Bullet time

Johnnie To's gangster hits get the spotlight


An utterly complete retrospective of Johnnie To's films would be too much to ask, really. To's résumé to date involves nearly 50 features, with at least one release nearly every year since 1986. His work also spans such a gobsmacking array of genres that even an audience of dedicated fans might experience exploding-head syndrome. And genre is the key word here; the man's a master at it, a trait that has earned him admiration if not fame stateside — probably a good thing, given the cautionary tale of the Hollywoodized John Woo. Though even his most bizarre Chinese New Year farces occasionally pop up at the 4-Star Theatre (and probably nowhere else in the Bay), To's most internationally acclaimed entries are his action flicks, filled with blazing guns, taciturn antiheroes, and, inevitably, at least one scene in which several characters pause their killin' to enjoy a hearty meal.

So, sorry, completists — To's exercises in romance (including 2001's gloriously offensive Love on a Diet, which makes Eddie Murphy's fat-suit adventures look subtle), his 1993 supernatural tough-chick classic The Heroic Trio, and his goofy comedies (like 2003's young-doctor yukfest Help!!!) are not repped in the Pacific Film Archive's "Hong Kong Nocturne: The Films of Johnnie To." Even the PFA admits, in their notes on the series, this is a "small sampling" of To's output. But if I had to pick nine To films — culled, as the PFA's are, from To's output under his own Milkyway Image banner, created in 1997 — my sampling would likely resemble what's on tap through June.

The essential To screens first: 1999's The Mission, as close to perfection as he's ever come. Spare, gritty, and obsessed with the business of male bonding (a To leitmotif), The Mission is about five gunslingers (all character types: a hairdresser, a barkeep, a pimp, etc.) who come together to protect a mob boss, then close ranks when they're ordered to off one of their own. To regular Anthony Wong plays the hairdresser — a guy so grim he's known as "The Ice" — so you know this shit is serious.

The theme of loyalty among assassins who've become friends despite themselves is echoed in 2006's Exiled, which brings back much of the Mission cast. In this modern-day spaghetti western, the gang is charged with killing a former comrade who's left the organization and settled down with wife and baby. A straightforward execution is discarded in favor of an endlessly complicated scheme that involves a gold heist, double-crossing mob heavies, seedy operating rooms, and more; naturally, slow-motion bullet ballets punctuate every act with gory grace. Wong, as a sad-faced killer caught between doing the right thing for his boss and the right thing for his conscience, is typically top notch.

The more overtly linked Election (2005) and Triad Election (2006) also address the gangster code, taking a darkly realistic look at how Hong Kong gangsters select their leadership — honor takes a back seat to power, and money, of course, means everything. Breaking News (2004) adds eager TV crews to To's usual cops-'n'-robbers stew. There's a lesson learned about not turning police business into a media circus, and yes, it's a lesson tattooed into Hong Kong streets with many, many bullets.

"Hong Kong Nocturne" may be the PFA's program title, but not every selection is a dark tale. Throw Down (2004) is a judo comedy. The amusing if overlong Fulltime Killer (2001, codirected with frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai) follows dueling hired guns O (Takashi Sorimachi, stone-faced but Snoopy-obsessed) and Tok (a particularly smirky Andy Lau).

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