The Detective (2007)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-04-22
Oxide Pang returns to the cinematic territory he knows and depicts so well in “The Detective”: the sun washed streets and gloomy alleyways of Bangkok. Aaron Kwok is Tam, the title character. I don't know if Oxide Pang's depiction of the streets of Bangkok is accurate--or would be considered accurate by, for example, a Thai citizen of that city, but it certainly rings true, makes sense and looks authentic. We begin under the credits as Tam awakens in mid-afternoon, pulls himself together, draws the steel gates from his door and turns on the lights of his office. This is clearly not a high rent operation--he turns on a fan that swings back and forth but the blades don't turn, an indication of how most of what he comes into contact with doesn’t work the way it should. Tam is an observer, a watcher and a recorder—he carries a digital camera that he uses constantly, has pictures of one of the murder (or is it really suicide?) victims with many different girlfriends from the dead man’s cell phone and finally solves the case after obsessively looking at one partially burned photo using a mag light, blowing it up on a computer, even using a Holmesian touch with magnifying glass. As the movie progresses there are shocks, moments of fear and suspense, nightmare apparitions, shadowy forms that burst from the semi-darkness and unknown dangers lurking behind doors. Pang a master of this and the constant avoidance of a conclusion that the ragged edge of dread causes in both Tam and the audience symbolizes how the murky case never quite gets resolved. There are always more complications with each discovery leading to greater anxiety and danger—and another dead body.

“The Detective” has the structure of a good mystery movie. The case is revealed to us as Tam burrows further into the strange deaths of a group of people with only tenuous connections to each other—we don't know more than he does at any moment. However there are too many distractions from the crime at the center of the movie to put it in the top tier of detective movies and too many red herrings that point in directions that aren’t followed up to keep our interest for its entire hour and fifty minutes. At one point it seems that Inspector Chak might be using Tam to continue investigating deaths that have been officially closed as suicide or caused by misadventure, while at another we think that Chak might be setting up Tam to take the fall for one or more of the killings. It is a great looking movie, precisely edited and beautifully shot—although there are too many scenes shot from very high or low angles, one of the trademarks of 1950s film noir but more of a distraction here. It doesn’t take much to establish that Tam is confused by the unfolding case and haunted by his past and Pang’s underlining it with camera placement was too obvious. Those quibbles aside, though, “The Detective” is a bravura exercise in the technical arts of filmmaking.

Aaron Kwok does a good job as someone who is dropped into the middle of a series of brutal crimes that he doesn’t understand but feels he must solve. The trail leads him to a Chinatown grocery store where friends gather every day to play mahjong—but the games are interrupted after several players are found dead. Mahjong at Uncle Cheung’s suddenly seems to invite very bad luck. He stumbles into the horrendous sight of a hanged man, a person who has been dead for a few days—this is Ming who not only has a connection to the girl that Tam is looking for but also has a gorgeous widow who is not terribly upset with his death. This leads to discoveries of a stock buying club that may have lost millions of bhat and whose members are keeping the coroner busy because they keep turning up dead. The more he investigates the more dead people turn up and one of them is almost Tam himself when someone drops a refrigerator from a building, an appliance that crashes to the ground just inches from him and just misses crushing him. Later he gets a note made from cut out words from a newspaper telling him to back off from the investigation. The scene in which Tam actually solves the original murder is a technical tour de force, a brilliant use of all the tools at Oxide Pang's command to astonish and thrill the audience.

Some of the images and tropes that Pang uses in “The Detective” echo “Chinatown” with Tam as the initially reluctant but increasingly involved Jake Gittes but is also connected to “The Big Sleep”, with its ultimately confusing ending.
Reviewer Score: 7