Executioners (現代豪俠傳, Johnnie To & Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 1993)

At the end of The Heroic Trio, the shadowy rise of authoritarianism seemed to have been beaten back. The three superwomen at the film’s centre had discovered joy and liberation in female solidarity and were committed to fighting injustice in a flawed but improving world. If Heroic Trio had been a defiant reaction to Handover anxiety, then sequel Executioners (現代豪俠傳) is its flip side shifting from the retro 40s Hong Kong as Gotham aesthetic to a post-apocalyptic nightmare world where nuclear disaster has normalised corporate fascist rule. 

As Ching (Michelle Yeoh) explains in her opening voiceover, a nuclear attack has ruined the city contaminating its water and leaving ordinary citizens dependent on the Clear Water Corporation for safe drinking supplies and basic sanitation. The trio have been scattered, pushed back into the roles from which they escaped at the first film’s conclusion save perhaps for Ching who continues to serve a duplicitous authority but does so with clearer eyes and a humanitarian spirit driving a medicine truck to ensure those in need have access to healthcare. Chat (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) meanwhile has reverted to her cynical bandit lifestyle, hijacking water trucks mostly for her own gain but also ensuring the water gets to the needy. Tung (Anita Mui Yim-Fong) has abandoned her Wonder Woman persona on the insistence of her husband who is now a high ranking policeman with the military authority devoting herself to the role of the traditional housewife and mother to her daughter Cindy. 

Though the women seem to have maintained their bond, Ching and Chat turning up for a Christmas celebration with Cindy, the political realities soon disrupt their friendship as they find themselves at odds with each other given their shifting allegiances. As in the first film, Chat has continued to accept work from dubious authority in the form of the Colonel including tracking down a man who embarrassed the police by firing a gun at a rally for a cult-like protest leader, Chung Hon (Takeshi Kaneshiro), only the gunman later turns out to be a patsy and Chat has unwittingly helped them bump off the voice of the people as an overture for a military coup. Ching is secretly working for responsible government trying to safeguard the President to prevent his assassination by the Colonel, but obviously cannot say very much about her mission arousing Tung’s suspicions that she may have been part of a plot to have her husband killed. 

In any case, the true villain turns out to be a kind of Wonder Woman mirror image in that the mysterious Mr. Kim (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), CEO of Clear Water Corporation, is a man who wears a mask to hide his scarred face and dresses like an 18th century aristocrat as if engaged in some kind of Man in the Iron Mask cosplay. Kim and the Colonel have been collaborating to engineer a military coup by deliberately restricting water supplies. The oblivious Chung Hon had unwittingly been Kim’s stooge, stoking up public resentment about the water situation to give the government an excuse for a crackdown and the Colonel to move. Chat’s path to redemption amounts to vindicating the faint hope that the water contamination was a hoax, which she eventually does by taking Cindy with her to smash the corporate dam and return the water to its rightful flow and the people of the city. But like the Evil Master, Kim does not die so easily turning up for a surprisingly hands on fight squaring off against the barely unified trio who are only just beginning to repair their friendships on coming to a fuller understanding of the reality of their circumstances. 

They are all in a sense liberated, though less joyfully than in the first film and largely through violent loss. The good guys don’t always win and a fair few die while all the women can do is keep moving, fighting off one threat after another with few guarantees of success and not even each other to rely on. Where the first film had embraced a hopeful sense of comic camp, Executioners skews towards the nihilistic in its dystopian world of corporate overreach and increasing militarism in which the trio no longer trust each other and are each re-imprisoned inside their original cages from patriarchal social norms to capitalistic inhumanity and questionable loyalties with the only hopeful resolution resting on “the sincerity of our friendship” in a world which may be healing but is far from happy. 


Executioners screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

The Heroic Trio (東方三俠, Johnnie To, 1993)

Female solidarity becomes an unexpected weapon against stealthy authoritarian take over in Johnnie To’s gloriously camp superhero action fest, The Heroic Trio (東方三俠). Uniting three of the top stars of the age in Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung, and Michelle Yeoh the film flirts with Handover anxiety in the “Evil Religion” that threatens to steal the children of Hong Kong, but eventually locates the source of salvation in the heroine’s shared humanity brokered by a tripartite solidarity of justice and equality that defies both the patriarchal world around them and the cruel authoritarianism in which they have been raised. 

In an almost biblical allegory, large numbers of male infants have been going missing over the last 18 months and the police are, predictably, mystified relying on the reappearance of the mysterious superhero Wonder Woman to solve the mystery herself. Truth be told, top Inspector Lau (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) hasn’t yet realised that Wonder Woman is his own wife, Tung (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), so perhaps his investigative skills aren’t all that despite the dynamism of the opening scenes which see him demonstrate his masculinity by leaping out of a window stop a thief from driving off in his classic car which is parked outside a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. Nothing really gets done until the chief of police gets a note that his own infant son is next on the list, though he briefly considers simply swapping his kid for another couple’s child while hiring “Thief Catcher” Chat (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) to get him back when he’s kidnapped by an “Invisible Woman”, Ching (Michelle Yeoh), whom Tung manages to wound while saving the decoy baby. 

As it turns out, Ching has been taking the babies on behalf of “Evil Master” (Yen Shi-Kwan) who lives in an underground lair in the sewers and is the head of a mysterious cult hellbent on finding a new king for China. There may be a degree of Handover anxiety in Evil Master’s mission, seeking to possess and control Hong Kong by brainwashing its children eventually possessing Ching by removing her bodily autonomy while her sisters must quite literally free her from his icy grasp. Each of the kidnapped boys is said to have a divine destiny, though Evil Master doesn’t know which one is the new king and has a habit of simply killing the ones who disappoint him while the others are raised as mindless automatons consuming those like them and destined to become thoughtless killing machines like the bloodthirsty Kau (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). 

Chat, who was raised as one of Evil Master’s minions but managed to escape thanks to the largess of Ching and his since become an ultra-capitalist bounty hunter if one less cynical than she originally seems, thinks it’s better to simply end the cannibal kids’ misery before they end up like Kau while Tung prioritises saving the infants so they can be returned to their parents before being subject to one of Evil Master’s weird rituals. Ching, meanwhile, is only participating in Evil Master’s plan to protect the man she loves, a mad scientist slowly succumbing to poisoning caused by his invention in true genre fashion. It is then in a sense love that causes Ching to reject her programming, but it’s the solidarity of Tung and Chat, along with a desire for vengeance, that finally gives her the courage to rebel. 

In a brief flashback, Tung had failed to save Ching during a tough training session with their mentor who had cruelly told her that she’d have to fight for justice alone while Ching, cast out, sought support by turning to the dark side. The scene repeats itself twice in the film’s closing scenes in which Tung is this time able to save Ching but only because of the support from their friend and equal Chat making up the third point of the triangle and anchoring them both firmly to ensure they will not fall. “Life is meaningful if you can face yourself” Tung tells Ching, shedding her mask having presumably dealt with her own dark past and pulling her sister up with her as an equal leaving the past behind to fight for a future of justice and freedom. 

To and action director Ching Siu-tung recast Hong Kong as Gotham with a production design quite clearly inspired by Western comic books in which the three heroines end by getting fancy capes that flicker in the wind. Chat, a motorcycle-riding delinquent force of nature, even at one point launches herself into battle on an oil drum propelled by dynamite which she later uses to take out the cannibal kids not to mention Evil Master himself. But it turns out the spectre of creepy, ritualistic authoritarianism doesn’t die so easily, Evil Master’s charred skeleton gets back up for one last hurrah until his brain finally explodes when confronted by Ching’s rejection having returned to the fold and now ready to sacrifice herself for a freer future for all. Essentially a comic book wuxia, To’s ironic action drama allows its heroic trio to find salvation in female solidarity anchoring each other in a world beset by fear and villainy.


The Heroic Trio screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊, Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo Ping, Johnnie To, the late Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, 2022)

Seven of Hong Kong’s most prominent directors come together for a collection of personal tales of Hong Kong past and present in the seven-part anthology film, Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊). Produced by Johnnie To’s Milky Way, the film was first announced several years ago and originally titled Eight & a Half though director John Woo sadly had to leave the project due to his wife’s ill health which explains why there is no short set in the 1970s.

Each of the segments reflects the director’s personal nostalgia for a particular moment in time and there is certainly a divide between the 1950s and 60s sequences directed by Sammo Hung and Ann Hui respectively and those of the 80s and 90s which are imbued with a sense of Handover anxiety along with the closing meditation on the various ways the city has or has not changed. In any case, Sammo Hung’s opener Exercise is a slice of personal nostalgia which looks back to the heyday of Hong Kong kung fu as the young Sammo learns to buckle down and train with discipline under the guidance of his authoritarian teacher played by his own son, Timmy Hung. Similarly education-themed, Hui’s Headmaster echoes the documentary aesthetic seen in the later stages of Our Time Will Come in her naturalistic capture of a primary school reunion taking place in 2001 before flashing back to the early ‘60s as the headmaster and the children reminisce about a kind and idealistic young teacher who sadly passed away at 39 from a longterm illness exacerbated by misapplied traditional medicine. Essentially a tale of old-fashioned reserve in the unrealised desires of the headmaster and the teacher who elected not to marry because of her illness in the knowledge she would die young, Hui’s gentle melodrama harks back to a subtler age. 

Patrick Tam’s 80s segment, Tender is the Night, perhaps does the opposite in its incredibly theatrical tale of love thwarted by political realities as a lovelorn middle-aged man looks back on the failure of his first, and last, love for the teenage girlfriend who like so many of that time emigrated with her parents to escape Handover anxiety. Rich in period detail and imbued with the overwhelming quality of adolescent emotion, Tam’s maximalist romance is a tale of love in the age of excess but also of middle-aged nostalgia and personal myth making which nevertheless positions the looming Handover as a point of youthful transition. 

The 1997 sequence itself, Homecoming directed by Yuen Wo-ping, is in someways subversive in again presenting a young woman who firmly believes her future lies abroad rather than in post-Handover Hong Kong and placing her at playful odds with her traditionalist grandfather, a former martial arts champion who spends his days watching old Wong Fei-Hung movies. The eventual resolution that the girl, who insists on going by her Western name Samantha, returns to Hong Kong a few years later to care for the grandfather who has aged quite rapidly undercuts the sense of anxiety, yet there is something in the cultural and generational conflict that exists between them eased by mutual exchange as she teaches him basic English and he teaches her kungfu that hints less that the traditional is better than the modern than that there’s room for both hamburgers and rice rolls. 

Moving into the 2000s, Johnnie To’s Bonanza then takes aim at the increasingly consumerist mindset of the contemporary society in picking up a theme from Life Without Principle as three young Hong Konger’s become obsessed with getting rich quick through financial investment beginning with the dot-com bubble and shifting into property profiteering during the SARS epidemic. The trio fail every time before hitting the jackpot with some shares they bought by mistake during the 2008 financial crisis suggesting that it all just luck after all. One of the guys comically switches business opportunities in line with each of the crises/opportunities, firstly getting into mobile phones, then peddling healthcare products, and finally investing in self-storage in an echo of his society’s scrappy entrepreneurial spirit. 

The final film from Ringo Lam who completed his segment Astray shortly before passing away 2018 continues the theme in meditating on the modern city as its hero is literally killed by a sense of cultural dislocation after getting lost in a very changed Hong Kong having emigrated to the UK and returned with his family for a New Year holiday. While ironically remembering his own father complaining that times had changed, he finds himself bewildered by the absence of familiar landmarks and adrift in his home city. He dreams another life for himself in the countryside in which his son decides to emigrate to America while his wife would prefer he find a job in Hong Kong but his final message to him that it’s not difficult to live happily perhaps frees him of the sense of nostalgia which has led to his father’s death.

The best and final episode, however, Tsui Hark’s Conversation is set at no particular time and my in fact take place in the future as a mental patient, who might actually be a doctor pretending to be a mental patient, suddenly gives his name as Ann Hui followed by Maggie Cheung and a string of Hong Kong directors from Ringo Lan to Jonnie To and John Woo and challenges the doctor, who might be a mental patient, as he struggles to keep up with him. Tsui and Hui make reflective cameo’s at the segment’s conclusion perhaps hinting that this has been a deep conversation with the history not only of Hong Kong but its cinema through the eyes of those who helped to make it what it is.


Septet: The Story of Hong Kong screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Life Without Principle (奪命金, Johnnie To, 2011)

A financial earthquake destabilises the ordinary lives of a series of Hong Kongers in Johnnie To’s circular thriller, Life Without Principle (奪命金). As one character puts it, greed is human and everyone always seems to want more but even a little is out of the reach of many and so perhaps their desire is understandable in a world in which a loan shark can lord it over the bank who are in essence little better than he is in exploiting their customers by charging them extortionate fees yet failing to protect their investments. 

Just before the financial crisis of 2008, bank clerk Teresa (Denise Ho Wan-see) is beginning to fear for her job because she’s stuck at the bottom of the staff sales leader board and her boss doesn’t even bother to tell her off anymore. Under pressure she finds herself misselling a high risk BRIC loan to an older woman seemingly fearful of her declining economic power and hoping to make her savings pay a little more rather than just sitting in the bank doing nothing. Meanwhile Teresa is at the constant beck and call of boorish loanshark Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang) who won’t take out a loan with her because banks just rip you off. “Business is about profit but you have to play fair” he unironically explains handing over a card in case Teresa ever needs a “fair” loan pointing out you’ll pay 35% interest on a credit card but he’ll give you 15% even with bad credit. In any case, he leaves with only half of the 10 million he took out, asking Teresa to deposit the rest and sort the forms out later because he’s in a hurry, only he ends up getting offed in the car park meaning that second five million is in paper limbo. 

Teresa can’t really argue that the bank is morally any better than the loanshark, only that what they’re doing is legally regulated even if she has just broken a series of regulations in talking the old woman into the risky loan because she herself fears a financial crisis in losing her job. Meanwhile in another part of the city, one old man ends up killing another in a property dispute amid the city’s notoriously difficult housing market. The policeman investigating, Cheung (Richie Jen), is ironically called away because his wife, Connie (Myolie Wu Hang-yee), is nagging him about buying a new apartment requiring a one million deposit on a 30-year mortgage. She complains that he’s stubborn and overcautious, but he is at least pretty much the only person showing any kind of prudence in the cutthroat investment world even as he hesitates on learning that his estranged father is at death’s door leaving behind an illegitimate little girl it falls on he and his wife to adopt. 

If Cheung’s caution seems cold, it’s ironically mirrored in the film’s only pure hearted hero, ironic triad parody Panther (Sean Lau Ching-wan) who only cares about old-fashioned ideals like gangster loyalty even if those ideals are often expressed through money. Complimented by a boss for not trying to steal from a wedding collection he nevertheless games the restauranteur but only desires money in order to bail out his gangster friend Wah (Cheung Siu-fai) who is immediately deserted by all his minions who obviously don’t have the same ideas of loyalty as old school Panther. “Loyalty matters most” he insists to an old friend who left the triads to work as a junk collector because you can make more money recycling cardboard than in the contemporary underworld. Even his former sworn brother Lung (Philip Keung Ho-man) has managed to do very well for himself as a legitimate businessman hosting online gambling platforms and playing the stock market. 

Yet as Panther pores over data it becomes obvious that they are all betting on the market remaining the same, blindsided by the advent of the Greek Debt crisis and its devastating destabilisation. They thought they had control, that the decisions they made based on the data they received would remain correct only to realise that they are almost entirely powerless. Teresa fiddles with the jammed lock on her cabinet as she vacillates over whether or not to cash out of the corporate life with the “invisible” money, while Connie reckons with potentially losing her deposit when the already risky mortgage application is turned down, and the old lady is left to face potential financial ruin all alone in the twilight of her life. Then again, fate is fickle. The crisis passes as quickly as it arrived allowing a kind of normality to return but finding the desperate protagonists largely unchanged if perhaps emboldened by the feeling of relief resulting from their accidental lucky escapes from certain ruin. A slick and intricately plotted elliptical thriller, Life Without Principle revels in cosmic ironies but nevertheless holds only scorn for the dubious promises of spiralling consumerism in an increasingly jaded society.


Life Without Principle screens at London’s Prince Charles Cinema on 7th July as part of The Heroic Mission: Johnnie To Retrospective.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Heroic Mission: Johnnie To Retrospective Comes to PCC July 7 – 14

UK-China Film Collab and Trinity CineAsia will present a three film Johnnie To Retrospective at London’s Prince Charles Cinema from 7th to 14th July.

7th July, 6pm: Life Without Principle

Spiralling financial crisis drama in which the lives of a conflicted bank employee (Denise Ho) forced to sell high risk loans or lose her job, a petty thug (Sean Lau Ching-Wan) trying his luck on the futures market, and a policeman (Richie Jen) who needs money right away to put a deposit on a flat in Hong Kong’s ultra-competitive housing market, are intertwined by a cosmic twist of fate.

12th July, 6.30pm: Running on Karma

Andy Lau stars as a former monk turned bodybuilder and exotic dancer who is gifted with the ability to see other people’s karma. Encountering a policewoman (Cecilia Cheung) whose karma is particularly bad, he decides to help her.

14th July, 8.30pm: Breaking News

Prophetic examination of creeping authoritarianism and media manipulation in which a mainland gang goes to war with a cynical police chief after a street cop’s desperate act of surrender is accidentally captured by a roving news crew on the scene to cover a traffic accident.

Tickets on sale now via the Prince Charles Cinema.

Chasing Dream (我的拳王男友, Johnnie To, 2019)

“You gotta give everything to get everything” according to an intense rocker in Johnnie To’s musical boxing romance, Chasing Dream (我的拳王男友). What turns out to be most important however is not physical endurance but emotional authenticity, if you want to be taken seriously then you have to take yourself seriously first and that means learning to find the courage to embrace your authentic self. A tale of two crazy kids chasing the Chinese Dream, To’s colourful fantasy world is not without its bite as he leans in hard to what it costs to succeed and not in what is often a merciless society.

Our hero Tiger (Jacky Heung Cho), “The Gluttonous Boxer”, is a young man who broke with his boxing master to step into the MMA ring but is also an enforcer for a shady local loansharking gang run by his manager. Aware he is approaching the end of his career – a doctor later tells him he’s in danger of going blind, rupturing his liver, and getting Parkinson’s – Tiger’s life changes one day when he recognises one of the ring girls, Cuckoo (Wang Keru), as the granddaughter of an old woman who used to sell noodles back when he studied boxing in his rural hometown. Unfortunately, Tiger’s boss has also recognised her because she is in deep debt with the mob. Some of the guys want to cut their losses and sell her on to the sex trade but Tiger, seemingly indifferent, claims he can find her a way to work off her debt and thereby kickstarts his rescue not only of her but of himself from the increasingly empty life of an ageing prize fighter. 

What he discovers is that Cuckoo is harbouring intense resentment over being seduced and betrayed by one of China’s biggest pop stars who made himself a name as the “king of originality” after stealing all of her songs and leaving her in the lurch. Qu Fengfeng (Ma Xiaohui) is now a judge on China’s biggest TV singing competition Perfect Diva and Cuckoo has a plan to confront him by getting on the show, the only snag being that she is extremely unpolished as a performer. Tiger, meanwhile, wants to get out of the ring and has a plan to start his own hotpot empire essentially by copying all the best bits of the major chains and bringing them together. He vows to help Cuckoo train by having her mimic the performance styles of major stars, but what she quickly discovers is that there is no substitute for emotional authenticity. A fellow constant decides to switch her routine at the last minute after catching sight of Cuckoo rehearsing, but is unceremoniously voted off by judges who’d rather she “performed a tacky fan dance” (as she was originally planning to do) than simply copycatting famous artists. Challenged that her songs are too similar to Qu Fengfeng’s Cuckoo snaps back that it’s his style that’s close to hers, earning the admiration of astute female judge Zhao Ying (Wu Yitong) who can perhaps detect the artist inside her beginning to free itself from her sense of insecurity. 

Achieving your dreams can however come at a heavy cost. Pearl “the kick ass rocker” (Kelly Yu Wenwen) has an intense, aggressive performance style but in a running gag turns up at each consecutive audition with a new incapacity, eventually using a wheelchair and wearing a back brace only able to move her arms. “Totally worth it in the name of music!” she cheerfully explains, literally destroying herself to get to the top. Tiger does something much the same exploited as he is by his unscrupulous gangster manager, shouting out “it doesn’t hurt” as he trains by having people jump on his belly, but the battering he takes is not so much for himself as for others, stepping back into the ring in defence first of Cuckoo and then of his dejected master, Ma Qing (Shao Bing), whose attempt to defend the dignity of the noble art of boxing against the modern upstart MMA goes horribly wrong. But Tiger cannot fight others’ battles for them, and the only way he can win is by being himself while honouring their legacy. 

Finally finding how to bare their souls for all to see and “have someone share the fatigue of loneliness”, the pair learn to recalibrate their dreams while falling in love discovering that mutual support is their guiding light as they give each other the strength to be all they can be. Ostensibly somewhere in Mainland China, To’s make believe, retro future city has a colourful comic book intensity that adds a mythic quality to the saga of Tiger and Cuckoo that is perfectly in tune with his dreamy romanticism in which sudden flights of fancy including a full-blown Bollywood-style dance sequence seem entirely natural. A surprisingly moving, wilfully absurd musical love story between wildly grinning pugilist and a young woman learning to sing from the the heart, Chasing Dream is a delightful sugar pop confection in which two crazy kids find love in the ring and with it the power to believe in themselves and a better future.


Chasing Dream streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)

Office (華麗上班族, Johnnie To, 2015)

Johnnie To office poster 1Can love and capitalism walk hand in hand? Perhaps not, at least in Johnnie To’s beautifully choreographed musical exploration of high stakes finance and moral bankruptcy, Office (華麗上班族). Adapted from Sylvia Chang’s stage play, Office situates itself on the edge of an abyss as the 2008 financial crisis edges its way towards Hong Kong while enterprising businessmen try to figure out how to ride the waves even if that means standing on someone else’s shoulders as they sink deeper into the moral morass that is the modern economy.

Top Hong Kong trading company Jones & Sunn is about to go public. CEO Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang) has long been running the show for her boss and lover, Chairman Ho (Chow Yun-fat), who has promised her a sizeable dividend once the floatation is complete. Meanwhile, two new interns have just joined the company, eager to make their marks in the corporate world and ensure they survive their three month probation. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Li Xiang (Wang Ziyi), “Lee like Ang Lee, Xiang like dream”, just wants to work hard and get rich so he can live a nice life, while his colleague Kat Ho (Lang Yueting) has just returned from studying economics at Harvard and appears to be slumming it in a lowly internship while (unconvincingly) pretending to be from a humble background. The funny thing is no one seems to pick up on the fact Kat has the same surname as the company’s owner, or they might have figured out she’s the boss’ daughter either forced to learn the trade from the ground up or working as a spy among the regular employees. In any case, Li Xiang is smitten.

Love, it seems, is the destabilising force at the centre of this great machine. CEO Chang, an all powerful woman in a male dominated industry, rules the office with a will of iron but allows herself to be manipulated by Ho with whom she has been having a longstanding affair. Ho has a wife in a coma, but neither of the pair object to the office gossip which brands Chang as “Mrs. Ho”, seeing it only as cutely romantic rather than a slight on Chang’s very real authority. Meanwhile, lonely in Ho’s lack of serious commitment, Chang has also been sleeping with her favourite underling, the feted David (Eason Chan), who in turn is getting fed up with feeling like a spare part who’s hit the peak of his career. Unbeknownst to Chang who may have taken her all-seeing eye off the ball, David has started playing with fire in gambling with company money and losing badly. As a counter measure, he’s begun romancing lovelorn accountant Sophie (Tang Wei), who unlike Chang, is still facing the work/home dilemma in that her fiancé back on the Mainland is pressuring her to give up work and settle down.

Li Xiang is very keen on following his “dreams” which in the beginning are charmingly naive – he wants a nice life for himself and the ability to pay off his friends’ debts (seemingly for entirely altruistic reasons, not as an excuse to show off). Slowly, however, his new world begins to corrupt him. He’s irritated that he’s not allowed to ride the executive elevator and badly wants in, but is still green enough to chivalrously cover up for Kat’s mistakes, while Kat is so clueless that she forgets turning up to work in designer outfits and in a chauffeur driven car is going to blow her cover. Li Xiang sees through her, but only to the nice part – it never really occurs to him she’s a mole or planning to betray Mrs. Chang who is kind of her step-mother. Chang isn’t blind to office politics. She sees Li Xiang take the blame for Kat and even likes him for it. She also likes his “originality” and plans to take him under her wing for her new expansionist plans but finds herself once again blindsided by all the difficult romantic drama bubbling under the surface of coldhearted capitalism.

David and Sophie decide they want to start a “love revolution”, but David has already gone to a dark place and his romantic confession is immediately followed by a manipulative request to get Sophie to help him with his nefarious plans. Meanwhile, Li Xiang’s gradual descent into corporatism begins to sour Kat who’d taken a liking to him because he wasn’t like everyone else. They didn’t mean to do it, but they’ve betrayed themselves and others in their relentless pursuit of conventional success. Drunken salarymen at a local bar ask themselves what all of this is for when their kids don’t recognise them and they barely recognise themselves, yet no one quite has the guts to get off the corporate train and go do something else.

In To’s elaborate set design, no one is ever truly able to leave the office. An elegant construction of neon and steel, the abstract theatricality of To’s artificial universe only underlines its essential meaninglessness – something the Office’s denizens eventually come to understand whether they choose to stay or not. As Chang quips, smart guys control money and stupid ones are controlled by it, but she herself is wise enough to know when the game is up and it’s time to move on. Did love destroy the system or did the system destroy love? Beautiful melodies telling us terrible things, To’s anti-capitalist musical crushes its earnest heroes under the wheel of progress while they dance blithely all the way over the edge.


Office screens in Chicago on Oct. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Drug War (毒戰, Johnnie To, 2012)

Drug War posterIn the world of the Hong Kong action flick, the bad guys are often the good guys, and the “good guys” not so good after all. Even crooks have their code and there are rules which cannot be broken ensuring the heroes, even when they’re forced into morally dubious acts, emerge with a degree of nobility in having made a free choice to preserve their honour over their life. In Mainland China, however, things are a little different. The bad guys have to be thoroughly bad and the good guys squeaky clean. You won’t find any dodgy cops or dashing villains in a thriller from the PRC where crime can never, ever, pay. And then, enter Johnnie To who manages to exactly what the censors board asks of him while at the same painting law and chaos as two sides of the same coin, each deluded and obsessed, engaged in an internecine war in which the idea of public safety has been all but forgotten.

The film begins with the conclusion of an undercover operation run by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) in which he successfully disrupts a large scale smuggling operation. Meanwhile, meth cook Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) attempts to escape after an explosion kills his wife and her brothers but drives directly into a restaurant and is picked up by the police. Timmy soon wakes up and tries to escape but is eventually recaptured – from inside the chiller cabinet in the morgue in a particularly grim slice of poetic irony. Seeing as drug manufacture carries the death penalty in the PRC, Timmy turns on the charm. He’ll talk, say anything he needs to say, to save his own life. Including giving up his buddies.

Timmy is, however, a cypher. His true intentions are never quite clear – is he really just an opportunist doing whatever it takes to survive, or does he still think he can escape and is engaged in a series of clever schemes designed outsmart the ice cool Zhang? Zhang takes the bait. Eyeing a bigger prize, he lets Timmy take him into the heart of a finely tuned operation even playing the part of loudmouth gangster Haha in a studied performance which reinforces the blankness of his officialdom. Zhang is certain he is in control. He is the law, he is the state, he is the good.

Could he have misread Timmy? Zhang doesn’t think so. Timmy remains calm, watchful. Eventually he leads Zhang to a bigger drug factory staffed by a pair of mute brothers who have immense respect for their boss. Suddenly Timmy’s impassive facade begins to crack as he tells his guys about his wife’s passing but it’s impossible to know if his momentary distress is genuine, a result of mounting adrenaline, or simply part of his plan – he does, after all, need to get the brothers to give themselves away. Unbeknownst to Timmy, however, the brothers are pretty smart and might even be playing their own game.

To pits Hong Konger Timmy against Captain Zhang of the PRC in a game of cat and mouse fuelled by conflicting loyalties and mutual doubts. Whatever he’s up to, Timmy is a no good weasel who is either selling out his guys or merely pretending to so that he can save them (or maybe just save himself and what’s left of his business). Zhang, meanwhile, is a singleminded “justice” machine who absolutely will not stop, ever, until all the drug dealers in China have been eradicated. Yet isn’t all of this destruction a little bit much? Zhang doesn’t really care about the drugs because drug abuse wrecks people’s lives, maybe he doesn’t really care about the law but only about order and control, and what men like Timmy represent is a dangerous anarchy which exists in direct opposition to his conception of the way the world ought to work.

There is a degree of subversive implication in the seemingly overwhelming power of the PRC coupled with its uncompromising rigidity which paradoxically makes it appear weak rather than strong, desperate to maintain an image of control if not the control itself. The final fight takes place in front of a school with a couple of completely non-fazed and very cute little children trapped inside a school bus – Timmy does at least try to keep them calm even while using them as part of his plan, but Zhang and his guys seem to care little for the direction of the stray bullets they are spraying in order to win the internecine battle with the drug dealers and stop Timmy in his tracks once and for all. A pared down, non-stop action juggernaut, Drug War (毒戰, Dú Zhàn) is another beautifully constructed, infinitely wry action farce from To which takes its rather grim sense of humour all the way to the tragically ironic conclusion.


International trailer (English subtitles)

PTU (Johnnie To, 2003)

PTU_PosterMissing gun thrillers have become a mainstay of Asian cinema from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog right up to the Jiang Wen starring The Missing Gun. Less than a year after Lu Chuan’s existential drama, Johnnie To takes a typically ironic look at the same problem as an arrogant yet incompetent officer gets into a disagreement with a gang of thugs and loses his gun just as a particular moment of chaos is about to strike the local gang scene. Set over the course of a single night, To’s film has an ambiguous attitude to its central collection of street cops and detectives as they attempt to recover the missing firearm before it causes more harm than they are able to contain.

A gang of petty thugs led by local bigwig “Ponytail” marches into small restaurant and commandeers the best table, forcing the young man already sitting at it eating his dinner to move further back. A short time later, Officer Lo (Lam Suet) gets into an altercation with a young man outside and then marches in and commandeers Ponytail’s table, forcing the group onto the table behind, and the young man from before onto a tiny perch near the kitchen. Only a few minutes later, Lo gets a call and leaves but is followed by some of Ponytail’s guys while Ponytail stays behind is knifed in a shock execution attempt which threatens to permanently unbalance the precariously held equilibrium of the local underworld scene.

When Lo the leaves the restaurant, he discovers that the first guy who he arrogantly disrespected has thrown yellow paint all over his car but his real problem occurs when Ponytail’s guys start chasing him and he decides to play along, only to slip on a banana skin halfway through his big moment. When he wakes up surrounded by cops, he realises he’s missing his gun and that he has a big problem. Sympathetic nighttime beat cop Mike (Simon Yam) agrees to help him find it out of a sense of solidarity, managing to get his by the book colleague to agree to give them until dawn to sort it all out.

To opens the film with a news report of an event earlier in the evening in which a police officer was killed during a robbery. Some of the PTU guys react with gallows humour only to be shot down by the fairly humourless Mike who reminds them that one of their own died today and they ought to have some respect. That is perhaps why he decides to help Lo, whom all of the other police officers regard as something of a ridiculous embarrassment. A rare leading role for To favourite Lam Suet, Lo is a genial figure of fun whose ongoing self aggrandisement mixed with pure panic at the thought of all his dodgy dealings coming out if he has to report his gun stolen makes for entertaining viewing, especially as his incompetencies are usually of the amusing rather than dangerous kind.

Yet “good guy” Mike is not exactly the beacon of fairness that he first seems. His resentment at being shouldered with a straight laced rookie from HQ, tonight of all nights, is more than just irritation with playing babysitter. Concerned that HQ may have sent a spy to look in on his very own night watch, Mike keeps the rookie in the back away from the less palatable parts of his evening which include getting information out of suspects through torturing their friends, and nearly kicking a guy to death in an alleyway. King of the night, Mike knows each and every dodgy spot and is perfectly primed to track down Lo’s gun through his thorough knowledge of the local gang scene.

Taking the tripartite structure common to many of To’s films, PTU makes full use of the director’s familiar world view in which all outcomes are the result of random acts of fate and unforeseeable coincidence. Thus, Lo slips on a banana skin, an insignificant young man turns out to be of pivotal importance, and everyone keeps thinking their phone is ringing but it turns out to be someone else’s. The gun, the great Mcguffin in all this, is revealed to be an irrelevance, resolving itself in due course just as the real chaos – the all out gang war between two rival Triad clans, brings the evening to a close. At the end of this extremely long night, Lo, Mike, a female police detective investigating Ponytail’s murder, and just about everyone else has their own version of what really happened, but, as to be expected, none of them quite tally with the events we have just witnessed.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

The Mad Monk (濟公, Johnnie To, 1993)

mad monk poster“The Mad Monk” sounds like a great name for a creepy ghost, emerging robed and chanting from the shadows to make you fear for your mortal soul. Sadly, The Mad Monk (濟公, Jì Gōng) features only one “ghost”, but it might just be the cutest in cinema history. The second of Johnnie To’s Shaw Brothers collaborations with comedy star Stephen Chow is another wisecracking romp in which Chow revels in his smart alec superiority, settling bets made in heaven and eventually vowing to spread peace and love across the whole world.

Dragon Fighter Lo Han (Stephen Chow) has a low opinion of his fellow celestial beings. He thinks they ought to be taking more of an interest rather than blindly following the rules. Consequently, Lo Has been making all kinds of mischief and the other gods are very annoyed. They’ve appealed to their high arbitrator – the goddess of mercy (Anita Mui). Wisecraking Lo Han first tries to fob the gods off by sending his friend, Tiger Fighter (Ng Man-tat), instead but can’t resist offering a few more words of smugness in his own defence. Nevertheless, the goddess sees something in Lo Han’s argument and, rather than condemn him to a life as an animal, sets him a challenge – go to Earth and change the fates of three people whose destinies are set to remain the same for the next nine lives. Lo Han agrees and the “Mad Monk” is born.

Like Justice, My Foot, Mad Monk is an opportunity for Chow to show off his verbal dexterity with occasional forays into martial arts. Sadly much of the fast and furious dialogue does not translate though Chow’s spirited performance helps to breathe life into the comedy. Slightly less forgivably, To and Chow repeat jokes from the earlier film including one odd, very much of its time sequence in which Chow walks in on two gay men enjoying a banana in the privacy of their own room. Other attempts at long running jokes include Tiger’s metamorphosis into a giant baby which soon becomes tiring but is eventually forgotten.

Lo Han’s mission is to “reform” a prostitute (Maggie Cheung) who enjoys her work too much, a beggar (Anthony Wong ) with social anxiety and low self esteem, and a stone hearted villain (Kirk Wong) intent on inflicting as much evil as possible on the Mad Monk and his cohorts. Whilst living as a mortal, Lo Han is not allowed to use any of his celestial magic, but is given a magic fan which can be used three times a day. The goddess of mercy instructs Lo Han that he is to use his sincerity to convert these dyed in the wool sinners, which he does – descending to Earth in an oddly Christlike fashion, determined to save these lost souls even if he’s doing it for the pleasure of winning a bet more than an altruistic desire to help “troubled” people back onto what he sees as “the right path”.

Like many Shaw Brothers comedies, Mad Monk’s narrative is its least important element. The nonsensical plot races from one random incident to another, glued together with over the top slapstick and the occasional martial arts showdown. By the end, Lo Han has wound up in a monster movie as he tries to stop a giant marauding spirit from destroying the city even though he is running out of time for his personal quest and currently has other pressing concerns. Lo Han’s “sincere” attempts to manipulate his targets into changing their ways may seem as if they fail, but even if the effects will be felt in the next life rather than this one, Lo Han has made difference in the mortal world, albeit not quite the one he expected. Seemingly out of nowhere, Lo Han’s mission seems to have changed him too as he begins extolling the virtues of compassion and insisting on building another paradise to spread peace and love through the world. Like the film itself, it’s a noble cause but one that sadly never hits its mark.


Celestial Pictures trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)