Johnnie To

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Zot!
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Re: Johnnie To

#26 Post by Zot! » Wed Sep 24, 2014 7:17 pm

These lists have really whet my appetite. I've seen maybe 4 To films and all have been really appealing. Throwdown is just a great film. The melancholy and that ending in the reeds. Man. It's the kind of thing I wish WKW were still doing. If To got just a fraction of the hype something decidedly mediocre like Grandmasters got, people might start to pay attention. It really pleases me that there are like 35+ movies I really want to see.

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Michael Kerpan
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Re: Johnnie To

#27 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Sep 24, 2014 8:17 pm

Wu Yen is actually one of my top favorites. ;~}

Still too many unavailable To films!

To's films are just too hard to fit neatly into standard film marketing categories. Too arty for action, not "serious" enough for arty.

I like both To and Hui more than WKW.

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feihong
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Re: Johnnie To

#28 Post by feihong » Thu Sep 25, 2014 3:29 am

I've heard of many people being *meh* on Vengeance in the past. But I think that once you begin to see the film as a sort of notional "sequel" to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, it gains a wonderful new volume of depth. And you really should see the film as a sequel to Le Samourai, because the movie was fully intended to be that.

Hallyday plays an ex hit-man named "Frank Costello." That's a coded variation on the hit-man "Jef Costello" from Le Samourai, and the script for Vengeance was originally written for Alain Delon (Delon backed out of the production, necessitating the recruitment of Hallyday; my guess is that the script called for more action than Delon felt comfortable doing). "Frank" has a bullet lodged in his head, and people who have seen the end of Le Samourai know that Jef seems to catch a bullet in the head at the end of that film (it isn't specified where the bullet hits Jef, but blood comes from his mouth before he falls forward, and the shot doesn't spin him around, so I think a head wound is as likely as another wound, as well as being the kind of poetic metaphor Wai and To and looking for). So "Frank Costello" is not just a Frenchman marooned in Hong Kong; he's a walking genre convention from a previous age. I think it's quite poetic that as Costello loses his memory of most things, he keeps it together only through the recall of genre imperatives. So his gun is given the name of the man he means to shoot. He recognizes his allies by the word "brothers." Incidentally, the term--a genre convention from earlier Hong Kong films, is what motivates the trio of orphan hit-men to help him, and I find it very moving to see how these hit-men so shamed by the humiliating demands of their job are ennobled when they can join Frank as his "brothers." But Costello goes on to work his diminishing genre code for meaning. He recognizes George Fung by his jacket. Ultimately Costello does two rather fascinating forensic reconstructions heavily influenced by genre idiom, with which he builds both the beginning and the end of his vengeance: first he has his daughter deliver a message to him via the action-packed verbiage of newspaper headlines--which I always thought to be redolent of the patchwork way crime novels used to be written, and the way in which their lurid subject matter seemed ripped from recent headlines. Secondly, when Frank shoots the man he thinks is George Fung, he brings back the jacket George was wearing, and searches arduously all over it, matching the bullet holes in the jacket to the wounds on Fung's body. In both cases, it seems to me that the laws of pulp noir setups enable Costello to reconstruct just enough of events that he is able to figure things out.

In a way, Costello is lost in a story so familiar, that even as he loses touch with everything else around him, he feels the story in his bones. So when I watch Vengeance--it is one of the To films I watch most frequently, actually (I have the very nice Optimum bluray from the UK, which is a solid improvement over the HK disc)--I have the feeling that that film in particular is a very deeply felt love letter on the part of Wai and To to one of the fathers of their genre/existential approach to the crime film. Before To and Wai, Melville was fascinated with playing the game within the crime film--and in the end of Vengeance, Costello has regressed to the point where he only recognizes the game at the heart of it all.

To has often said that he thought Wai's script for the film was brilliant, and I think he is speaking to the way the film seems to march backwards towards a complete reduction of the existential crime film to its basic roots. For me it's one of the deeper and more profound Milkyway pictures.

As for The Heroic Trio, I don't see any reason to forget about the film; it's a very unique movie within the HK new wave; besides the fact that it's one of only a few sci-fi movies to come out of the HK new wave (Crystal Fortune Run being one of the others that springs to mind, and Flash Future Kung Fu, but really, how many more?), it also seems to be the product of a fevered imagination. In fact, The Heroic Trio was the first Hong Kong film I ever saw, and I found it mind-blowing from start to finish. The baby dying from the nail wound came as such a shock to me; I was certain the movie would follow the genre norms of action movies as I knew them, and that the kid would survive the music video surgery sequence. But when the kid didn't, it shocked me, and I suppose it wrenched my eyes open to the notion that Hong Kong cinema was going to have its own rules which were markedly different than those of American filmmakers. Admittedly, The Heroic Trio is not very deep. But it's bizarre, great-looking, full of fun, but with some real dark energy boiling around the edges. It's also not entirely so different from other Johnnie To films of that era, like Barefoot Kid. Looking forward from those films to A Hero Never Dies (the transitional film that bridges earlier To and the Milkyway To films--shot before The Longest Nite and The Odd One Dies, but held back until after Expect the Unexpected), you can see some of the same filmmaking technique, and some of the same stylistic interests transmuting into the cooler language that would mark the Milkyway movies. A Hero Never Dies is less stylistically disciplined a film than The Longest Nite or Expect the Unexpected. It features the kind of surreal attitude towards time progression that The Heroic Trio and Barefoot Kid also demonstrate (it's often hard to tell when things are taking place, or how much time has passed between scenes--the later Milkyway films are generally much clearer on these matters). So I tend to think of the films of that era as being related in a lot of ways; they are more stylistically unruly films. They're films with more conventional narrative content (though they often have something fairly interesting to say about their subject matter nontheless--Barefoot Kid has some pretty valiant things to say about greed and the way money and possessions can sometimes form our value for a person, and A Hero Never Dies injects a conflict of fate against ability into a traditional genre story of competing experts), but To often finds an interesting way to approach his material. There may not be the deepest of his material in The Heroic Trio, but he approaches the picture with a lot of style and flair. And the eunuch and the kids turning to goblins in the sewers? Anthony Wong eating his fingers? Maggie Cheung caroming her bike of the wall to use it as a projectile? The fist fight with an invisible woman? How can you not get a kick out of The Heroic Trio?

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Re: Johnnie To

#29 Post by masterofoneinchpunch » Fri Sep 26, 2014 2:04 pm

A Hero Never Dies (the transitional film that bridges earlier To and the Milkyway To films--shot before The Longest Nite and The Odd One Dies, but held back until after Expect the Unexpected)
I don't think it was shot before The Odd One Dies. I also think that Teo has a mistake in his book which has a reference to what you wrote (sans The Odd One Dies). He writes: "A Hero Never Dies was conceived and shot before The Longest Night and Expect the Unexpected but was the last to be released, in 1998." (101) Now if you go over to his end notes (261) "To stated in an interview that A Hero Never Dies was conceived in 1997 but the shooting was put off until 1998 because of scheduling problems with the actors." This conflicts with what he wrote on page 101. If it was released in 1998 it would have been after The Longest Nite which was released the first day in 1998 and all filming was done in 1997. The Odd One Dies was released in the middle of 1997.

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FerdinandGriffon
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Re: Johnnie To

#30 Post by FerdinandGriffon » Fri Sep 26, 2014 3:00 pm

Thanks for the write-up on Vengeance, feihong. When I saw it it simply didn't register: almost nothing stood out, the play with convention that you point out seemed just convention, the references I could draw from it appeared to be more to To's own films, in the form of slack reprises of similar moments in Exiled, Sparrow and others, not to Melville's (though I knew it had been conceived as an homage). Now you've got me eager to see it again though, hopefully alongside an already overdue Le Samourai rewatch.

I think a big part of the problem for me was Hallyday. Though he's not an impossible lead for this kind of genre experiment (he works very well in Godard's Detective), I found him a bit grotesque in Vengeance. He was very made-up, had a very silly beard, has obviously indulged in a fair amount of plastic surgery over the years, and simply lacked the (physical) capability for the kind of microscopic changes in expression and emotion that Delon epitomized so beautifully. It's hard to put aside daydreaming about what could have been with To's original casting. The HD-Cam or Blu or whatever it was that was theatrically distributed here in the US wasn't very pretty either.

But excited to tackle it again now, and to finally pull The Heroic Trio off the shelf!
Zot! wrote: It's the kind of thing I wish WKW were still doing. If To got just a fraction of the hype something decidedly mediocre like Grandmasters got, people might start to pay attention.
Have you seen the Hong Kong cut? It's a very different and much, much better film than the US cut, which is, indeed, mediocre.

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colinr0380
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Re: Johnnie To

#31 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Sep 27, 2014 7:56 am

I've not really explored Johnnie To in any meaningful way yet, but I have seen Heroic Trio (it was the film that first introduced me to the flying guillotine device too, so I'm maybe overly fond of it for that!) and would stick up for it as silly, enjoyable comicbook action fun. And it is worth seeing if only just because we get to see three of the finest action actresses of their day, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui, teaming up in one film!

I've not yet seen the sequel Heroic Trio II: Executioners yet, which apparently To co-directed as well, so I'm curious about that one.
Last edited by colinr0380 on Tue Dec 30, 2014 11:11 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Johnnie To

#32 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Dec 26, 2014 9:50 am

Throw Down (2004)

A film about judo with a dedication to Akira Kurosawa at the end (immediately followed by a hilarious card thanking the product placement advertiser Gillette, who had a couple of lingering shots of their shaving products during the film. Though I noted San Miguel beer had a more pervasive presence in at least the first section of the film!) and his Sanshiro Sugata judo-themed films throughout. I did not really feel it was at the level of the Kurosawa films but it is a fun watch. A deadbeat drunk bar owner prone to gambling all of his money away at once in back alley Mah Jong clubs suddenly finds his life invaded by a couple of scrappy kids - one just looking for a job and latching onto him, perhaps wrongly, and the other a young judo trainee who wants to fight the ex-judo master but only when he's sobered up and worthy of the challenge. So our barman goes through an extended period of getting them involved in nefarious moneymaking schemes, gives them jobs in his band at the bar and resolutely refuses to have anything approaching an epiphany for the first hour to 75 minutes of the film.

The relationship between this trio gets more complicated by a bunch of secondary characters acting like the character's pasts coming back to haunt them, from the girl's acting manager/pimp to the bar owner's ex-students (who he has been robbing) and mentors wanting him to take over their dojo for them, to a bunch of characters looking for debts to be repaid and so on. This all happens in a great scene in which all of these various groups of guys are waiting at different tables in the club as our trio of ne'er-do-wells perform and then once they finish our trio sit in the middle of all of these groups wanting to get something from them, as if they are surrounded by enemies! Inevitably that scene has to end in a big judo-themed brawl!

There are some beautifully visualised sequences in this film such as the one above, and I particularly liked the scene of the girl, Mona, stealing the just gambled and lost money from the Mah Jong club and then continually going back to a street that she dropped a lot of it in to pick some more up, facing down the thugs who are themselves desperately picking up the cash! I think that is the best scene of the film which suggests that Mona, for all of her sensible "just stop now" comments during the gambling scene just before, herself cannot stop the compulsion to go back again and again for just a little bit more. It is a bit different to the bar manager's 'easy come, easy go' self-destructiveness, but she similarly needs someone to intervene to prevent her from getting beaten up!

And there is also the 'turning point' judo mat fondling shot and final fight sequence, which are both beautifully shot moments!

I guess the film could be seen to do for judo what the recent Grandmaster did for kung fu, although this is far more straightforward than the Wong Kar-Wai film. Eventually our barman sobers up and starts to take responsibility for those around him as much as for himself (although this film seems far more interested in the pre-sobering up section in which the character can barely co-ordinate his movements!) and is able to pay off his debts, help those under his care to try and fulfil their goals and eventually have a re-match with an old nemesis, which seems less about who beats who and more just proving that he is back to his old self, which I thought was a nice twist!

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feihong
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Re: Johnnie To

#33 Post by feihong » Sat Dec 27, 2014 6:45 am

I thought to wrap some of my comments up in ***SPOILER*** tags, but there really isn't any way around the spoilers that will be in my post. Suffice to say, if you haven't seen the film and want to protect yourself from the twists and turns of the plot, skip this post.

I can't tell from your review whether you were aware when you were watching that Szeto, the hero of the film, was going blind? That's the principle motivating factor for his hedonistic abandon in the first part of the film, and the stakes he's facing as he tries to face up to his various challenges at the end. He's trying to swindle money because he wants to avoid face-to-face confrontations with people like the owner of the club, his judo master, etc. He's afraid to fight them--probably he's afraid to disappoint them. Ultimately, all the owner of the club and the gangster and the others want him to do is to do some judo with them. As the club owner says, it's all right with him if the club loses money. But he wants an amateur judo match from time to time with the famous up-and-comer he hired. But Szeto's motivation is not at all clear at the outset of the film; nor is it clear through all the farcical scamming sequences, that Szeto has any deeper neurotic pathology behind his actions.

The first time I saw the film I didn't get it at all. Watching a second time, with the benefit of hindsight, the early action of the film made more sense. But it honestly took until the blu-ray was released before I began to see the way To communicates the encroaching blindness visually. There are scenes where we see Szeto or what Szeto is looking at, where either subject is backlit just enough to obscure most of the detail in the shot. That's To's super-subtle attempt at the perspective of the character going blind. The main indicator of Szeto's affliction in the plot seems to me to be when Tony tells the same story, and later finds that Szeto has slipped a whole bunch of business cards of various eye doctors into his locker. And by the fight at the end, Szeto can no longer see at night, thus the reason for the blindfolds in that fight--putting Szeto on equal footing with his opponent.

I've never been able to figure out whether To really means for the evidence of this rather important plot element to be quite so subtle, or whether Louis Koo lets the film down a bit by not telegraphing the affliction more clearly. Koo has so much nervous comic business in the first part of the picture, that the blindness seems to become a real background element. I feel like all his facial twitches and bulging-eyed reactions to people around him hide his actual problem. Of course, Szeto is, in fact, trying to hide his problem from everyone, so it makes sense that he would attempt to obfuscate his purpose, but it is one of those instances where To's cool, removed camera style serves to articulate his story less effectively than a more perspective-oriented camera style might do. Wong Kar-Wai's martial artist-going-blind in Ashes of Time is introduced with a shot from his own visual perspective, making it clear that his eyes have trouble balancing visual detail. From then on the audience watches him within the context of his problem. His motivations and actions come crystal clear. It's clear as well that people around him don't all understand what the deal is with him, also. With Szeto...who knows, exactly? Does his master know he's losing his sight? It seems not. How does Tony seem to know what's wrong with Szeto? Or are we to believe, as he claims, that he actually has the exact same syndrome? I thought in that sequence he was obliquely revealing to Szeto that he knew what was wrong with him, rather than admitting to a genuine crippling illness. But how would Tony really know what happened to Szeto, if no one else seems to? We have to assume, by the time of the blindfolded match, that the competing judo master knows, since he agrees to the blindfold stipulation, but when he first meets Szeto, he doesn't seem to realize why Szeto appears before him so degraded. So Szeto or Tony must have told him what is happening to Szeto before their match. Does Szeto tell all the judo fans to whom he owes a match? Does everybody know at the end? The ending is especially ambiguous. Szeto is clearly blind in the ending scene. He's still running the dojo, and it seems that just as it was for his master, no one wants to take up Szeto's invitation to study judo. The shot itself looks so sad...it has a very melancholy air to it. I can't tell if we're meant to read it that way. To often wants a particular level of intellectually penetrating ambiguity in his films, but usually the nature of this ambiguity is far more clear-cut. Are the gangsters in Election truly respect-worthy businessmen and in an insular democracy, or for all their charm and supposed devotion to reform, are they still just ultra-violent thugs, itching to cut loose? Is Bun in Mad Detective a maniac, or the only one who sees things clearly, a handicapped Cassandra figure? Are the cops in PTU doing the right thing, helping a fellow officer retrieve his gun, or are they stubbornly engineering their own downfall? Are the bodyguards in The Mission gracious servants of their boss, silent observers, or are they independent operators, and their own men? These fairly subtle and penetrating problems are nevertheless vividly defined from points very early on in these movies. Throwdown, by comparison, takes almost its entire running time to suggest the barest particulars of Szeto's condition. Only in retrospect can one look at the movie and see the early scenes to be motivated, in a roundabout--almost an inverted swirl of a plot. One of the standout elements of To's Milkyway pictures is how in spite of their complexity, they make such a great deal of sense. Mad Detective is a massively convoluted story, that never seems to be too much less than entirely clear as it moves forward. And yet, try to describe the plot without making it sound like a 3 or 4 hour movie. There are old crimes, new crimes, new crimes inspired by old crimes...the wrong criminals are blamed for crimes in which they were involved anyway...there are two separate cops with debilitating mental afflictions...there's a hero who sees every other character in the movie as at least two other separate people...and yet the picture barrels through all this potential confusion with nearly crystal clarity. I think that Throwdown is one of the less successful Milkyway film in the respect that it tries to do the same thing, but it doesn't achieve that same sense of clarity. There's a whole series of actions which take place before the movie actually starts, all of which are important to the story, but the motivation for all that earlier action remains hidden for most of the movie. The main thrust of the narrative is clearly for Szeto to get his judo mojo back, and fight again, but it takes most of the movie to really understand why he stopped fighting in the first place. Szeto is embarrassed and desperate to hide the reason for his failure to fight from everyone he knows, but it isn't very clear for most of the movie what he is hiding from them. He hardly seems to hiding any particular thing. It seems at first that alcohol is his problem.

On the other hand, it's one of the free-est of To's films, style-wise, and it's a joy to look at. I think this is where we see To really cut loose with his more extravagant filmmaking style, starting with Fulltime Killer, continuing with PTU, and really flowering in this film. The earlier Milkyway movies were on the whole more rigidly stylized. The Longest Nite and Expect the Unexpected had very intractable shooting schemas. So did A Hero Never Dies, the Odd One Dies and Running Out of Time. The Mission is one of the most stylistically rigid of To's films, though the performances and the subject matter exceed the range offered by the very pared-down camera style and unobtrusive mis-en-scene. Still, even The Mission is a movie which flowers more in the mind than it does on the screen, and starting with Fulltime Killer, To starts bringing a more demonstrative technique and a broader range of stylistic choices to his movies. Fulltime Killer had scenes that were really interesting and scenes that fell completely flat--but it seemed as if To was exploring how the scenes could be shot with a greater freedom than he had done previously for Milkyway. I should probably mention that the pre-Milkyway To was very stylistically opportunistic, and that the discipline of the early Milkyway films was a refreshing contrast to most Hong Kong films of the 90s. But it was very exciting to discover the varied stylistic approach blossoming out of formalism during PTU--where moments like the slapping scene and the trek up the apartment staircase expand absurdly within the limited running time of the picture, and where the scenes chatting over food are shot with unrelenting tension. The vivid yellow paint mark covering Lam Suet's car from scene to scene to scene in that movie was a new kind of stylish brio on display. The revelation in that film of the punk kids locked in cages is still so very remarkable, in part because the single-source lighting in that scene, highlighting the dust swirling in the air and the twitching of people's skin, was really unlike any other scene in the picture. That one moment was more chilling in its isolation than a full two hours of a Rob Zombie movie, and it works so well because we can feel To stretching his legs, as it were, and finding a balance of style and formalism that allows for departure and innovation.

Throwdown is replete with such movements, from the rotating tables scene to the ebullient following scene, where the bar erupts in a frenzy of judo. That scene in particular was like something out of a musical, and it had the same reverie as the moment in a musical where the cast suddenly erupts from plain talk into dance and song. There is also, for the first time, I think, direct stylistic quotes from films which have influenced To, and I think that too is indicative of his greater freedom with style in this picture. To will go on to further such quotations: he quotes himself in Exiled, with the can-kicking scene brought forward from The Mission's paper ball soccer scene, and again in Mad Detective, where Lam Suet is obsessed once again with losing his promotion over a missing police pistol, and Vengeance is full of quotes from Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge.

I have to say, though, finally, that I don't get the girl in Throwdown at all. Her character arc is...can I even call it a character arc? She moves, it seems, from being a free-spirited slob and acting insolent about it, in the beginning, to being a free-spirited slob and feeling all right about herself at the end. I never felt as if I got just what she was up to. The fake ring metaphor was completely lost on me. The trio had great chemistry together, and when she and Szeto and Tony were up to mischief, the film felt on very sure footing. But the girl's own actual issues seemed very insubstantial. She wants to get...what?...scouted into fame and fortune? Is that her actual plan? I recognize she's a bit of a slacker, and I can relate to that, for sure. But so often she seems so practical, direct, money-grubbing and particular, and I can't really identify the source of her more slackerish side. Is it because her dad is so polite and remote? Because her landlord is at the end of her patience? Are these factors in her alienation? I found it easier to sympathize with almost everyone around this character than I could with her. I was almost going to side with her pimp, I was so used to finding her on the wrong end of any argument in the film. Also, for a character who seems to have escaped prostitution, she seems...not terribly hard-bitten. If you told me that the Josie Ho character in Exiled was a former prostitute, I'd have an easier time believing it. I don't need any first-hand evidence to believe this part of the characterization, but some more clearly evocative mood to her acting could make this backstory more credible. She's so bouncy and--honestly, the actress sings well, but her dialogue delivery is real annoying--anyway, I feel as if her backstory doesn't make very much sense, nor does it provide her with much in the way of motivation.

But between this movie and Fulltime Killer, or this and Breaking News, or this and Running on Karma--other films that inhabit this same kind of experimental period for To--I'd prefer to watch Throwdown any day. It's never less than entertaining, and it's one of To's tougher comedies, which I think is a pretty good recommendation. A lot of the playfulness of this movie carries forward to enhanced effect in Sparrow, but this movie plays around itself quite a bit, and that is quite fun. The judo itself is fun to watch--more fun to watch than any practical judo match I've seen--and the singing scenes are also very much appreciated. Still, the To of Election seems so much more confident of the effect he's making, and the films that follow Election feel to me entirely sure--footed. The later films balance formalism and the more adventurous stylistics of this earlier period with much more assurance. I definitely feel that PTU and Throwdown are the standouts of that transitional period (from Fulltime Killer up until Election). But I've always wondered about Throwdown. To calls it his favorite of his films, but I don't always feel as if the film knows what it's doing at any given point. It doesn't seem as if the elements of the film hand together as sturdily as they do in later adventurous pictures, such as Life Without Principle. So I'm not always sure what to think of the movie.

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colinr0380
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Re: Johnnie To

#34 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Dec 27, 2014 10:43 am

That's a brilliant post feihong! I do agree that Throw Down feels especially interesting in that the 'growth and change' section of the film happens in almost the final act, while most other films get through the material of showing the main character as down and out within the first couple of scenes or so and then spend the majority of their running time on 'changing' them.
feihong wrote: It's clear as well that people around him don't all understand what the deal is with him, also. With Szeto...who knows, exactly? Does his master know he's losing his sight? It seems not. How does Tony seem to know what's wrong with Szeto? Or are we to believe, as he claims, that he actually has the exact same syndrome? I thought in that sequence he was obliquely revealing to Szeto that he knew what was wrong with him, rather than admitting to a genuine crippling illness. But how would Tony really know what happened to Szeto, if no one else seems to? We have to assume, by the time of the blindfolded match, that the competing judo master knows, since he agrees to the blindfold stipulation, but when he first meets Szeto, he doesn't seem to realize why Szeto appears before him so degraded. So Szeto or Tony must have told him what is happening to Szeto before their match. Does Szeto tell all the judo fans to whom he owes a match? Does everybody know at the end? The ending is especially ambiguous. Szeto is clearly blind in the ending scene. He's still running the dojo, and it seems that just as it was for his master, no one wants to take up Szeto's invitation to study judo. The shot itself looks so sad...it has a very melancholy air to it. I can't tell if we're meant to read it that way.
There does seem to be a veiled aspect to Tony's backstory of how he found out about Sze-to and his past master status to want to challenge him. It can seem like a strange preternatural knowledge, unless there is a connection that I missed. Perhaps to one of the other judo masters?

That is a fascinating aspect of the film. I must admit that I had not thought about Sez-to being blind but I had noted Tony talking about having glaucoma and then saying ‘just kidding’ and then the blindfold duel scene at the end, but I had not really put the pieces together. It certainly makes sense that Sze-to would be losing his sight (as well as explaining why he keeps tripping and stumbling over things in the dimly lit clubs beyond just being drunk! Also perhaps why he takes such close looks at his Mah Jong tiles during the gambling scenes, which I had previously assumed was just a kind of affectation. And the judo mat fondling takes on a different dimension too. And I suppose is why Sze-to just needs to stand outside his master's fateful judo bout rather than going inside), and I wonder if this sort of ties in with Mona’s fecklessness and then running off to a new life and possible career in Japan, even if it seems likely it is going to be the same as the old one. She knows this might not be the solution to her problems (Mona seems to be a character in the process of figuring out and coming to terms with the Godardian, Vivre Sa Vie equivalence between acting and prostitution!), but she wants to go off and at least try. Perhaps the film is about Sze-to learning to try again for its own sake, even if there might not be a successful result from it.
Last edited by colinr0380 on Sat Dec 27, 2014 5:02 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Michael Kerpan
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Re: Johnnie To

#35 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sat Dec 27, 2014 2:39 pm

Great posts! This was a film I "fell in love with" on first watching -- and I definitely prefer it to Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata. Not sure if the pieces fit neatly together, but I always felt that this simply felt "right".

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Re: Johnnie To

#36 Post by masterofoneinchpunch » Fri May 22, 2015 1:59 pm

A review/essay I wrote on The Mission:

“I only knew what filmmaking was about when making The Mission” – Johnnie To

1999 was a breakout year for Johnnie To. He started off with the underrated Where a Good Man Goes, but it was the next two films that would help raise his status as an auteur. The commercial success of Running Out of Time was followed by the critical success of The Mission (which was not a commercial success) where he would win best director at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Golden Bauhinia Awards and Golden Horse Film. It follows a pattern of To filming more personal projects which were funded by the more popular fare of his co-owned production company Milkyway. The Mission was invited along with two other To titles to the Berlin Film Festival after Ulrich Gregor saw the film. This led to more Milkyway titles being shown at various cinematic events.

The Chinese title (鎗火) translates to gunfire. I prefer the English title which refers more to the homosocial nature of the team aspects in this film (a theme also explored in other To films like PTU and Exiled). In many ways this was a typical Hong Kong production. It took 18 days to film, cost about 320,000 American dollars (2.5 million HK dollars) to make and there was no script. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the results were atypical. What was created was an elliptical, sometimes enigmatic yet energetic film about honor and languor among lower triad members. It is among my top 50 Hong Kong movies of all-time.

The film has a simple yet elegant structure to it. You can break it into three acts, but it really consists of a prologue (five minutes), the main act (58 minutes) and a coda (21 minutes; or you can consider this the second act.) There is a prologue which economically shows all five of the main characters who will later be hired as bodyguards. Afterwards there is an interesting use of having the shootout start and background noises in the credits which starts the main mission. Then there is a minor mission as the coda.

The main mission which takes the majority of the film is started when a triad boss Lung (Eddy Ko Hung: The Thundering Mantis) has an attempt on his life by unknown assailants. His brother Frank (Simon Yam: PTU) hires five bodyguards (Curtis: Anthony Wong, Roy: Francis Ng, Shin: Jackie Lui, Mike: Roy Cheung, James: Lam Suet) to protect him. They are basically sequestered until whoever is behind the attempts on Lung is found and removed as a threat. This means hours of just sitting around, playing pranks and doing menial chores like chauffeuring Mrs. Lung. This is most exemplified by the most famous scene where the bodyguards kick a paper ball back and forth to each other while waiting for Mr. Lung. It writes banal but it comes across as exhilarating as the chatter between Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction (itself a scene reminiscent of Shoot the Piano Player). The scenes of boredom reminds me of pertinent aspects of several jobs that are rarely filmed such as police officers, private investigators where you have hours of tedium sometimes followed by intense life-and-death activities like the assassination attempts in this film.

Small spoilers ahead in this paragraph: Surprisingly the mission is wrapped up quicker than you might realize. However, this leads to the coda where their codes of work and honor will be tested. To had two different endings for the film. The bleak ending was not used because the past several post-handover films from Milkway like The Longest Nite and Expect the Unexpected had doleful endings. He wanted to make his films lighter.

This is a must watch for not just Hong Kong film fans, but anyone who studies cinema as well. Fans of action might be put off by the static compositions and use of lethargic pacing. To’s mix is akin to combining John Woo and Michelangelo Antonioni. Where else do you see jianghu (literally translated as rivers and lakes but it is an idiom that means the fictional universe inhabited within a wuxia or gangster movie) concepts mixed with malaise? But with this film To showed that he was an auteur and a brilliant one at that who could mix a variety of seemingly incompatible influences into a genre film and create one of the unique films of the era. If there is a weakness to me it is the soundtrack. Sometimes the minimalist electronic beats are effective and sometimes it comes off as reminiscent of the computerized scores prevalent in the 1980s though sometimes the beat is strangely catchy. It is but a small flaw. The acting is superb with the intense Francis Ng among my favorites here. The cinematography has been dissected and rightly heralded by critics. Since it carries many To’s trademarks it helps to view this film more than once or at least pay strict attention while watching it. Plot points are alluded to and rarely repeated more than once. It is a challenging work and it is no wonder that this film continues to be among the top Chinese languge lists.

I always find cinematic connections fascinating and this film is abundant with these allusions. To has stated “I was under the influence of Akira Kurosawa when I was shooting “The Mission.” You can see it in To’s use of the vertical wipe as well as the use of camera movement.* Stephen Teo documents a lot of them in his monograph on Johnnie To in the book Director in Action. But you can also see the influence of Takashi Kitano on him as well especially in Sonatine. You can see this less explicitly in the torture scene (one of the most disturbing scenes in Sonatine to me was when the gangster was drowned by being left in the water too long, you do not get to see the result of what happens to analogous character in this film right away though another example of To’s use of elliptical technique), but much more explicit on the Tsuen Wan Shopping Mall shooting scene which paralleled the laconic and Spartan bar shootout in Sonatine which almost looks like a Civil War standoff. The gangster malaise seen throughout this movie in common with Kitano is also familiar to fans of French auteur Jean Pierre Melville another big influence on To and John Woo.** The split screen scene is most likely influenced by the split-screens used in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair which also was the basis of To’s 2004 film Yesterday Once More.

This OOP Mei Ah R1/NTSC copy is interlaced and the picture quality suffers a bit. The darks tend to be too dark. I am sure this is just a port from the laserdisc. There are three sets of subtitles: Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese and English. The English subs are pretty good. The two audio tracks are Cantonese and Mandarin with either Dolby Digital or Dolby Digital Surround 5.1. There is a trailer for the film (strangely has some scenes sped up) and one trailer for Ringo Lam’s Victim (1999). The only other extras under the hilariously titled Data Bank are a Synopsis and Cast & Crew in both Chinese and English.

This is a movie that needs to have a good BD/DVD release of. For the States it would make a nice Criterion edition. When Johnnie To did his top 10 Criterions (this is a superlative selection, make a point to see these movies if you have not already) for the company I was hoping this meant a release of one of his films but alas nothing came of it. At least the British Masters of Cinema put a release of Mad Detective (highly recommended; it is surprisingly R0/NTSC.) But I would love for any company to put out a remastered BD/DVD of this.

* Akira Kurosawa loved using the vertical wipe as a transaction for small shifts in time while he would use the fade for longer periods of time. His use of excess amounts of rain in scenes is well known and influenced many Hong Kong directors. You would find countless influences in works by Johnnie To and John Woo.

** I find it fascinating that all three of those directors (Woo, To and Melville) have stated that they prefer and understand directing men’s character and have trouble with women’s characterizations. All three also have similarities where they deal with gangster’s codes of conduct. To and Woo are both fans of musicals and have wanted to direct one.

Notes:
You can always find connections in To’s movies to other To films besides Lam Suet. Some are more obvious than others while some are just small connections. The loss of fingers by an unpaying client by Roy reminded me of the finger gag in The Odd One Dies. The video game playing reminded me of Throwdown where there it plays a more important aspect. Anthony Wong’s unusual looks is also commented in Exiled. The boss making coffee is a scene similar to many in To’s films where food is often prepared like the robbers in Breaking News and Costello making the meal in Vengeance.
The more I watch this the more I realize that the boss Lung is controlled quite a bit by his brother. Pay attention to who makes the calls for people to be killed (of course one can make the argument that it keeps Lung’s hands clean.) Also pay attention to Lung’s demeanor. In history many important figures were secondary and smartly in the shadows. It makes you less likely for an assassination attempt.

Sources:
These two books below have quite a bit of information on the movie with plenty of references. So much I was wondering what I could add that has not already been written. Though I was able to find some connections that no one else had mentioned (that I have read.) Stephen Teo has in depth interviews with To that is a must read for anyone interested in this director. Bordwell goes over the cinematic aspects of the film quite well and his writings are always a joy to read. Both of these books should be in your possession. Both books refer to Hong Kong Panorama 1999 – 2000 (2000) which is a book I would love to have though it is difficult to find now.
Book: Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Films (2007) by Stephen Teo
Book: Planet Hong Kong (Second Edition: 2011) by David Bordwell
Interview: Senses of Cinema -- Interview: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai (2001)
Johnnie To thread

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Michael Kerpan
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Re: Johnnie To

#37 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sat Sep 19, 2015 11:03 pm

Johnnie To's latest (a musical based on a stage play by actress/director Sylvia Chang) slipped into a couple of Boston multiplexes without any note by reviewers (so far). So, how could we pass this up. We've never seen a To film actually screened at a theater before.

This musical is about climbing (and falling off) the corporate ladder, and starts with a brief homage to "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying". But unlike Loesser's musical, this doesn't stick with its baby-faced young hero, rather it juggles a whole ensemble of corporate characters. No tunes in this that one is like to leave the theater humming, but the music is decent enough. Not sure where this will fall on my overall To list (45+ films seen so far), but definitely a must-see for any To fan -- especially for the visual design (a world where walls and ceilings are transparent).

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Re: Johnnie To

#38 Post by feihong » Sun Sep 20, 2015 2:21 am

Thank you for the heads up, Michael! I didn't think to check the nearby Monterey Park theaters until you brought it up, but Office is playing there right now, too. I am going to see this tomorrow, no two ways about it!

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Re: Johnnie To

#39 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Sep 20, 2015 1:25 pm

I've never seen such a "stealth" rollout.

Manohla Dargis, at the NYT, likes it:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/18/movie ... .html?_r=0" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

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Re: Johnnie To

#40 Post by The Fanciful Norwegian » Sun Sep 20, 2015 6:31 pm

Michael Kerpan wrote:I've never seen such a "stealth" rollout.
It's AMC's normal distribution model, which is also the model used for Indian films in the U.S.: get as close to the domestic release date as possible (Office only opened in China at the beginning of September and still hasn't come out in Hong Kong), only release in markets with a decently-sized expat population, and don't worry about marketing or attracting a crossover audience. It's the modern equivalent of the old Chinatown circuit. AMC also just released the new Ryoo Seung-wan film, but you would never know it unless you knew where to look or just accidentally stumbled upon it. China Lion and (to a lesser extent) Well Go do the same thing (for example, Ringo Lam's Wild City has already come and gone in U.S. theaters).

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Re: Johnnie To

#41 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Sep 20, 2015 10:10 pm

The Fanciful Norwegian wrote:
Michael Kerpan wrote:I've never seen such a "stealth" rollout.
> you would never know it unless you knew where to look or just accidentally stumbled upon it.

I'm going to have to figure out how to keep track of this...

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Re: Johnnie To

#42 Post by The Fanciful Norwegian » Sun Sep 20, 2015 10:32 pm

AMC puts the info in a dedicated section of their website, which lists films released through AMC as well as China Lion and Well Go titles playing at AMC theaters. (Turns out Office is actually a China Lion release.) Well Go has their own site, which seems to be reasonably up to date. China Lion's website currently just redirects to a site for Office, but their Facebook page is probably a better place to look for updates anyway.

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Re: Johnnie To

#43 Post by Michael Kerpan » Mon Sep 21, 2015 10:35 am

Thanks

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Re: Johnnie To

#44 Post by feihong » Mon Sep 21, 2015 4:37 pm

I loved The Office, though it made me profoundly uncomfortable. I thought To got the tension and the contradictions of office culture exactly right, and so it reminded me of work in my own office, and how I loathe having to go there. I was thinking as I watched how this was basically conceived entirely by lifetime professional entertainers––I guess Sylvia Chang is married to a businessman, though––but with that in mind it was pretty remarkable that they were able to hone in on the vicissitudes of that corporate lifestyle with the degree of precision and knowingness that was on display.

It was also a nice companion piece to Life Without Principle. I noticed that Philip Keung, who played the triad Dragon in LWP––the one who plays the stock market recklessly and loses everything in the financial crash––plays the stockbroker in Office, who encourages Eason Chan to play the stock market recklessly, so that he loses everything in the crash. In both roles Keung is puffing on a long cigar and talking through his clenched teeth, which seemed a little wink on To's part, acknowledging Life Without Principle.

The production design and the lighting are both quite remarkable, and I especially loved many of the environmental details––the rumbling ticking of the enormous clock, amplified at key times to raise the tension of particular lines and scenes, and the torrential rain that blasted the set periodically, and which seemed so pointedly at odds with the pent-up feelings of the characters. I felt deeply for Tang Wei's character, who really gets kicked around by just about everybody in the film. Tang Wei seems an actress capable of precisely communicating a broad range of feelings, and this is the first film I've seen that really takes advantage of that––I would take this performance over a million Blackhats, and a couple of Lust, Cautions, to boot.

Yeah, so it seemed pretty great. I plan to watch it again before it leaves the theater.
Last edited by feihong on Mon Sep 21, 2015 4:50 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Johnnie To

#45 Post by Michael Kerpan » Mon Sep 21, 2015 4:42 pm

I very much look forward to watching Office as soon as it makes it onto Blu-Ray. (I assume that we saw a digital projection, rather than film, because there was at least one spot where I saw what looked like digital artifacts).

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Re: Johnnie To

#46 Post by whaleallright » Mon Sep 21, 2015 8:01 pm

Out of curiosity, was this playing in 3-D where you folks were? Based on the descriptions of the mise-en-scène, sounds like it might be worth trying to see in that format. (Though it seems unlikely it'll play in my neck of the woods at all.)

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Re: Johnnie To

#47 Post by Michael Kerpan » Mon Sep 21, 2015 8:11 pm

jonah.77 wrote:Out of curiosity, was this playing in 3-D where you folks were?
2-D only.

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Re: Johnnie To

#48 Post by feihong » Mon Sep 21, 2015 8:39 pm

2-d, and I think digital projection, as Michael saw.

I can see the giant clock being a fun 3d element, but unlike in a lot of 3d movies, the framing of the film in 2d is still very elegant.

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Re: Johnnie To

#49 Post by feihong » Wed Oct 21, 2015 12:28 am

Two Johnnie To films arrived on blu ray in Japan which haven't had hi-def releases anywhere else, as far as I know: A Hero Never Dies and Triangle.

Both blu rays look great. A Hero Never Dies looks pretty incredible. Sharp, great grain, bursting with depth and color. I've never seen anything but some of the crappiest DVDs ever released as far as this film goes, so it's a bit of a revelation. The film itself, however, doesn't improve to the degree that others like The Longest Nite and The Mission do upon seeing them in high quality formats. It is clear just how outsized and comic-book-y the emotions are in A Hero Never Dies, but I don't think that's precisely to the good. The color in the print was really amazing. It's like they thought it would be the last film they ever made, and so the cinematographer decided to suffuse the film with every intense color possible. The film seems drunk on a very 90s version of excess, with fantastic junkyards and urban sprawl, an exotic, cross-cultural feel, and intense ghetto-ruin style sets and backgrounds. Leon Lai gives a far better performance than I thought he did when I would watch the picture on DVD––his expressions are subtle and actually quite well-done, whereas, without the benefit of hi definition, he looked very wooden. But the story is still over-the-top grotesque, unreal and oozing with out-of-control machismo. Not really my favorite combination of elements in a To film. The overall morbidity is really extreme in the picture––it's almost like a heroic bloodshed horror film. At one point To contrives to have a pistol dripping blood from its barrel. Another element that really doesn't work for me is the score, which is overblown to a pronounced degree.

Every so often there's a shot that looks a little soft on the disc, as if maybe a few shots could stand some restoration. But the print of A Hero Never Dies is exceptionally clean, without any marks or scratches. Closeups have depth and beauty, and long shots are generally crisp and exact.

Triangle also has pleasing grain, a more muted color scheme, and pretty stark shadow detail compared to A Hero Never Dies. I don't know if that's a result of a different shooting style, or different authoring. The depth of field isn't quite as demonstrative as on A Hero Never Dies. But the disc still looks great. Part of the difference may boil down to shot selection. The different directors frame their sections of the film in radically different ways. So it's a little harder to judge the cinematography as a whole. Nonetheless, the film looks gorgeous, with no visual disturbances, and with good, clear audio.

Neither disc has English subtitles. King Records put out Triangle, and A Hero Never Dies is released by some other company. I'm not smart enough to locate that company's insignia on the box to the film, I guess. There's a little cursive "A" at the bottom, with some Japanese characters that are too small to make out. Still, it's encouraging to see that somehow, in Japan, they can reach into the Milkyway back catalog and bring out some of these films that have never had a high-quality release before. Here's hoping The Longest Nite and The Mission, and maybe Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, might come out in the future.

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Re: Johnnie To

#50 Post by masterofoneinchpunch » Fri Jan 29, 2016 2:31 pm

The Longest Nite (1998: Patrick Yau credited)

"Who is the dead body at my house?"

Analogous to Expect The Unexpected (1998) and The Odd One Dies (1998) Patrick Yau is the nominal director but did not do the vast majority of directing for this movie (Johnnie To has stated he directed about half before To ultimately took over; I do not know how much To reshot). It is interesting to see reviews of its time praising Yau, though unfortunately he directed only one more film The Losers Club in 2001. Yau was even nominated for Best Director for the Hong Kong Film Awards. He has no film credits since though he has directed some Mainland TV according to To. One wonders how much emotionally draining it was being pulled from three productions. Hindsight is 20/20 and you can see many of Johnnie To's trademarks and auteuristic touches here that were not as recognizable then, especially when many thought it was done by another director.

The Chinese title of this film is 暗花 which translates to dark flower(s) which means the bounty offered (the successful hit price.) The noirish The Longest Nite takes place in Macau* and covers a maze and a morass of one day and night (reminding me a little of Run All Night (2015)) of a hit man Tony (Lau Ching-wan: Expect the Unexpected, Mad Detective) and a cop Sam (Tony Leung Chiu-wai: Happy Together). Johnnie To brings out a quite familiar thematic element of the Doppelganger (and Lam Suet) though uses it to an extreme here. The narration** starts by explaining that there are two factions led by Mr. K and Lung in Macau mirroring the real life 14 K and Shui Fong triads. Sam is a corrupt cop whose allegiance is to Mr. K. but is in the unenviable position of trying to prevent a 5 Million dollar hit on Mr. Lung. While this might seem advantageous to Sam there is a puppet master, a true Godfather, in Mr. Hung, who seems to be the only one who is actually in charge (it reminds me of that great Bela Lugosi quote in Glen or Glenda Pull the string) though he has not been in Macau in over a decade.

Tony (Lau Ching-wan) is a phlegmatic and sometimes suicidal hired hitman with a bald head, a tattoo and calm demeanor. He is so enigmatic that he sometimes seems more like an archetype than an actual human analogous to a Jef Costello of Le samouraï without the sartorial skill. He comes off not as evil as Sam, but there are no heroes here. Lau Ching-wan's acting performance is superb though. Tony clashes pretty quickly with Sam because of Tony's aura and is given a suggestion to get out of town. Of course we know Tony will not follow this sagacious advice. But are there ulterior motives behind Tony being there? And what role will Sam play in the scheme of things?

I am avoiding going into too much detail with the plot, but one might want to avoid the rest, except for the paragraph on the DVD discussion, if one has not seen this as there might be a couple of spoilers ahead.

It is amazing how much information you might miss when only watching it one time. Subsequent rewatches make you realize there are clues planted throughout, but one has to be careful of To's magician like misdirection. So much is given away with the phone calls of Tony early on but we might be paying more attention to the beatings from Sam. A casino worker throwing up was another example of carefully planned misdirection. At first you see an overabundance of coincidences, but some of them are actually carefully planned, though it does make a few seemed overly lucky like Sam finding Maggie so quickly.

There are brilliant moments throughout. I loved the look ma no hands driving scene. One of the better scenes of intimidation deals with Tony on an elevator when he politely answers a question Did you come here to cause trouble? with a serene yes. Would you have entered the lift with him? Contrast this with Tommy DeVito's "What do you mean I'm funny?" The cinematography is superlative with the highlights being the early moment in the dinner, another brilliant use of light with the jail scene and floating dust and of course the aforementioned mirror scene inspired by Orson Welles. This film might have even looked better in black-and-white.

There are allusions to other films throughout both past and future. According to Johnnie To the theme was inspired by the score in Midnight Express (1978). The jail scene reminds me and many other writers of Steve McQueen bouncing the ball in The Great Escape.** The warehouse scene is a homage to The Lady From Shanghai and was used earlier in Enter the Dragon and would later be used in another superb variation in To's Mad Detective. The torture scenes would take new heights in his Election series though the digit manipulation is reminiscent of The Odd One Dies and prolonged abuse like the slapping scene in PTU.

Because of the doleful nature of this and several other Milkway films To decided to be a little lighter with both The Mission and Running Out of Time. But I find it interesting to note that this film was the highest grossing Milkway film until Running Out of Time the following year. This is a brilliant modern-day noir with a byzantine plot that may be difficult to understand especially if you are not paying enough attention. While this did not have To's name on it, his touch is. Like most of his earlier films I feel this is vastly underrated and is a good watch for any fans of crime movies though you might have to watch it twice. You probably should watch it at least twice.

I watched this with a non-anamorphic letterbox Universe Laser R0/NTSC DVD. It is OOP. It has a Cantonese (preferred) and Mandarin audios. It has two Chinese subtitles (Traditional and Simplified) and an English one. For extras it has Stars Files text (Chinese, English), a trailer, footage of the premiere (2m21s; Cantonese with no subtitles), Making of video (10m01s; Cantonese with no subtitles), NG Footage (2m58s; these are outtakes, no dialogue) and a Press Conference (6m16s; no subs though you can see Johnnie To buzz cut Lau Ching-wans hair). While the video is decent a better release of this in either DVD and/or BD would be quite welcomed with translated extras and hopefully new ones. I do wonder why Criterion has not done a Johnnie To release.

* According to Stephen Teo in his wonderful book Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Films (2007), To had thought about shooting this movie in Cuba then in Buenos Aires but settled for Macau for both budget reasons and in retaining a Latin American influenced setting. It is also important to note that Macau would not be handed over to China until 1999 in which Hong Kong was handed over the year before this films release.

** There was a preview version that did not have the initial narration, but was included afterwards because the audience found the plot confusing. Narration is relatively rare in Johnnie To's films with some exceptions like this and Fulltime Killer.

*** To is brilliant at filming little scenes of ennui analogous to Michelangelo Antonioni and passing time like the paper football match in The Mission. Look at how many films he can incorporate a cooking scene including Breaking News or Vengeance.

Notes:
It looks like the General Post Office building in one of the earlier shots of a clock tower in Macau. Here is an image.
There is a muzak version of "Gonna Fly Now" (Rocky theme song).
Spoiler: sometimes I found it hard not to think of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Sources:
Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Films (2007) by Stephen Teo: This is best source on the film that I have read. There are so many useful facts on this film, though I did find some facts from other sources listed below.
Planet Hong Kong 2nd Edition (2011) by David Bordwell
Interview: Interview Johnnie To Cinemasie (Oct. 2004)
Shui Fong triad (wiki)
14 K triad (wiki)
Review: Love HK Film Review (Kozo 1998)

Other Johnnie To/Milkyway reviews from me (Kung Fu Fandom links; formerly Kung Fu Cinema):
Drug War (2013: Johnnie To: China/Hong Kong)
The Mission (1999: Johnnie To: Hong Kong)
The Odd One Dies (1997: Patrick Yau Tat-chi: Hong Kong)
Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (1997: Wai Ka-fai: Hong Kong)
Triangle (2007: Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Johnnie To: Hong Kong)

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