This article appeared in Issue 43 ofAsian Cult Cinema
With over thirty directing and producing credits to his name, stretching from the height of the Hong Kong New Wave right up to today, über-filmmaker Johnny To could be considered an institution in the former British colony. In fact, his Milky Way production company, which he formed in partnership with frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai, has become the de facto hallmark of quality filmmaking in Hong Kong since the Handover in 1997. His filmography is an eclectic collection of films from almost every genre and featuring almost every major Hong Kong film star, including classic films from the late Eighties and early Nineties ("Heroic Trio", "All About Ah-Long", "A Moment of Romance"), some ultra-cool crime-noir productions that kept the 'heroic bloodshed' flame alight during the late Nineties ("The Longest Nite", "Expect the Unexpected", "Beyond Hypothermia", and "The Mission"), a few romances ("Loving You", "Needing You") and a number of crowd-pleasing, though sometimes insipid, comedies ("My Left Eye Sees Ghosts", "Wu Yen", and "Love on a Diet").
Unfortunately, the 'Jerry Bruckheimer of Hong Kong' has been in a creative and financial lull since 2001. In addition to facing diminishing box office returns stemming from the overall decline of the Hong Kong film industry, some of To's recent efforts have been rather disappointing, such as the uninspired "Fat Choi Spirit (Lik goo lik goo san nin choi)" (which was little more than an attempt to cash in on the Chinese New Year box office), the pretentious "Full-Time Killer (Chuen jik sat sau)", and the running-on-empty sequel "Running Out of Time 2 (Aau chin 2)". However, in 2003, it seems that the veteran filmmaker is back in fine form with the release of "PTU", a crime-noir thriller that combines the plotting of Guy Ritchie ("Snatch") and the 'end justifies the means' law enforcement mentality of "Training Day", all wrapped up in a slick package with the distinctive 'Johnny To' touch.
The title is the acronym for Police Tactical Unit, the beret-wearing specialized emergency response force responsible for civil security in Hong Kong. Formed in response to a particularly bloody riot during the Fifties and used for the first time with great success in quelling the Star Ferry riots of 1966, the PTU has become one of the most recognizable law enforcement bodies in Hong Kong. As per suggested by the title, the action revolves around a single overnight shift of a PTU detachment as they make their rounds through dark streets, led by Officer Mike Ho (Simon Yam, who is scheduled to appear in the upcoming "Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life").
The film kicks off with a particularly inventive sequence in a restaurant in which an unkempt and incompetent plainclothes officer named Lo (To regular Lam Suet) has a run-in with gang leader Ponytail and his underlings. Lo ends up getting lured out of the restaurant by Ponytail's boys, winds up in a dark alley where an ambush is waiting, and in the ensuing confusion, loses his gun. Meanwhile back at the restaurant, Ponytail himself falls victim to an unexpected assailant and is stabbed to death.
Losing his gun and jeopardizing his upcoming promotion is one thing, but with Ponytail dead, there is a good chance that Lo's gun will be used to exact revenge on the person who ordered the hit. To remedy the situation, Lo begs Ho not to report the loss of the gun and to help him track down Ponytail's goons and the missing gun before the end of the night shift. Unfortunately, matters are complicated by the presence of CID officer Leigh Cheng (Ruby Wong of "Hit Team"), who is investigating the Ponytail murder and suspects that Lo is hiding something. The search for the Ponytail's boys and the missing gun then triggers a Rube-Goldbergian chain of events that culminates in a fateful meeting of all parties on a dark street corner, many of whom are deeply involved while others are merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Though "PTU" only runs at 80-something minutes, it feels longer due to the stylistic and narrative choices of director To. First, To indulges in the type of chic filmmaking that earned him a huge international following, such as his much lauded "The Mission (Cheong feng)". Lighting is used sparingly creating a sharp contrast between light and dark, giving the film a noir-ish feel. The camera also loves capturing the image of Ho and his team walking through the empty streets, and an overextended sequence of the PTU officers investigating the hangout of Ponytail's boys seems to take delight in its own construction. And while the focus on flair often overwhelms all other concerns, there is little doubt that "PTU" is jaw-droppingly beautiful to look at.
Second, with the emphasis on style over substance, the pacing can be at times challenging. It also does not help that the dialogue is at a minimum, while the divergent story lines do not seem to be going anywhere in the film's first half, as Lo, the CID, and the PTU shake every big boss, street urchin, two-bit hood, and informant they come across. Fortunately, To and his scribes (regulars Yau Nai-hoi and Au Kin-yee) make up for it with a terrific ending in which all the loose threads and seemingly unimportant distractions come together in a beautifully shot and elegantly scored guns-blazing shootout. And true to the irony that pervades the entire film, the film's coda has a few unexpected outcomes.
Yam received many accolades for his work in "PTU", and it is not hard to see why. After a career of mostly over-the-top ("Full Contact") or ridiculous ("Full-time Killer") roles, magazine cover-friendly Yam has never looked better in a film, exuding both poise and panache as Ho, and his no-nonsense approach to the role is engaging. Lam, who actually started his film career working in the background of To's productions, is perfectly cast as the desperate and inept Lo, an officer who resorts to using a toy gun to cover up his loss. Meanwhile, Cheng is up to the challenge of portraying the by-the-book CID officer who dogs Lo and Ho, though it is revealed that she has the same tendency to bend the rules when it is convenient. Finally, rounding out the lead cast is an underused Maggie Shiu ("The Longest Nite"), who plays the head of a fellow PTU detachment that shares Ho's beat.
"PTU" is a return to first principles for both Johnny To and his Milkyway Production Company. After doing brisk business this past spring in Hong Kong (despite the SARS outbreak), the film has done well both in its all-region DVD and VCD release, as well as garnering quite a bit of attention at film festivals around the world (such as the Seattle International Film Festival, where To received the Asian Trade Winds Award). Stylish, clever, and surprising, "PTU" is the epitome of what Hong Kong filmmaking is all about.
This movie is available for order from DVDAsian.com