Dir. Johnny To. Hong Kong 2003. 85 min.
Premiered in the Forum sidebar at Berlin before going back home to open the Hong Kong Film Festival in April (where Mei Ah releases it on April 10), Johnny To's new cops thriller is bound to please his admirers. However, its failure to include a major name in the cast means that PTU plays like an ensemble piece without a distinct hero, which may harm its prospects with genre audiences, both at home and overseas. To, a prolific film-maker who has made more than 30 films in a 25-year long career, announced the project back in 2001 but had to wait for a number of hits in a row to encourage financial backing. Just like his earlier feature The Mission, PTU deals with morals and ethics: as such it is also more personal, more restrained and less compromised than some of his earlier work. It may never rank among his biggest hits, but it will be one of his best.
A night movie par excellence, PTU opens in a Chinese eaterie late at night and ends the following morning in Hong Kong harbour. Inspector Lo (Lam Suet), a heavy-set police bully up for promotion, begins arguing with Ponytail, the son of a powerful gang leader, at a restaurant. Drawn into a trap when he leaves, Lo soon finds his gun is missing and, persuading two passing PTU (Police Tactical Unit) patrols to help him look for the weapon, tries to track it down.
In the meantime Ponytail has been murdered and his father has vowed to avenge his death in a city-wide gang war. The police suspect Lo is implicated in the gangster's death; PTU units forcibly wring information out of any criminal they can find on the streets; and another gang of bank robbers plans to escape about from Hong Kong harbour at dawn.
The script juggles all these intersecting plots with considerable dexterity, as they cross each other all over the place in explosive encounters of mounting intensity. It is to To's credit that he keeps the story in focus, as convoluted as it gets at times.
PTU is a picture first and foremost about movement and esprit de corps, about separating groups of people and then pitting them against each other, as well as the more obvious theme of life on abandoned Hong Kong streets late at night. With precise timing, To sets the pace for a visual ballet that plays out as if it is based on reality but only really obeys its own laws. While filmed entirely on location, every shot is carefully planned and every set looks as if it has only been put up for the benefit of the camera.
With the exception of the disreputable Lo, little attention is paid to individual characterisation. Instead, To concerns himself with orchestrating groups of people across the wide screen and lacing the proceedings with dashes of black humour. His use of high-contrast light versus darkness shots is also quite striking - as in a chase up the stairs of a dilapidated building seen from across the street.
Prod co: Milkyway Image
Int'l sales/HK dist: Mei Ah Entertainment Group
Exec prod: Johnny To
Prod: Li Kuo-Hsing
Scr: Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin-yee
Cinematography: Cheng Siu-keung
Co-dir, ed: Law Wing-cheong
Prod des: Jerome Fung
Music: Chung Chi-wing
Cast: Simon Yam, Maggie Shiu, Lam Suet, Ruby Wong, Lo Hoi Pang, Ko Hung, Raymond Wong