In a perfect cinematic world, you'd be able to watch every movie you wanted to watch as soon as it was released on a big screen with good sound and projection and an appreciative audience. In the real world, we're always making compromises: my friends don't want to see what I want to see tonight, that new indie movie is only playing in New York and may never play in my town, the woman sitting next to me in the theater keeps talking to her friends.

Mad Detective opened on Friday, but as noted by Eric D. Snider in his latest Indie Spotlight, only in New York. I have no idea if it will ever play in Dallas, where I live, but based on recent history, chances are, it won't. I'm a huge fan of Hong Kong filmmakers Johnny To and Wai Ka Fai, who co-directed, and Lau Ching Wan, a great, underappreciated actor (Beyond Hypothermia, Big Bullet, A Hero Never Dies), but I've been reluctant to spring for the import DVD, which would set me back nearly 20 bucks. (The trailer's available to watch at Moviefone.)

So I compromised and spent $5.99 to watch Mad Detective via the "IFC in Theaters" video on demand (VOD) service on my cable system. That's comparable to a matinee showing at a local arthouse -- I paid $6.75 to see The Wackness on Saturday afternoon -- but the experience is, obviously, not the same. For one thing, "IFC in Theaters" is only available in standard definition, so the picture looks only so-so, even on my 26-inch high-def monitor.



On the other hand, the service allowed me to see a movie I very much wanted to see, without delay. Mad Detective is above average dramatic fare, a police procedural with an over-the-top premise. Lau Ching Wan plays Inspector Bun, a police detective who claims he can see hidden "inner personalities," which allows him to solve a string of unsolvable cases, until he cuts off his ear to honor his retiring boss. Then everybody realizes he's probably just mentally disturbed, and he's "retired." Rising star Andy On (Invisible Target) plays a detective with the Regional Crime Unit. Desperate to solve a case involving a missing gun, a series of violent crimes, and a cop who may have gone bad, he enlists the help of Bun.

The beauty of Mad Detective is the way that To and Wai keep things off balance. When Bun sees "inner personalities," we don't get ghostly CGI creations -- it's just another actor suddenly appearing in place of another. It can get confusing, especially when Bun sees someone with seven "inner personalities," but it's a good approximation of Bun's state of mind, and Lau is a good enough actor to pull it off. He brings considerable emotional heft to the role.

To's colloborations with Wai tend to be more whimsical and less straightforward than To's solo works (Triad Election, Exiled), though no less capable of packing a dramatic punch. (Mad Detective concludes with brief but tasty action.) They bring something out in each other that is altogether distinct and pleasurable.

In a perfect cinematic world, I'd have seen Mad Detective in a theater in optimum conditions, but sometimes you have to make compromises. In this case I think it was an acceptable one.