A recent article from scmp.com which focuses on Hong-Kong filmmaker Johnnie To is quick to query the prolific director’s muted reception in some film circles. A perfectly fair question when considering To’s output in comparison to his contemporaries.
The recent release of Criterion’s Wong Kar Wai Blu-Ray collection is, for instance, a notable point of interest. To’s productivity dwarfs the much-celebrated filmography of the highly influential Wong Kar Wai. Yet the filmmaker’s name still only seems to be whispered in the hushed tones of a niche fanbase. Of course, this does not say enough about how the product is viewed. However, as Douglas Parkes notes early on in his article, the western world had no problem luring many Hong Kong talents and features, with the outlook of fitting them into their mould. Why not To?
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It is difficult not to feel that part of the answer lies in a film like PTU: a slow-burn crime thriller, which follows the dealings of a patrolling tactical unit throughout one night. On its face, PTU seems the kind of movie that one would not be surprised by Hollywood style transition at all. Enough of the basic elements could easily be seen, and often are found in a rather typical genre fare. But one step closer. A small squint of the eye. You start to see why despite his prolific output, someone like Johnnie To films does not slip into a westerner’s consciousness that easily.
The film’s second scene is a solid example of how To makes something his own. An obnoxious gang of malcontents enter a restaurant and demand a table. A lone diner is asked to move. A police Sergeant who is kind of a big deal enters the establishment. He demands a seat as close to the gang as possible. The lone diner must move again. What follows soon after is a beautiful ballet of blocking which climaxes with a genuinely surprising outcome, made more effective simply by undercutting the audience’s visual expectations.
To say more will spoil the effect, but To’s ability to destabilise what is expected of certain situations allows PTU to startle a viewer before they get a chance to settle. This scene opens PTU up to a brutally amoral and fatalistic world. One full of complex intersecting relationships between the degenerate gangs, and the equally dubious police units. The film’s tone shifts from comical to tense, often within the same scene. And with everyone happy to play dirty tricks to get results, suspicion lies at every turn.
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The beauty of PTU however lies in its simplicity. From its missing gun plot device liberally borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) to the “clean” stripped down visuals which capture Hong Kong as a quiet, haunted place. So much of how the film plays out feels otherworldly in comparison to so many similar features. All because of To’s wiliness to eschew so much of what other movies are willing to embrace.
It is a shame that the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray only holds a commentary and booklet as extras, but even this comes across like an intentional smart play. The beautifully cleaned up transfer allowing a viewer to solely focus on the film as there are no distracting gimmicks. Such aspects are probably why Johnny To doesn’t “appeal” to a larger crowd. He’s not selling the sizzle. He intends you to eat the steak.
PTU is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.