MilkyWay Image Productions, the imprint set up by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, has been responsible for both the crime films by Johnnie To that have circulated in the West and a series of romcoms that haven’t circulated widely outside East Asia. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart marked a ‘return’ to directing for the prolific Johnnie To after a couple of years as solely a producer. Some reviewers credit both partners as co-directors, but on the print I watched, only Johnnie To has a directorial credit. Wai Ka-Fai is joined by three others as co-writers. Cinematography is by the usual MilkyWay DoP, Cheng Siu-Keung.
There are several features of this film that are seemingly ‘different’ and they all relate to a move by MilkyWay towards the mainland market. So this film features Gao YuanYuan, the beautiful mainland star who first appeared in the independent films of Sixth Generation directors such as Wang Xiaoshuai (e.g. in Beijing Bicycle 2001 and Shanghai Dreams 2005). She plays Zixin a young woman from Suzhou (close to Shanghai) who is working in Hong Kong bank as an investment analyst. This means that as well as trips to Suzhou/Shanghai, the film features a language track that mixes Cantonese, Mandarin and English instead of a dubbed Cantonese track throughout.
At the beginning of the narrative, Zixin is still extricating herself from a long relationship when she is spotted by Shen-ran (Louis Koo), the CEO from a neighbouring bank. But before he can move in, Zixin is rescued from a difficult situation by the dishevelled but charming drunk Qihong (Daniel Wu). Wooed by Shen-ran, Zixin misses a date with Qihong and then eventually gives up on Shen-ran as unreliable. The plot moves forward a few years. Shen-ran hasn’t given up his pursuit and after the financial crash of 2008-9 he re-emerges as the new CEO of the company which employs Zixin. In the meantime Qihong has sobered up and, re-vitalised, has become a successful architect with a new office in a building opposite that housing Shen-ran’s bank. The tri-angular love affair can now develop via displays through the plate-glass windows of the two office blocks and the extensive use of camera-phones.
The original Chinese title of the film translates as ‘Single Men and Women’ and since the three leads are all in their 30s I do wonder if there is some kind of commentary here about the new wealthy young elite, giving up their youth to make money and then conducting affairs in the alienated landscape of Hong Kong’s and Shanghai’s skyscrapers and using (for me at least) the alienating technology of mobile phones? Perhaps I’m just an old romantic? Having said that, I still found the film engaging. It’s interesting to see a narrative in which it is definitely the woman’s story. It begins with her and she chooses between the men. (But then I guess that is what usually happens in a romcom?) I very much enjoyed Gao YuanYuan’s performance and I’m intrigued that in Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia review he suggests that she has a very different ‘Mainland style’ of acting compared to the two male Hong Kong performers (who he describes as ‘slick’) and that she comes across “in a fresh way”. I think I know what he means but this notion of different acting styles needs investigation. Since many major Chinese productions now include both HK and mainland stars it should be evident on a wide scale.
Two or three aspects of the film confirm that this is a MilkyWay production. As several reviewers point out, the film moves along as effortlessly as we might hope for with a very experienced director and crew. The script has enough unusual ideas to be constantly engaging and at times it moves into fantasy levels that suggest some kind of screwball comedy narrative. And yet it is pretty shallow stuff and I felt irritated by the gloss and the constant references to conspicuous consumption. I longed for some of the characters who populate the MilkyWay crime films. Regular player Suet Lam is here, but as a buffoonish office manager. Perhaps the consumption angle (exotic cars, expensive meals) is a deliberate ploy to attract mainland audiences? Looking back to a film like Go, LaLa Go (China 2010), the central character seems to start at a lower level and work her way up – and in that film she has female friends/colleagues. Zixin seems very much on her own.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (is it an Elton John/Kiki Dee reference) was successful enough at the HK and mainland box office ($16 million) to warrant a sequel which appeared in 2014. From the reviews it sounds as technically efficient and blandly enjoyable as the first outing. I’m intrigued now to find examples of earlier MilkyWay romcoms which fans seem to prefer.
Trailer with English Subs:
The prolific Johnnie To was ‘discovered’ by the international film festival circuit around 1999 (more than ten years into his career) but it was not until 2005’s Election that his films began to appear regularly at festivals. I’ve seen To quoted as being interested primarily in the Hong Kong market and not wanting to draw on global films for inspiration. However, on the Criterion website he gives his own Top Ten Films which include three by Kurosawa Akira and two by Jean-Pierre Melville – and his films do seem to refer to well-known films from Hollywood, Bollywood, Europe and Japan. Or perhaps he and his co-writers just happen to come up with similar ideas? IMDB carries a ‘Trivia’ item claiming that “Alain Delon is his favourite actor”. In 2007/8 rumours began to circulate that To would direct a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic polar, Le cercle rouge (France 1970), with Alain Delon in a lead role. Delon turned down the opportunity for whatever reason (he was then in his early 70s) but To was still sought by a French production company to direct a France-HK co-production – in English.
The significance of this background is that Delon was a major influence on at least one aspect of John Woo’s ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ films – namely the modelling of Chow Yun-Fat’s characters in films like The Killer (HK 1989) and A Better Tomorrow (HK 1986). Johnnie To is one of the main inheritors of Woo’s position as a creator of Hong Kong crime films and so a potential replacement for Delon was found in the form of the French pop/rock singer and actor Johnny Hallyday. The resulting film Vengeance achieved a cinema release in both France and the US but went straight to DVD in the UK (where To films like Exiled (2006) have had cinema releases). More surprising, perhaps, is that Vengeance was shown in competition at Cannes.
Vengeance features three or four of To’s regular ensemble in lead roles and its setting is in Macau, suggesting to some fans/critics that it is part of a loose trilogy of Macau-set crime films alongside Exiled and The Mission (1999). The plot is simple. Three hit-men arrive at a house and kill a family of four – apart from the wife/mother who survives but is rendered quadriplegic. She is the daughter of a French chef/restaurant-owner and he arrives in Macau bent on revenge. Using a clue he steals from the police investigation, he finds another trio of hit-men and offers them all his wealth to find and kill his daughter’s attackers. The chef turns out to have once been an assassin himself and he still has some ‘professional’ competence but is hampered by loss of short-term memory caused by a bullet lodged in his head. In the ensuing slaughter he needs Polaroids of his own men and his family to avoid mistakes and to remember why he now kills again.
Vengeance received mainly positive reviews but some crime film fans dismissed it and Joe Queenan in the Guardian described it as ‘insane’. Partly, its reception depends on familiarity with the Hong Kong crime film. Certainly the script by To’s production partner and writer Wai Ka Fai relies more on interesting set-ups for action and our familiarity with the bonds of friendship and loyalty among the gang members than on a carefully worked out narrative. To professes not to work with detailed scripts. The set-ups for shoot-outs here are indeed creative – one in a picnic spot at night with moonlight revealing and obscuring the action, another on a waste tip with highly choreographed moves behind bales of waste materials. The familiar actors are Anthony Wong and Suet Lam on the ‘home team’ and Simon Yam as the chief villain – who ordered the original hit. As usual with To, cinematography is the preserve of Cheng Siu Keung and the film looks good, making the most of the locations.
What is odd is to see Johnny Hallyday as the ‘last man standing’ and by the time the dénouement arrives the narrative does seem to have morphed into something more spiritual and philosophical. Apart from the amnesia narrative, the dialogue in English also lends the proceedings an air of strangeness. Hallyday presumably speaks English well enough but some of the other leads are dubbed. I’m not sure about To’s facility with English as a working language (he sometimes has a translator) and shooting some of the scenes in the film must have been slightly surreal. I presume the English dialogue helped sell the film on the international market. It also serves to push the film towards the more ‘personal’ and idiosyncratic end of To’s output.
The Hong Kong Crime Season, currently underway at HOME Manchester and then on tour in the UK, is showing a range of HK films, including the classic Election (2005) by Johnnie To (on March 21st in Manchester). I’m reviewing some Johnnie To titles not in the season as my offering in support of a really worthwhile venture.
Johnnie To is one of the most prolific – and most successful – filmmakers in Hong Kong with a filmography dating back to 1978 in film and TV. He is primarily focused on making films for a local Hong Kong audience and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that his films began to feature on the awards lists of major international film festivals. Although he has made all kinds of films, it is his crime films from the early 2000s that have generated international interest and comparisons with crime film specialists such as Jean-Pierre Melville. To works through his own production outfit Milkyway Image Company and works with a small stock company of actors and creative personnel (writers, cinematographer etc.). His partner in Milkyway has been the writer/producer and occasional co-director Wai Ka-fai. The festival awards that some films have won has led to UK distribution for several of the recent Milkyway films.
PTU (Police Tactical Unit) is a good starting point for anyone new to To’s work – a short and ‘contained’ film set over one night on the streets of Central Hong Kong. The PTU puts two small groups of uniformed police on patrol in the nighttime streets. The night begins with news of a fellow officer killed on duty during a raid on an armoured car and then the PTUs come across a wounded plain-clothes officer from the Anti-Crime Unit. Sergeant Lo (Suet Lam) has been beaten up by four thugs from a local crime gang and in the process has lost his gun (a serious incident that should be reported). PTU Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) agrees to help Lo find the gun and not to report the incident until morning. In the meantime however a crime boss has been assassinated and Lo becomes involved in the battle between two gangs. The assassination also comes to the attention of a CID squad who don’t trust Lo. Ho also finds his authority challenged by Kat (Maggie Shiu), the other Sergeant leading the second PTU squad. She wants to ‘play by the book’.
The remainder of the narrative develops into a tense drama in which the two crime bosses both try to use the desperate Lo to set up an ambush while the PTU and CID attempt to follow events and to pursue slightly different agendas. In true crime genre style, all the main characters end up in a shoot-out and To ties up all the narrative strands very neatly. It’s clear from the outset that Johnnie To knows exactly what he is doing. The film succeeds because the script is tight (with some nice humorous touches), the performances by the leads are strong and the cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung is excellent throughout with a good balance between long shots and close-ups.
The Region 2 DVD carries interviews with both Johnnie To and Simon Yam. To explicitly addresses the behaviour of Ho as a police officer prepared to bend rules and coerce suspects. He seems to support this kind of action, arguing that it certainly happens. The moral question here – the end justifies the means – is complicated by the strong performance by Simon Yam, the most convincing ‘heroic’ police character. To’s position is further complicated by his decision to make both of the two female police characters ‘weak’. He attempts to justify this in his interview, arguing that the two weak characters are important and that they stand out because they are women – i.e. I think he is saying they are not weak because they are women! This is to say the least dubious, especially since there are no other significant female characters. All the interviews I’ve seen with To have been translated so perhaps I have misunderstood this?
To’s films are clearly first for Hong Kong (and mainland Chinese) audiences. The HK audience will no doubt recognise many of the locations and the actors but even they may be a little taken aback at the shift from full-on crime genre to more ‘personal’/arthouse approaches to genre. PTU has action sequences at the start and the end of the film but also long periods of stalking through the streets and in particular up the staircase of a warehouse for several minutes with minimal dialogue. Often the PTU members seemed to be choreographed moving in formation and standing in tableaux (see the image at the head of this posting). IMDB reveals what happened when PTU was released in North America and the lack of action was noted – but also the music comprising guitar riffs and synths. I found this fine but it really upset IMDB’s ‘Users’. Clearly scoring of crime films in Hong Kong does not match US conventions as far as US fans are concerned.
The fact that the narrative is completed within 24 hours is a distinct bonus, I think and I was reminded of Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After (HK 2014) which Cornerhouse/HOME screened as part of the Asia Triennial Festival in December 2014. ‘One Night In . . .’ is a concept in several important films such as La haine (France 1995) (also with a lost police gun) and The Warriors (US 1979) and it works just as well in PTU. I’m impressed with Johnnie To – more to follow.