A different kind of love triangle movie – only one of the two guys is alive and present at any part of the story, but each one’s spirit affects possible relationships with the other. Heartbroken, drunken movie star Louis Koo (lead cop in Three, paperman in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart) hides out at a country lodge run by Sammi Cheng (Blind Detective, Infernal Affairs) and he makes a mess of things, then gradually cleans up and starts helping out. This goes on for a very long time, until he discovers that Sammi, who has always acted indifferently towards him, used to be a huge fan and has posters and props from all his films.

Sammi with movie star on motorcycle:

Finally we get the backstory of her husband, who first got her attention by imitating Louis’s movies, and later disappeared in the woods looking for a lost child. Louis loses her when he goes back to the city and she becomes refocused on her husband after his body is finally recovered, so Louis reaches out the only way he knows how: by making a movie about this entire story starring himself as himself and bringing her husband back to life in his version.

Sammi with husband-as-movie-star on motorcycle:

I should’ve watched an actual Johnnie To movie, but instead I watched this generic cops & robbers flick from his production company. A super-hot getaway driver breaks a jewel thief out of prison in time for their big heist… meanwhile, fiery young cop learns a special automotive technique from his about-to-retire partner, who is killed by the baddies post-heist, provoking a cathartic faceoff finale. It couldn’t sound more generic, but fortunately the movie is full of delicate character details which really… haha no I’m kidding, it is totally generic. I bought Heat last week on blu-ray, and should’ve rewatched that instead.

I guess I’m not enough of a gearhead to be excited about the film’s magic getaway technique (which I’m calling the Hong Kong Drift), in which the driver makes the wheels spin awfully fast, squealing without the car driving forward, then turns the wheel in order to rotate in place. So, in a week when I’m watching trailers for this summer’s fast-driving heist movies, Baby Driver and Logan Lucky, this movie’s showcase is… making the cars barely move.

Noble Cops:

Cheang went on to make The Monkey King and Kill Zone 2. Our hotheaded hero is Shawn Yue (Young Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs and its prequel), his mentor is Anthony Wong (also Infernal Affairs, and star of Exiled), and enemy driver is Xiaodong Guo (Tsui Hark’s Missing). In true Johnnie To fashion, there is a minor character named Fatso, but distressingly he is not played by Suet Lam. Oh and hey, there’s even a lady in the film: a doctor whose name I didn’t catch, but was probably Barbie Hsu of Future X-Cops and Croczilla.

They record their chases on in-car VCRs. I’m watching a bunch of 2012 movies this week – this one has VHS tapes, and both Ape and Jack & Diane have audio cassettes – what’s the deal?

Bad Dude in Killer Car:

“Cheang’s background as an horror director serves him very well as every chase becomes a slasher film cat and mouse game full of menace and the white Nissan that serves as the film real villain and one true memorable character gains an almost serial killer status.” Of course Furtado loved it – he likes Alien vs. Predator.

A fairly minor Johnnie To movie compared to the last two I saw, building up suspense in a hospital between a doctor (Wei Zhao of Shaolin Soccer and Red Cliff), a cop (Louis Koo, the Paperman of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart) and a criminal (Wallace Chung of Drug War). Adding some Life Without Principle flair, each of our leads is compromised in some way: Dr. Tong keeps botching surgeries and is tricked into helping the criminals, Chief Inspector Ken plants evidence, and jewel thief Shun, well, he’s an overconfident supervillain full of nasty tricks and secret plans, with no qualms about gunning down all the civilians in the emergency room in a climactic shootout. Shun has also memorized quotes from literature and the entire Hippocratic Oath, dispersing his knowledge to make doctors and cops feel bad about themselves. Oh, and there’s policeman Fatty, Suet Lam (Fatso in Mad Detective, Fat in Exiled). Anyway, the actors are fun and the camerawork is on point.

The Three:

Either I didn’t pay enough attention to story or my subtitles were funky, because the plot description on letterboxd is confusing. “A thug shoots himself to force the cops to cease fire,” that scene’s not in the movie and I thought one of Inspector Ken’s men shot the thug – there’s even a subplot about Shun putting out a hit on the shooter. “The detective in charge sees through his scheme but decides to play along so as to capture his whole gang,” I’m not so sure about that one either, but it’s possible. Anyway, lots of people die then Dr. Tong goes back to killing and crippling patients and Inspector Ken resigns.

Fatty in climactic super-slow-mo shootout:

Typical To composition of people dramatically standing around:

I watched this a couple weeks after Office, not knowing they were Johnnie To’s companion pieces on the 2008 financial crisis. This one presents the corrupt business world more harshly – no lavish sets and musical numbers, just greed, theft, disappointment, ruin and murder.

Connie meets Teresa:

An intertwining-destinies movie following a few character threads. Inspector Cheung (Breaking News star Richie Ren) is on the sidelines of the other stories while his girlfriend Connie is buying an apartment. Teresa is a banker who sells high-risk investments to confused old ladies, ends up with a pile of undeposited money when her loanshark client Yuen is murdered in the parking deck. And Panther (Ching Wan Lau, the Mad Detective) works for broke gangsters, runs around collecting money to bail out a buddy until he finds stock trader Lung who has an idea for fast cash. The real estate thing held little drama, the banking part hinged on some mild deceit (the old lady heard the phrase “high risk” a hundred times so you can’t entirely blame the banker) and coincidence, but Panther was fun – I’d watch a sequel that just followed him around some more.

Oh man, what an idea – take a story of office politics during the 2008 banking crisis and turn it into a heightened musical on stylishly artificial sets, directed by master of spatial composition Johnnie To. I loved this.

Company IPO, new partnership and financial audit are all happening at once. Chairman Chow Yun Fat (first movie I’ve seen of his since Curse of the Golden Flower) and CEO Ms. Chang (film writer Sylvia Chang, also of Eat Drink Man Woman) run the company and are having a not-so-secret affair.

Cheatin’ David (HK McDonald’s spokeman Eason Chan) also has something going with Ms. Chang but starts warming up to Heartbroken Sophie (Tang Wei of Lust, Caution) in finance so she’ll help him hide a bad trade.

Energetic new guy Wang Ziyi (who introduces himself to people by mentioning Ang Lee, who has directed films starring half this movie’s lead actors) bounces around the office, falling for new girl Lang Yueting, who nobody realizes is the chairman’s daughter, covertly getting to know the company she’ll soon be running.

S. Kraicer:

Wong Kar-wai’s inspired art director William Chang has concocted a highly stylized vision of a postmodern office setting: a theatrical, open-concept, multi-storied abstraction of a contemporary financial firm, complete with lobby and adjoining metro station. As fundamentally structuralist as ever (though he hides it well), To stages the complex romantic and financial-scheme-devising interactions of his stellar cast with a fluency that dazzles.

Probably would’ve dazzled even more in 3D, which is how it was presented in theaters.

D. Kasman:

This abstract pleasure of dashing lines and depth-play is at the service of an ebullient imagining of the corporate world in unparalleled transparency, one which the contemporary architectural trend of glass-scape monuments and faux-communal interior layouts insincerely aim at evoking. But what Chang’s screenplay reveals through this radical transparency is that Office is very much another Johnnie To film about killing: the killing of the soul within the corporate workspace, the killing of romance within a culture of materialism, and the killing of brother- and sisterhood within the machine of corporate capitalism. Its deadly thrust is naked for all to see. It joins To’s triptych drama Life Without Principle and the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart skyscraper romcoms to make for a series of blistering, cynical, and ruthlessly analytic portraits of the luxury-slick surfaces and corrosive-sick structures of global urban capitalism.

Love triangle movie, where Yuanyuan Gao (Beijing Bicycle, dunno who she played in Blind Detective) is torn between two rich suitors: the playful Paperman in the building across the street (Louis Koo of Drug War, Romancing in Thin Air, Zu Warriors) and a patient, washed-up architect who she runs into on the street (Daniel Wu of Overheard, The Banquet, Man with the Iron Fists). All three of the leads were new to me, though I recognized Gao’s heavyset coworker Suet Lam from Mad Detective and/or Exiled.

Each guy has personality and problems, and the choice between them could go either way until the two men finally meet and there’s a Frog Incident. After that, Koo claims his womanizing days are over and stages a Big Romantic Gesture while Gao and Wu are out together, but it’s too little, too late, since he’s standing upon Wu’s even bigger romantic gesture: a skyscraper modeled after her silhouette, lit in the shape of a proposal.

Cute movie, keeping us off-guard with its unusual plotting and our unfamiliarity with Hong Kong movie traditions (the joke that Koo gets a nosebleed whenever he’s turned-on didn’t work for me). Think it’s my most-successful-ever group movie pick, charming Katy and Maria, and keeping my cinephile-self occupied with all the wonderful staging To does using windows, reflections and shadows.

M. D’Angelo:

Hardly surprising that a Johnnie To romcom is light years more formally sophisticated than Hollywood’s efforts, making expert use of spatial relationships and insisting that every shot please the eye rather than be merely functional … I can’t even remember the last time I saw a version of this story in which the outcome was genuinely in doubt, much less one in which I was unsure what I wanted to happen.

The same writer/director/producer/cinematographer team made Mad Detective, but this is not on the same level. Two big stars (Sammi Cheng of Infernal Affairs and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, and Andy Lau) cruising on charisma in a mystery plot ending in romance and full of idiotic humor – not even J-To’s expert filmmaking chops can save this one.

An Exiled reference?

Lau is a freelance blind detective, but inspector Szeto Fatbo (not knowing the language, I can’t tell if that name is supposed be a joke) keeps stealing his cases (simply by following Lau out of earshot), depriving him of reward money.

Sammi has a missing friend named Minnie whom Lau promises to help find. Lau solves crimes by re-enacting them at the scene, which seems like the usual TV cop schtik but is actually kind of wonderful here. Fortunately, all criminals in this movie are fat and stupid and always use the same technique, so he catches up to most of them.

The love of Lau’s life married Fatbo after Lau went blind, but this is unimportant. Really, whatever happened to Minnie is unimportant too – after some false leads (one involves a cannibal), Sammi is injured and some people die and Sammi and Lau end up together, yay.

Rented this just a couple weeks ago on a night I knew damn well I wouldn’t have time to watch it. It’s just as good a few weeks later.

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During the first half I wasn’t enjoying it so much because I was looking for the wrong things. The characters seemed to have no names or individual traits – just a group of guys who are always in the same scenes together, defined by their commitment to friendship (the backstory consists of one old photo of them together as kids) over loyalty to their mob boss (and therefore their personal safety). I didn’t know the actors (recognized a couple as Chi Wai’s multiple personalities from Mad Detective) and was waiting for the story/character scenes to kick in. But they never do, and now I can appreciate that. The photo is the backstory: these guys are friends… what more do we need for an action flick?

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So without character development, we’re left with dark, shadowy cinematography on awesomely-staged action sequences. The one below is a favorite. The fifth friend, whom the other four were supposed to kill on orders from their boss which led them all to revolt, is wounded and being treated by the gang’s private doctor, when the boss himself, also wounded, shows up. He’s being treated, surrounded by bodyguards, while the friends hide behind curtains and furniture, the lead-up to the shoot-out being deliciously more thrilling than the shoot-out itself.

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The fifth guy dies, and his wife goes on a shooting rampage against our heroes. They fail to kill their boss, who is now hunting them. They’re on the run and it looks like the movie is gonna break out an existential loneliness dialogue when they stumble upon a heist, a truck full of gold being defended by a cigarette-smoking super-soldier. The movie wasn’t what I’d call realistic to this point, but now it flies off the rails, and they join up with this guy to steal the gold. But narratively it’s not gonna work for the four remaining gunmen to live rich in hiding while their former boss stays in power and their dead friend’s wife raises her new baby alone, so they go back for one more suicidal fight, leaving the gold to the wife and the soldier.

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You have to think that guys wearing sunglasses and shooting guns in slow-motion is cool to properly enjoy the movie, and I do, so I loved it by the end. Set in Macau, a former Portuguese colony now in the same political situation as Hong Kong. Nice comic touch: a cop with only a couple days left on the force keeps driving by, getting shot at, and running off unharmed… he lives to see retirement.

Fabulous action thriller, visually stylish with wild acting and a great, complicated script. According to Masters of Cinema it was the “year’s largest grossing film at the Hong Kong box office.” According to IMDB, it made nearly $5,000 at the U.S. box office. This is why a remake is inevitable (thanks to the producer of Rush Hour, can’t wait).

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Ho (Andy On of Black Mask 2 and New Police Story) is new on the police force, investigating the disappearance of another officer. Bun (Ching Wan Lau of Black Mask 1 and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts) is the unhinged “mad” detective, actually an ex-detective fired from the force for cutting his ear off but still an utter master of deduction through his unusual methods of instinctually empathizing with killers and victims. It’s part Training Day (crazy partner) and part Silence of the Lambs (dangerous non-cop assisting investigation), except that Bun is a good guy.

Bun visits a crime scene and imagines himself participating:
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In fact, he begins to emerge as the only good guy, as he gets deeper into the conspiracy (the disappeared cop was killed by his partner Chi Wai (Ka Tung Lam of Election 1 & 2), who is going on crime sprees with his murdered partner’s gun) and Ho reveals himself to be a useless coward. Bun claims to see people’s inner personalities (including “Fatso” and a strong violent dude, both Breaking News vets, and “the calculating woman” who makes all of Chi Wai’s decisions) – in the shot below, Chi Wai’s many personalities ride in the back seat while Ho appears as a scared little boy.

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So in the end it’s less Training Day meets Silence of the Lambs than MPD Psycho meets Herman’s Head. May (Kelly Lin of Boarding Gate) exists as two characters – she’s Bun’s tough ex-wife, an inspector on the force who warns Ho about his erratic behavior, and in Bun’s mind she’s still his loving wife, always by his side at home and at dinner parties with Ho and his worried girlfriend Gigi.

Inspector May:
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During the shootout finale in a hall of mirrors (of course there are mirrors), Ho becomes the new Chi Wai, displacing guns and covering up who shot whom to keep himself out of trouble, controlled by his brand-new commanding woman inner-personality, a terribly good, scary ending.

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Looked to me like To and his cinematographer were using whichever camera Mann shot Miami Vice with, but IMDB says it’s 35mm so I’m way off.

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