway collaborator, cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung, Wai paints Hong Kong as a decrepit, neon-lit hell hole. Fittingly, Cheng also shot Soi Cheang’s Limbo, and while that film is in black and white, it shares with Detective vs. Sleuths a visual density and emphasis on texture that links the two in interesting ways. Every dark alley is a potential crime scene, and behind the glistening steel and glass high-rises lies nothing but the debris and detritus of a collapsing society. The increasingly chaotic action set pieces show just how far Wai is willing to go to elicit some shocks from audiences, as both cops and criminals are gunned down by the dozens, while a pregnant woman (and later her newborn child) are constantly put in harm’s way.

The film’s finale, set in a hollowed-out, rusted ship graveyard, lasts forever and involves a ludicrous amount of pyrotechnics. It would all be funny if it wasn’t so deadly serious, an apocalyptic bout of frenzied violence that rivals the end of To’s Drug War for unbridled, everyone-dies nihilism. The film’s seeming contradictions are encapsulated nicely by Lau’s dedicated, unhinged lead performance. His banter with the “ghosts” that only he can see teeters on the absurd, and his frequent outbursts are tilted toward the broadly comedic, but he’s surrounded by so much death and destruction that it all becomes tragic rather than funny. Even the film’s final shot, ostensibly a moment of triumph, likewise suggests an ongoing madness that cannot end. Wai is a magician and has here crafted one of the year’s best, most kinetic action movies, one that leaves you absolutely miserable once it’s over.

Published as part of SDAFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.