Johnny To

I’ve praised this director before, but I’ll bump him up again, having just watched Running on Karma, a neatly-strange little mix of genres that plays out quite enjoyably. In a nutshell: bodybuilder/male-stripper (Andy Lau, in a muscle suit) is a former Buddhist monk and sees karma, which gets him entangled with a police investigation. Yes.

It takes its notions of karma and the pleasurable protocol of action sequences seriously, yet its tone avoids that kind of unblinking engagement in genre or tone that other Hong Kong directors (like Woo) sometimes fall into–the conventions are, when you’re being melodramatic, play it over-the-top melodramatic, and the same when being funny, or romantic, or…. To, on the other hand, has this lightness of touch–while never mocking or ironic, his films also dance across generic boundaries so that, thinking you’re watching a comedy, something fairly violent happens, and vice versa. Besides the pleasures of Lau (I’ll go ahead and say it–as charismatic as and far more interesting than Chow Yun Fat), and the textbook beauty of To’s action choreography, you get a surefooted spinning that meets and disrupts our expectations.

So check out Karma, or even better, my favorite The Mission, or any of the many films of his Netflix carries. I mean you, Howell and Chakladar. These are damn fine action films.

33 thoughts on “Johnny To”

  1. I ordered ‘The Mission’ on your recommendation, Mike, and sat down to watch it last week. As the menu came up, it became clear that the idiots at Netflix had packaged the 1986 version in the 1999 Johnny To sleeve. What a letdown. If I want religious fanaticism, I just look at the current White House. I’m reordering.

  2. You make a good point, Hootie–I meant not to exclude all others, just to specifically call out A.C. and C.H.–as they have previously been the most vocal about a love for action, and for certain Hong Kong biggies. But leave it to McBoobins to resist such elitism! Huzzah!

  3. hootie, i’m going to club you across your tedium the next time i see you.

    mike, i’m going to put these on my list. i won’t be too upset if netflix sends me the other mission since i haven’t seen it either. now i need to post about films recently seen but unblogged.

  4. Is the 1986 The Mission about religious fanaticism? I recall watching it long ago and remember it as an attack on colonialism. Well-meaning but patronizing. I honestly can’t think of any overtly religious moments in the film…I actually enjoyed it. It’s directed by Roland Joffe, who also did The Killing Fields.

  5. Sorry. I should have said, with respect to the 1986 version of the Mission: if I want colonialism, I just look at the current White House. Religious conversion is the justification used for colonialism in the movie, and Jeremy Irons (there’s a thread waiting to be started) does a nice job of playing the puritanical (though catholic) priest. But it is about colonialism.

    How is a blog different from a club? What’s wrong with a club? We could have a secret password and everything.

  6. i watched the the mission tonight. so, mike, tell me again why i should love this movie? i like my action over the top, dammit. i enjoyed its small pleasures fine enough but didn’t think it was anything amazing. so it is minimalist and strips the genre down to some key gestures/cliches which it works over, but it felt somewhat unfinished to me. the development of the relationships between the five bodyguards didn’t register, and so the last third of the film seemed like it came from another movie. i would say something probably got lost in subtitling, but clearly it didn’t for you.

    i don’t know if there are any other transfers out there but the one netflix has is of truly abysmal quality. the video is really crap and there’s this text that flickers in the middle of the screen during all dark scenes, almost like a watermark. michael, even though mike didn’t recommend it to you i think you’d like this movie–reminded me of both the wild bunch and those melville movies you like so much.

  7. Just a quick check in IMDB of all films with “The Mission” in the title. 9 exact matches. Quite a few partial matches. Here are some:

    The Mission…Kill (USA, 1987)

    Mission: Kiss and Kill (Hong Kong, 1979)

    The Last Mission of Demolitions Man Cloud (Yugoslavia, 1978)

    Space Mission to the Lost Planet (aka Horror of the Blood Monsters, aka Blood Creatures from the Prehistoric Planet, aka Creatures of the Prehistoric Planet, aka Creatures of the Red Planet, aka Vampire Men of the Lost Planet, aka Mission: Keep Renaming this Film Until it No Longer Sucks Ass (USA, 1970)

    The Monkey Mission (USA, 1981). A made-for-TV movie. Stars Robert Blake as the hard boiled dick Joe Dancer. In this one, Joe is teamed up with a monkey. Don’t know who plays the monkey, but Clive Revill has the dubious honor of playing the character named “Teabag.”

    The Impossible Mission (Austria, 1985). Directed by Peter Ily Heuemer, who also did Spy, I and The Angels of Charlie

    The Dirty Dozen: the Next Mission (USA, 1985)
    The Dirty Dozen: the Deadly Mission (USA, 1987)
    The Dirty Dozen: the Fatal Mission (USA, 1988)
    The Dirty Dozen: the Really, Really Lethal Mission (USA, 1989)
    The Dirty Dozen: the Innocuous Mission (USA, 1990)

  8. To’s films tend away from the hyperbolic, at least in execution. You’re right that this Mission is more muted, and probably closer in spirit to Melville and Peckinpah and other existential male-bonding-then-killing sorts of movies–that mutes the energy, or hews to the stoic. (‘Though there are flashes of strange wit, weird jokes, an often disruptive tonal register that I appreciate. That’s pretty much true of Melville’s stuff, as well.) His other films can–at least in plot, and often in style–get more frenetic. I just watched a funny but very strange and perhaps too-culturally-“inside” satire/farce about Hong Kong hospitals called Help!! that seems to be The Hospital, ER, Marx Brothers, Airplane, and an action film all at once, or all squashed together.

    What I’d emphasize about To is the precision of his choreography and cinematography. Even if the plots aren’t the kind of explosively ludicrous you prefer, Arnab, or the style a bit less operatically flashy, the action sequences are showboat exercises in building suspense. I hear his new (or new-to-US) flick Breaking News opens with a 7-minute tracking shot–and that is exactly the kind of thing I’m trumpeting. Instead of Hark’s zippy camera flashes and skewed angles, or Woo’s slo-mo, To is a master of staging mayhem.

  9. I liked the ‘Mission.’ Certainly more muted than I like, and not in the same league as ‘Better Tomorrow’, but well crafted. A couple of the scenes were lovingly choreographed, esp. the gun battle in the shopping mall and the sniper incident.

    One thing, though, in light of earlier threads. It’s a cop-out to let Shin live. Sure, he is an adult not a child, so it is not quite as unacceptable to let him live, but still a failure of nerve.

  10. Yeah, I started Breaking News the other night and a seven minute tracking shot is always impressive (though the mayhem wasn’t as electric as I was expecting . . . I found the choreography to be a bit haphazard . . . where was the suspence to hook me in). And yes I am not such a big fan of these kinds of films as others on this blog (and probably should just accept that and move on), but I stopped watching after about a half hour. I just didn’t care about anything or anyone on the screen.

  11. I enjoyed ‘Karma,’ perhaps even more than ‘Mission.’ But the DVD I received from Netflix froze and would not play the penultimate scene. So I saw Lau meeting up with the hermit who claimed to have killed Soon Ko (who in turn killed Jade), then I missed the entire scene until Lau comes down from the mountain, shaves off his hair and returns to being a monk with a normal physique. What happened in between? I think it was important!

    Lee wandering around the mountain with a video-recorder reminded me rather too much of ‘Grizzly Man’ and I never figured out what part the Indian played. Still, the mixing of genres worked for me.

  12. Arnab & others: avoid reading ’til you see it. The hermit is a future Lau–it is him years in the future; the two Laus fight, but then Lau (future) disappears. Lau (original) wanders for years, then finally comes to the moment where he finds Soon Ko–and Lau hugs him, rather than killing him. Then (the last scene you saw) return, shave, etc.

  13. watched running on karma last night and really enjoyed it–like chris, more than i did the mission. mike’s description of how to engages with genre in this film is a very good one–this almost feels like two different movies but the sensibility holds it together quite well. i’m still not sure why lau needed to be in a muscle suit or where the indian guys at the start of the movie learned martial arts (though i’m always glad to see indians doing bad-ass things in movies) but on the whole a very good investment of 90 minutes. must rent more by johnny to.

  14. Mike, I just re-read this thread and I want to ask (to the extent to which something like this goes beyond personal taste) how you would make the case that Lau is more interesting than Chow Yun-Fat? I liked the Johnny To movies, and Lau didn’t do anything wrong in them, but I didn’t detect anything distinctive or interesting about him. For my taste he played rather too much into the Jackie Chan “excitable, slightly manic Asian” male action star which I admit to finding annoying. Chow Yun-Fat can convey tragedy like no actor I know, Western or Eastern, and he seems like he is moving in slow motion compared to Lau (or even Stephen Chow, though I liked ‘Kung Fu Hustle’). I guess I like gravitas, even in my action movies.

  15. My opinion on Lau stems from his films, not just this one. See also: his manic turn as a psychopath in Fulltime Killer and his wonderful work in Infernal Affairs. What I’m getting at–Yun-Fat is good at gravitas and a stoic severity in action. Lau seems to be able to hit silly, savage, sober, deeply sad…. But I’m not going to spend too much energy defending the position. It’s probably mostly a personality thing…

  16. Far more conventional than ‘Karma,”Breaking News’ is still an excellent action movie. Almost two-thirds of it takes place inside a seedy apartment building as cops and robbers move through a rabbit warren of corridors and stairwells. Long moments of tension broken by explosive action when the two groups encounter each other. The premise about police and robbers crafting their action to win over the media is a bit hackneyed, but the action alone is superb.

  17. Mere echo–I just watched Breaking last night, too, and would say the same. To knows how to choreograph sequences and ratchet up the tension. The bravura opening shot’s suspense and energy is never quite duplicated, and I wish there was more loopy energy (like when the two chief criminals cook a meal), but fun nonetheless.

  18. watched ptu tonight. great stuff. my favorite to film so far, and i predict chris will like this more than the mission and running on karma as well. the opening sequence–well, not quite the opening sequence, the sequence in the restaurant with ponytail and his boys, the solo diner, and the cop is just great, and sets the tone for the film. i really like the way the film keeps you off balance with tonal and genre shifts while still remaining an organic whole.

    i have a question about the ending but it will function as a plot spoiler for chris so i’ll wait till he sees it. fulltime killer arrives next. many thanks to mike for turning me on to to, who i’d never even heard of pre-blog.

  19. watched fulltime killer last night. i enjoyed it quite a bit though i never really found it gripping. lots more pleasure in this film for those who like their action overheated–some of the set pieces are just stunning. however, i didn’t think the film’s stab at a metafictional structure quite added up.

    i also found interesting the film’s presentation of multi-nationalism: skipping over borders and languages all over east and south-east asia. living in the u.s we tend to forget that things can be global without coming in this direction. of course, the film contains lots of cinematic references in this direction, with one of the killers obsessed with gangster film narrative and plot. but the references aren’t just in this direction: in one scene two of the protagonists watch a trailer for the mission and doubtless there were many other references that i missed.

    lau is good here, but i predict that chris will like the japanese actor better.

  20. I feel as though Arnab can predict my movie pleasures better than both Amazon and Netflix. Just arrived from Netflix: Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. I predict that I will like it.

    BTW, can we award some sort of prize to whoever goes to see ‘Basic Instinct 2’ first and posts on it?

  21. breaking news. it was enjoyable enough but there’s not a whole lot to this. the stuff in the building corridors is cool but only reminded me of a far superior extended sequence in time and tide. i’m also not sure about what happened in the end–can someone tell me why the lead robber/killer tries to shoot the other killer dude (the one who was in the elevator shaft with him) at the end? that is what happens, right? who is that guy anyway?

    also beginning to notice a pattern with to and his women characters. in two of the ones i’ve seen they’re generically conventional ciphers: the woman in fulltime killer serves only to triangulate the two hitmen, and the only woman i remember from the mission is the mob-boss’ wife, whose infidelity with one of the bodyguards causes the gang’s crisis. the portrayal of the policewomen in the other films is more troubling: the female cop in running on karma is inept, the one in ptu is constantly trying to stop the men from helping each other (though she does step inside the boys’ club at the end,) and the commissioner who orchestrates the media stuff in this film (the most sustained female role in the ones i’ve seen so far) stands in for the suspect, new form of media/policing. so, if i wanted to make a fancy theory out of this i’d say that it would appear that women in these films either function as genre cliches or as personifications of threats to the (male bonded) genre.

  22. last night: running out of time. liked it a lot. i had this idea kicking around my head while watching it about how to is the anti-woo. something to do with their near synchronicity with action and male (cop/robber) bonding, except at a crucial point with both to veers off course into loopiness. but i’m too lazy to push it and see if it holds up.

    another magnetic performance by andy lau and i’m really enjoying seeing to’s repertory company show up in all the films, playing such a shifting set of characters. i also like the fact that a month and a half ago i hadn’t even heard of to and now i’ve seen six of his movies.

    oh yes, i predict chris will like this less than fulltime killer, more than breaking news and about as much as ptu.

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