After an initial volley of brilliance in the ’80s and early ’90s, Hong Kong crime films, with a few very notable exceptions, had become formulaic and imitative. For this reason, and because many of his best films are still hard to see in the U.S., Johnnie To has not yet truly broken through to the kind of auteur-minded, cinephile fans who will enjoy his movies most. Fact is, he is one of the best to do it and we break down his Top 10. Read below to see if your favorite made the list:
Running Out Of Time is another masterpiece from director Johnnie To (The Mission). Is that too much to say already? No, I don’t think so. Andy Lau had been trying to make a name for himself and while he had been in the movie business for a while and he was respected, he could never find that film to show that he could truly act. Well, this was the film for him. Also starring Lau Ching-Wan, this film has classic written all over it. This is a film that makes me love movies and appreciate it more. Andy Lau won Best Actor at the 19th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards and he deserved it, truly solidifying himself as an acting powerhouse.
What makes Tirad Election so strong is that they are smart films. Instead of seeing who can get a higher body count and strike the meanest pose, both films play out like chess games. The film could almost be silent, its narrative, thematic, and character developments being expressed so methodically, so purely on a visual level. If you loved the first film, there’s little doubt you’ll enjoy this one as well. What really draws me in to these movies is the way that the characters are expanded upon.
The film is quite 80-ish in presentation and storyline, and filled with plenty of beautifully choreographed poetic violence and gunplay, reminiscent of how John Woo would do his, but minus the doves and nursery rhymes and music. There are enough tension filled moments with its numerous Mexican standoffs, which to me are the highlights of the movie. The excellent stringed soundtrack playing in the background building tension during the calm moments, before erupting into a free-for-all, all-man-for-himself, who-shot-first pumping of lead into the air, keeping you guessing who will emerge unscathed.
In context to Johnnie To’s back catalogue, Drug War will be remembered for pushing the boundaries with the Chinese Film Bureau. The Mainland police are shown working undercover and solving crimes, having gun battles with criminals and some even dying in the line of duty; these are all images that were previously not allowed to be shown in a Mainland theatrical release. Yet now we are seeing them on screen. So that is a proper achievement that’s worth celebrating.
I think an affinity for crime films is usually helpful in enjoying crime films. Perhaps that is why To films are such an acquired taste. Seriously though, the man puts out so many movies that I still haven’t caught up with all of them. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, however, cites it as a standout of the festival thus far, calling it “a brilliantly directed genre study from the Hong Kong master Johnnie To” and noting that “With his ruined face and pale snake eyes Mr. Hallyday holds the screen while Mr. To shakes it up.” I guess I agree as I am currently hunting down more To movies as we speak, so this film did something right.
Direction lacks the strong hand of To’s solo efforts, and pic shows some signs of rush, with abrupt transitions and lack of flow in the editing. And to that effect, I would warrant a guess that some in the audience will be left perplexed and confused, but my advice is not to give up on it. Mad Detective may be a bit different from the other films I’m used to by Johnnie To but one thing that still held his signature is its great storytelling.
From one action set piece to another, it’s never a dull moment. If I ever made a crime action film, it would probably be filmed exactly like this. I absolutely loved the way each scene was shot with brilliant still camera movements. There are hardly any close-ups and the use of long and medium shots is done with absolute perfection. Each shot has something to say and you appreciate every frame. There is one particular scene where the characters are in a shopping mall and they are protecting Lung from those who want to kill him. They are at their designated places and while a couple of the men are gunning down opponents, there is very little movement. For me, it’s a big contrast from movies in which people are moving at a fast pace with literally every muscle they move.
Despite the director flashily making use of every tool in his arsenal, the performances are thoroughly grounded. The filmmakers supply a constant stream of action, but in quick enough bursts that it doesn’t become fatiguing, and setting it up so that there’s always tension going. It’s not the satire it aspires to be, but it is a white knuckler of a crime movie. Lots of cop ‘n robber movies come out every year, some with aspirations to be more. This one is executed a lot better than most, so if you like the crime, you’ll find a great deal to enjoy about this.
To be fair though, the film is pretty enough, with an evocative score, like I mentioned above. Also, guys will get major brownie points showing this to their significant other. In this sense, the movie felt like a play. The acting was decent, nevertheless the lead actress was only passable. After being saturated by the main characters, I felt almost coerced into feeling invested in their lives and thus was curious to see the ending.
As in many To movies, there’s a slight dip in the rhythm at the 70-minute mark as the script cranks up again for the final act. I found this movie extremely entertaining and found myself enthralled by seeing a society I am not usually familiar with. These are cruel, deadly men whose one goal is not the brotherhood that they continually expose, but rather profit. Election illustrates that fact to a tee in a mature, entertaining manner.