Johnnie To (China, 1955)
The Big Heat (1988),
produced by Tsui Hark,
The Eighth Happiness (1988)
All About Ah-Long (1989) basically began the Triad saga.
The Heroic Trio (1993)
The Mad Monk (1993)
The Bare-Footed Kid (1993)
Running Out of Time (1999)
Where a Good Man Goes (1999)
Needing You (2000)
Yesterday Once More (2004)
Cheung Foh/ The Mission (1999), one of his most stylish gangster movies, is
basically one long shootout with very little dialogue.
Someone is trying to assassinate the boss of a gang, Lung, who lives in
a huge mansion.
His brother Frank organizes a retinue of five body guards, including
the owner of a night club, Roy, and his man Shin (who normally finds
girls and rooms for VIPs), under the direction of the ruthless Curtis.
They torture in vain one of the men who is
suspected of being a traitor. One night someone shoots Lung in an alley,
fooling the body guards around him. Lung is saved by the bullet-proof vest,
but the sniper gets away. Roy is furious. Lung, instead, takes it
philosophically and doesn't blame anyone.
Someone tries to kill all of the bodyguards in a deserted shopping mall,
but they escape unarmed after the shootout.
Another attempt is foiled at the office building where the boss works.
The man they tortured is now a janitor. The boss hands him some money
on the way to the elevator. The janitor realizes that the men coming out
of the elevator are about to shoot him and screams. The janitor is shot
but the boss and his bodyguards can escape unarmed again.
They chase one of the shooters and lay siege to an abandoned warehouse.
After a long shootout, Lung's men prevailed over the men inside and capture
one of them. They finally find out who is trying to assassinate their boss
Lung: a family friend named Fat Cheung who worked with Lung's and Frank's
father in the old days but was marginalized and now simply runs a restaurant.
He is liquidated quickly and the five bodyguards drink to their eternal
friendship. However, when Curtis meets Frank to receive the financial reward,
Frank tells him that Shin has been having an affair with Lung's wife.
Curtis coldly decides to kill him, but Roy, learning of the problem, tells
Curtis that Shin, who has been his right arm man for a long time,
is under his protection. The team is now split.
Roy finds Shin, gives him his share of the reward and beats him up.
But Roy and the other two have decided to save his life. The problem is that,
by doing so, they risk their own life. They meet with Curtis at a restaurant
for a last dinner. Curtis confirms that he intends to kill Shin, who is sitting
next to him. Curtis' man James offers to talk to Lung and try to reverse
his order while the others continue their dinner. On his way to Lung's place
James witnesses two of Lung's men assassinate Lung's wife.
James runs back to the restaurant but time is up. Despite hearing that the
woman is dead, Curtis carries out his orders and kills Shin in front of the
others. Everybody points the gun at everybody else.
Roy shoots furious but not at Curtis, simply out of anger.
He has no choice but to let Curtis do his job.
They all leave but on the way out Curtis hands his man James a blank bullet:
he shot Shin knowing that James had loaded his gun with a blank.
When they are all gone, Shin walks out of the restaurant, drunk, but alive.
Needing You (2000), co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai
Chuen jik sat sau/ Fulltime Killer (2001), co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai,
that wasted both talents,
the horrible Lik goo lik goo san nin choi/ Fat Choi Spirit (2002)
My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002)
PTU (2003) is aesthetically one of his best, the culmination of his
cinematographer's noir calligraphy, but the plot is razor thin and not
particularly well developed. Towards the end the photography steals the show
with dazzling movements and angles, while the story tries to converge into
an epic shootout whose rationale is not completely clear (its best and funniest
thing being a child who apparently rides around at night breaking into cars to steal coins
and who gets caught up in the mayhem).
The whole action takes place during one night.
Police officers on an armored truck comment on the death of a fellow cop,
killed by bank robbers. Ponytail and four of his thugs meet at a restaurant.
The owner is terrorized by them. A long-haired kid is forced to move to another
table when they take over his table. The kid silently moves and keeps eating.
Meanwhile, Lo, the sergeant who controls the neighborhood shows up at the same
restaurant. Outside he is confronted by a young man who obviously does not know
who he is. The young man is the grandson of the butcher, and the butcher
immediately comes to apologize to sergeant Lo. The sergeant walks into
the restaurant and orders (the owner of the restaurant is no less terrorized
by him than by the thugs). He sits at the same table as the thugs, who then
move to the table of the long-haired kid, who then moves to another table.
Ponytail's thugs leave the restaurant. When the sergeant leaves too (without
having exchanged a single word with Ponytail), he finds that one of them is
scratching his car's door. The sergeant starts running after the punk.
The butcher's grandson seizes the opportunity and dumps white paint on the
sergeant's expensive car. Inside the restaurant the long-haired kid receives
a phone call, then gets up, pulls out a steak knife and pushes the knife into
the back of Ponytail. Ponytail does not die: he musters enough strength to
run outside, flag down a taxi, then, when the taxi driver runs away scared,
drive the taxi himself towards the hospital. He finally dies crashing into
other cars. The sergeant is still chasing the punk through dark deserted
alleys. It is a trap: the others are waiting for him behind a corner.
Ironically, he trips and falls badly by himself. The thugs find him lying
unconscious on the pavement. They still beat him up, fearful of what to tell
Ponytail. When the police officers find the sergeant, he claims he simply
fell by himself. However, his gun is gone, and that's serious enough that
they should report it immediately. He begs them not to, because it would
jeopardize his coming promotion. The captain in charge, Mike Ho, accepts to do it
and tells his men that he himself will report it if the gun is not recovered
within a day.
The sergeant, nicknamed Fatty, takes off on his car and,
first thing, he buys a toy gun and paints it so it will look real.
He reaches the site where
Ponytail lies dead and steals his cell phone. Ho is calling it from the cell
phone of Ponytail's cousin. Fatty tells Ho that Ponytail is dead.
The icy female inspector Cheng can smell that something is wrong when Ponytail's
phone goes missing, even if Fatty quickly returns it.
Ho's men corner another punk and almost beat him to death until he reveals
where Ponytail's man hang out: the third floor of an abandoned building.
It is now middle of the night and nobody is in the streets except for the cops.
After Cheng sends
a trusted cop to "learn" from Ho, Ho's men become reluctant to follow him:
by not reporting the lost gun they are breaking the law and now there is
a spy among them to witness their actions.
Nonetheless Ho is adamant that he will continue to search for Lo's gun
until the morning, even risking his career. His men follow him.
Lo/Fatty is approached by an old fat man, nicknamed Uncle, who tells him
that Eye Ball is innocent of Ponytail's murder. Icy inspector Cheng is in
fact looking for Eye Ball (using interrogation methods no less brutal
Ho and his men enter the abandoned warehouse (a lengthy pointless scene).
iThey find two half-naked girls kept captive by a woman. Ho simply asks
for the gang's whereabouts and ignores the crying girls.
Cheng has Ponytail's phone and she realizes that someone keeps calling that
number looking for Lo/Fatty: that someone is Ho. Viceversa Lo/Fatty
keeps getting phone calls for Ponytail.
Deserted streets. Cops walking and/or driving around.
Fatty meets Ponytail's father, who is very angry at the thugs who were
supposed to protect his son (the ones whom Ho is looking for):
he has trapped them naked into tiny cages. Ponytail's father Bald Head believes that
Eye Ball killed his son, so he wants Eye Ball's head in exchange for
Fatty's gun. Fatty leaves and the old man resumes
torturing the men who were supposed to protect his son.
Cheng's men figure out what is wrong with Ponytail's cell phone: it is
actually Fatty's phone! Which also explains why Fatty keeps getting phone
calls for Ponytail: he accidentally switched the two phones.
Fatty calls Eye Ball and tells him that everything will be all right.
Then he meets with Ho at the restaurant and asks him to keep the cops out
of Canton St at 4am. Cheng has seen his car downstairs (being painted white
it is easy to recognize) and walks to their table explaining the mixup with
the cell phones. Fatty grabs his cell phone and runs out the back door.
He then calls Bald Head from a public phone and asks him to take him to
Eye Ball at 4am. The next person to use the same public phone is a young
man who seems desperate to get in touch with someone.
Cheng's undercover agent calls her saying that he has
important information about Eye Ball and Bald Head.
When Bald Head leaves for the appointment, he is followed by Cheng's car.
Fatty and the young man are still near the same phone booth. This time
the young man gets through and a man tells him that they are about to
pick him up. Fatty is waiting for Bald Head. A child, who has been riding
around on his bicycle, breaks the windows
of a car to steal coins. Some of Ho's cops, who were investigating the
mysterious break-ins, are watching but don't intervene.
Eye Ball arrives... and he realizes that Fatty has set him up because a few
seconds later Ponytail's father Bald Head arrives too.
Cheng drives by in front of Fatty, who is still at the telephone booth.
Ho's men, disobeying Fatty, come running down the street.
A taxi stops by to drop off three friends of the young man
who was using the same phone booth... but they quickly pull out guns (are they
the bank robbers mentioned in the first sequence of the film?)
Shooting erupts: Bald Head
wants to kill Eye Ball (and they kill each other right away), everybody else
shoots for non-obvious reasons (and without trying to avoid bullets).
Fatty is the only one who doesn't have a real gun and crawls away, chased by
the young man of the phone booth. Fatty trips on something and, lo and behold,
finds his own lost phone; and shoots the young man just in time.
Lots of dead people in the street. Cheng behaved like a coward, hiding
inside her car, and apologizes to Fatty: she fires a few shots so it will
look like she participated in the shootout.
The child rides away with the coins he stole from the cars he broke into.
Turn Left Turn Right (2003)
Running on Karma (2003), one of his best
the psychological noir Throw Down (2004), not well architected,
the mediocre Breaking News (2004)
Yesterday Once More (2004)
The overrated Hak Sewui/ Election (2005)
accounts to little more than a diligent Chinese version of the Godfather.
There are lengthy detours that don't serve any purpose, such as
the night chase scene
and the ritual of brotherhood.
The gruesome ending feels like a desperate attempt at making the film a
little less predictable than it is.
There are two main criminal organizations in Hong Kong: the Sun Society, where power is
transferred dynastically from father to son, and the Triad, where the new
chairman is elected democratically every two years, a tradition that goes back centuries.
The elders of the Triad are discussing whom to elect next, and the choice is
between the ambitious Big D and the surgical and younger Lok.
The elders react negatively to Big D's attempt to buy the election and instead
elect Lok, who is congratulated by the main power broker, Uncle Teng.
Big D rebels: his men kidnap two of the "uncles", put them into cages
and roll the cages down a steep hill. He demands from outgoing chairman Whistle
the baton that symbolizes the leadership of the Triad, the baton that is
supposed to go to Lok. Whistle is scared of Big D, clearly a psychopath,
and keeps saying that the baton is past the border, in China, unreachable.
Meanwhile the police, sensing trouble, decides to arrest all the bosses,
starting with Uncle Teng, and then Lok. The police arrive just in time to
save Whistle from being killed by Big D. Even handcuffed, Big D still tries
to launch on Whistle, who, terrified, runs away and gets hit by a car.
While in prison each of the two bosses directs associates to hunt for the baton.
Both camps know that the baton is kept by Whistle's driver Four-Eye in China.
Big D's camp charges the young and icy Kun of killing Four-Eye.
The action moves to China.
Lok's camp finds where Four-Eye is being tortured, frees him and asks in vain
for the baton: Four-Eye is loyal only to Whistle and will release the baton
only if Whistle orders him, but Whistle is dying after the accident.
Lok's men, however, find the baton just when the police is storming the building.
One of them, Big Head, takes off with the baton while the other stays to
confront the police captain, an old friend who used to be a gangster himself.
Meanwhile, in the prison, Teng is summoned by the police chief, who tells him
flatly that he will not tolerate a civil war inside the Triad. Teng offers
to mediate between Big D and Lok in order to keep the peace that is
convenient for both the Triad and the police. Big D, however, refuses any
compromise and, instead, threatens to start his own society, something that
Teng would not tolerate. The police chief tells Teng that, in case of war,
he would arrest everybody. Teng calmly explains that the various societies
have 350,000 members: they wouldn't in all the prisons of the city.
Big Head is driving back to Hong Kong with the baton but is ambushed by Kun
and tries in vain to run away through a field of tall grass.
Kun proceeds to torture Big Head who refuses to surrender the baton.
Meanwhile the bosses of the Triad are agreeing to fight Big D, regardless of
previous allegiances, in the name of unity. Hence one calls Kun to tell him
that his new mission is to rescue the baton for Lok, and one calls
Big Head to tell him that Kun is his new boss. In a comic scene Kun stops
beating Big Head, and a bleeding Big Head gladly surrenders the baton to him.
In the middle of the night Kun, who is on his way to Hong Kong, realizes
that he is beeing followed by a car. Both Kun and the chaser cross the border
illegally, killing a border guard.
The bosses send a motorcycle to stop the chaser. Kun hands over the
baton to the motorcyclist. The motorcyclist is in turn attacked by thugs who
want the baton. He is helped by another young man, the cryptic and soft-spoken
Jimmy, who finally retrieves the baton after a bloody confrontation, and
reluctantly hands it over to Lok.
Whistle has recovered enough to asks for a deal with the police.
Big D orders to kill Whistle.
This all happens in jail, with the police tolerating all the negotiations
between the two camps.
But nobody needs to kill Whistle: he commits suicide at the hospital when he
learns that his son has been run over by a truck, presumably an assassination
planned by the Triad.
(Confusingly, Lok takes credit for killing Whistle in a conversation with Jimmy.)
The police release Big D. Lok and his men are outside waiting for him.
Lok offers him a truce.
Big D accepts, and they become good buddies.
When a traitor offers Big D an alliance to kill Lok, Big D alerts Lok and
together they defeat the traitor. The pair now rules over Hong Kong.
They go fishing together. Big D brings his wife and Lok brings his son.
Big D asks for Lok's support in getting elected chairman.
Suddenly, Lok grabs a big rock and kills Big D. Lok keeps dropping the heavy
rock on Big D's head even after the man is already dead.
Big D's wife and Lok's teenage son witness the brutal murder.
Lok chases Big D's wife through the woods and strangles her to death.
The boy runs to the car and can hear the woman scream.
Lok buries both bodies and then drives away with his son.
Elsewhere, Jimmy is being groomed to become chairman some day...
Triad Election (2006), the follow-up to Election, is probably
a better film, focusing on the most complex character, Jimmy.
Fong Juk/ Exiled (2006) is basically a Western movie, in fact
a diligent tribute to Sam Peckinpah, and remains one of his best.
Mad Detective (2007), co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai
Man Jeuk/ Sparrow (2008), an odd tribute to Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,
Life Without Principle (2011)
Don't Go Breaking My Heart (2011)
Romancing in Thin Air (2012)
Du Zhan/ Drug War (2012), written by Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi
Yau and Xi Yu, may appear to be yet another brutal action movies, but it is also
a metaphysical parable of evil.
Just like To's models for this film, namely
Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and
Jean-Pierre Melville's Un Flic, harbor a deeper meaning than the
relatively simplistic plot, so Drug War has a subplot of an extremely
clever satan who is willing to sacrifice and betray everybody, from his wife
to his loyal servants, a mind who can continuously process logical steps
to maximizes his own chances of surviving.
At the beginning we feel that the police captain is the protagonist. He is the
character that gets developed more fully, and who gets the heroic treatment;
but then the real protagonist emerges and it is the ultimate anti-hero, a coward
who cares absolutely zero about the rest of the world.
A side-story has to do with the way that technology helps watch undercover
operations as if they were television shows:
we see most of the first part twice, because many of the scenes are broadcast to
surveillance systems and shown in black and white inside the small screens of
A man, Timmy Choi, is driving erratically on a wide road and eventually loses
control and crashes into a restaurant while throwing up white foam.
Meanwhile two men, who look like they are high on drugs,
are driving a green truck through a highway toll, followed by a red car.
Meanwhile, a bus arrives at the same highway toll. One of the man inside senses
that something is wrong. He is right: his partner is an undercover police
captain, Zhang Lei, the girl at the tool booth is his trusted and attractive
young assistant Xiaobei, and the whole area is surrounded by police officers that arrest
all the passengers of the bus. They are all carrying drugs inside their body.
They are taken to a hospital where they are forced to defecate the packets of
Timmy ends up, unconscious, in the same hospital and Zhang easily recognizes that he is another drug dealer.
Zhang inspects Timmy's car and finds the cell phone that was ringing when he
crashed. Zhang calls the number that was calling Timmy: it rings inside the
green truck, that is still being followed by a red car.
Timmy escapes at the hospital but Zhang catches him hiding in the morgue.
Zhang sends his own men to replace
the cops in the red car that have been following the green truck from very
Zhang finds three dead bodies in a warehouse turned into a laboratory for
making drugs: the factory had exploded and only Timmy had survived.
They are Timmy's wife and her two brothers.
Zhang interrogates Timmy, who admits that the green truck is carrying raw
material for him. He has to make drugs for a kingpin, Bill Lee, whom Zhang
has been wanting to arrest for a long time.
Timmy knows that he will get the death penalty unless he collaborates: he
offers to help Zhang frame Bill Lee. First Timmy takes Zhang to an appointment
with a comical character nicknamed "Ha Ha" because he is always laughing loud.
Ha Ha wants to meet Bill Lee and Zhang pretends to be working for the boss.
Everything that Ha Ha says, during a lavish dinner, about their business is broadcasted
live to the police station by Zhang's cigarette holder that contains a camera.
The high-tech crew at the police station is directed by Zhang's assistant Xiaobei.
Next, Timmy organizes the meeting with
Bill Lee's trusted nephew, who is permanently under the influence of heavy drugs.
Zhang plays Ha Ha and his assistant Xiaobei plays his wife
while their police team watches the meeting remotely broadcasted by a tiny
camera. Bill's trusted nephew submits Zhang to an orgy of heavy drugs to test his credibility.
Zhang has no choice but to accept. After Bill's trusted nephew leaves, convinced that he can do
business with the man he believes to be Ha Ha, Zhang is seized by epileptic
fits. Timmy shouts that they have to make him vomit and tells the cops what
to do to save Zhang's life. It works. So far Timmy has fully cooperated and
never tried to escape. In the middle of the night the
green truck crashes in a remote location. The cops that were following the truck
call Zhang. The two dudes of the truck are acting more funny than ever,
obviously stoned senseless.
Zhang, Timmy and Zhang's cute assistant Xiaobei take the bullet train and then meet
local police. They get to the place where the truck is.
Timmy cooperates behaving realistically with his two men. At one point he has
one of their guns in his hands but throws it away instead of trying to escape.
Timmy drives the truck full of raw material to his other factory. He is welcomed
by his workers: a group of loyal deaf-mutes who are happy to see him as if he
was a family member. It turns out that Timmy is fluent in sign language.
As instructed by Zhang, Timmy places cameras and microphones around the
building. During dinner with the deaf-mutes, Timmy cries and says (or, better,
gestures) that he is crying because his wife died (but maybe he is crying
because he is betraying such loyal buddies).
The deaf-mute decided to pay tribute to the dead wife by burning a huge amount
of money in front of Timmy.
Zhang is ready to order the attack: cops storm the yacht where the real Ha Ha
is delivering drugs to Timmy; and other corps storm Timmy's factory, despite
the ferocious resistance of the deaf-mutes,
who manage to escape and to blow up the building killing many of Zhang's
cops. Zhang is furious at Timmy for not having told them about the secret
passage (did Timmy try to save his loyal deaf-mutes?) Zhang is about to
ship him back to headquarters when Timmy begs him to continue the operation.
Timmy reveals that Bill Lee is just a front for the real kingpins.
Impersonating Ha Ha, Zhang meets Bill Lee in person. It turns out that Bill Lee
is simply taking orders on a earpiece from the seven real bosses who are walking
around the port and checking everything that is going on.
The seven bosses don't want to reveal their faces but Zhang/Ha Ha manages a
trick to make them come out. Later the bosses decide to execute Bill and his
nephew, who failed to protect their identities. Now Zhang and his high-tech
crew can target the real bosses directly.
The green truck is still driving around, loaded with precious merchandise,
The two deaf-mutes on the loose comunicate only via a code transmitted by cell
phone, but now they don't trust the messages they receive.
Timmy, who has been instructed to lead the bosses in the trap, suddenly
switches sides, removing the microphones from his clothes
and telling the bosses that they are surrounded by cops.
The cops grab the guns and a chaotic shootout erupts in front of a school.
Timmy hides inside a school bus. He sees Xiaobei lying on the road wounded after
being run over by a car, and drives by to finish her with a bullet.
Police and mobsters reach an impasse.
Timmy drives the school bus where the mobsters are and opens the door.
The elderly bosses run towards the bus. Timmy shuts the door and drives away,
leaving them an easy target for the cops. Having helped the police capture the
bosses, he flees. By accident he crashes into the car driven by the deafmutes.
Knowing that he betrayed them, they pull out the guns.
Zhang, chasing the school bus, gets there to witness the
shootout between Timmy and the deafmutes.
Timmy is caught between the deafmutes, who are determined to kill him, and
the cops, who are waiting to see who wins. Timmy raises his hands and surrenders
to the cops. Zhang aims at him and would probably want to execute him right
there but he can't. Zhang handcuffs Timmy to the car and then helps the other
cops corner the deafmutes. The deafmutes, however, put up an heroic struggle
and manage to wound or kill all the cops, although they get fatally wounded too.
Meanwhile, Timmy manages to free himself. He walks coldly towards the bodies
lying on the asphalt, grabs a gun and finishes them one by one. Before he can
escape, however, Zhang, with his last breath, handcuffs Timmy's ankle to his own
arm. Timmy tries in vain to free himself from Zhang's dying body. Timmy has
to drag the dead body on the asphalt while trying to escape. Lots of cops
arrive at the scene and arrest him.
Timmy is the only survivor of the whole story, but at the trial he is found
guilty by the judge and promptly executed. While they strap him to the apparatus
that will kill him, Timmy begs for another chance to cooperate, but the only
person listening to his new confession is the guard who witnesses his death.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx) |
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