Playing Cops and Robbers in "PTU"
Often known for providing big name action and comedy blockbuster vehicles ("A Hero Never Dies," "Running Out of Time," "Love on a Diet") through his creatively innovative production company Milkyway Image Co., Hong Kong film auteur Johnnie To has quietly become somewhat of a one man institution. While choosing to practice his art in the former colony than to test the waters across the Pacific, To stayed and scored in 1999 with his minimalist masterpiece "The Mission." To's humorous take on five underworld hoodlums brought together to protect a triad boss from an assassination plot proved to be a huge commercial success at home and a critical triumph abroad. Bouncing back from the overblown debacle that was "Fulltime Killer," To plays cops and robbers again with his latest effort he calls a personal and artistic project.
Having its Los Angeles premiere on November 15 at the James Bridge Theatre as part of a series for the UCLA Film and Television Archive, To's "PTU" takes us to the other side of the gangster/cop paradigm by following a Police Tactical Unit on their beat through the seedy streets of the Tsim Sha Tsui district over the course of one night.
The narrative revolves around the missing pistol of inept Officer Lo (To alum Lam Suet) who carelessly loses it in a beating administered by triad punks belonging to a gang leader named Ponytail. Fearing consequences if word reached his superiors, Lo enlists the help of PTU leader Mike (played with usual intensity and pathos by another To regular Simon Yam). At the same time Ponytail becomes the victim of a gangland assassination. As Mike's unit sweep the streets and shake down local hoods to track clues that may lead them to the firearm in question, an eager CID investigator (Ruby Wong) and her crew investigating Ponytail's death believe that Lo's missing gun will lead them to break the case.
But the film's eventual pitfall is that the narrative never advances much beyond more and little is revealed about the characters' personal lives. Furthermore, To revels in allowing his characters to aimlessly come upon a situation by happenstance or coincidence. The result is that the film proves to be a bit cold, impersonal and a little less engaging than one would hope. Some may even find that the film's slow pacing a bit too lengthy even at its rather sparse 88 minutes. It seems that film acts more as an experiment for To to see how clever he can be with the convoluted narrative structure and still get away with it. Sure enough though, the film's climax neatly ties up all its loose strings (and adds some) just in time for the kind of bloody slow-mo street gun battle that would have made Sam Peckinpah proud; the wild west in the 21st Century - Hong Kong style.
To may have hit a personal technical highlight here by making perhaps one of the best looking films to come out of Hong Kong in quite a long time. Playing with light and shadow, To lends the cityscape just the right level of nourish atmosphere that gives his film such a distinctive character. In the Q&A session following the screening, To admitted that because the project wasn't so much a commercial endeavor as it was an artistic pursuit, his paltry finances (at less than half a million US dollars) were such that it didn't allow all the necessary equipment, thereby explaining the dark look of the film. If that was truly the case, let's hope that he pursues more personal films in the future.
Some shots are so gorgeously composed and lit that one would think that it was anime on screen. Certainly this technical brilliance is due in no small part to cinematographer Cheng Siu Keung who also uses brilliantly composed long and medium shots to accurately capture the feeling of wide open spaces on dark streets that would normally be packed to the gills with human traffic during the day. One gets the feeling that something insidious could be right around the next dark corner.
With a minimum on dialogue and an emphasis on the visual to tell his story, To expertly and methodically weaves together several random plots to create a primer in cinematic storytelling. Though it may neither be thematically nor narratively as challenging as The "Mission," "PTU" is visually superior and is certainly a worthy companion piece to that film. If nothing else, one must appreciate the thoughtful direction and craftsmanship that went into its making.
To find out more about "PTU," please view www.ptu.com.hk. For more information on the UCLA Film and Television Archive and its upcoming screenings, please view www.cinema.ucla.edu.
December 12, 2003