Irene barely survives a violent home invasion, her family killed, her dad Johnny Hallyday (Man on the Train) visits in a Macau hospital and swears revenge. But Johnny’s not an elite killer getting dragged back into the business, he’s just a French restauranteur with a fading memory. He runs across a team of hitmen played by the Johnnie To superstars Suet Lam, Anthony Wong and Lam “Bo in Sparrow” Ka-Tung and they can fit his revenge scheme into their schedule. Of course since their boss is Simon Yam and he barely appears in the first half of the movie, I guessed the (very satisfying) second half would pit our doomed men against their own organization. Since there’s a French lead actor, this was able to play in competition at Cannes, but got robbed by Haneke and Audiard.

Lam Suet of every Johnnie To movie finally gets a major role as a bully fuckup cop – or so it seems, until the more capable Simon Yam takes over the movie, in search of the gun Lam lost while getting beaten by street kids. Not that Yam is so upstanding – his guys brutalize the youths, being careful to cover their tracks, and beat a red-haired asthmatic to death in an alley then manage to revive him. Suet steals evidence, makes a deal with the warring gangs, finds his gun (which it turns out he dropped in the scuffle and nobody picked up), the gang guys slaughter each other and the cops cover everything up. This more than compensates for Heroic Trio‘s portrayal of noble policemen with super abilities. Most importantly, this is on the early side of To’s spectacular run of great-looking movies – realism be damned, the actors glow as perfectly on the night streets as they do in neon-lit restaurants. Looks like Yam starred in a flurry of belated sequels.

A trap:

Sponsored by:

I tried to discover Johnnie To’s early frontiers with A Hero Never Dies, but succeeded with this one – it’s a Tsui Hark-style HK movie, with the horrible comedy and dialogue and crazy action crystallizing into weird perfection.

Opens with a couple agreeing to buy a neglected, secluded house, the deal interrupted by the supercop husband leaping out a window to catch a thief stealing the realtor’s car. He is Damian Lau (just off the Royal Tramp movies), and doesn’t realize his wife Anita Mui (star of Rouge) is the masked superhero known as Wonder Woman, who’s investigating a wave of babynappings, orchestrated by an Evil Master with growling henchman Anthony Wong.

Meanwhile, friendly bounty hunter Maggie Cheung gets a killer introduction jumping her motorcycle over a cop barricade. And Invisible Woman Michelle Yeoh is… wait, she’s working for the bad guys helping steal the babies, and a baby is killed during the first big fight… this trio isn’t so heroic. But Michelle is sad about her inventor boyfriend dying, and she realizes she’s Anita’s long-lost sister, then they all team up to take down the master.

As a train explodes through a building, a dynamite-tossing Motor Maggie leads the fight vs. flying-guillotine-armed Anthony Wong on a landmine-rigged street. There’s too much awesome, looney tunes shit happening to keep close track of plot details, but Anthony must have survived since he returns in the sequel.

The Visible Woman:

Anthony, before his face gets messed up by the Trio:

I pulled out the earliest Johnnie To movie I could find, thinking “surely his visual and character quirks and his tendency to upend expected narrative weren’t fully developed yet,” but yup, they were. These movies are so stylish and unpredictable, and I could watch them forever.

Boss alliance:

Jack (Leon Lai of Fallen Angels) and cowboy Martin (Ching Wan Lau, the Mad Detective himself) are rival enforcers for crime lords, and when their bosses team up and go straight, their men are left crippled, unemployed and forgotten. After a wheelchair-improvement montage they take righteous revenge on their former organization(s).

Jack up high, Martin down low:

Bird-tossing right out of the gate. The sparrow looks like a finch, but I’m immediately happy that there’s even a bird and the title wasn’t a metaphor, though lbxd says it’s also slang for pickpocket. Back to that opening scene, Simon Yam is smiling too much and gliding around his artfully lit apartment like he’s in a musical, which nicely sets the tone for this movie, a HK crime flick where nobody gets killed and the climax is a wordless slow-mo umbrella dance. Johnnie To gives Throw Down fans another romantic balloon incident, and uses some kind of wide-angle lens distortion throughout. It looks and moves differently than his others, light on its feet, and a movie about a pickpocket gang gives him ample opportunity to show off his mastery in staging and visual design. Perfect movie.

Kelly and sparrow/finch:

Simon, Bo, Sak, Mac:

The Girl is Kelly Lin – she and the protege pickpocket Ka Tung Lan are returning from the previous year’s Mad Detective and Triangle. Lead dude Simon Yam was Lok in the Election series. Pickpocket Mac (the one with the busted head) has had some small roles, and Sak with the glasses is To’s assistant director and editor, who would later make a Donnie Yen movie about ancient warriors time traveling to modern-day HK. Suet “Fatso” Lam works for Kelly’s boss/captor Mr. Fu, and the umbrella showdown pits his skills against our guys’ for her freedom.

It’s only been half a year since I’ve watched a Johnnie To movie, but Throw Down left a lasting impression and this one flipped a switch and set me frantically into Johnnie To Mode. About 25 lead actors here, 19 of whom I’ve never seen before, in a complex duplicitous undercover plot, and it’s all still thrilling and comprehensible.

Police Captain Honglei Sun (star of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop) and undercover cop Yi Huang bust a busload of drug mules, and while they’re dropping their loads, injured methmaster Louis Koo is fleeing the warehouse explosion that killed his family. Koo is busted, and facing the death penalty he cooperates. Most of the movie is their duplicitous dealings, intercepting meetings between drug traffickers who’d never met in person, pretending to be the one guy, then the other guy, the highlight of this being a laughing dealer named Haha. After the offscreen deaths in the prologue explosions, no shots are fired in the first hour of a movie called Drug War… then all of a sudden, very many shots are fired, as docile collaborator Koo violently switches sides. Raid on a drug factory run by deaf-mutes goes bad, Suet “Fatso” Lam turns out to be the mastermind. Don’t think I’ve quite seen an undercover cop movie with this trajectory before.

Koo:

Cops:

Fatso:

Louis Koo is a washed up drunken former fighting champ who is going blind, other fighters and weirdos (incl. Tony 2 and Aaron Kwok) want to challenge him to fights, while singer Cherrie Ying hides out in his karaoke bar. Sold as a tough-guy redemption story, that is not the movie Johnnie To felt like making. He felt like using the skeleton of an archetypal Judo-hero story and hanging every eccentricity off it. The emotional climax isn’t a big fight, it’s when our three main characters team up to free a balloon from a tree.

Some movies watched before, during, and soon after the China trip:


The Illinois Parables (2016 Deborah Stratman)

I know I watched it late at night, in Alpharetta, and somehow took no notes, and enjoyed it. Landscapes and history lessons. Sure sounds interesting from the letterboxd writeups! Maybe kinda if General Orders No. 9 was much better, and had been highly influenced by Profit Motive.


Widows (2018 Steve McQueen)

After all the hype – the follow-up to his best-picture winner with an outstanding cast – somehow I lost interest in this by the time it came out, and caught up months later on the seat-back of a plane. It’s overwrought and overstuffed, but undeniably pleasurable in its performances and genre plotting.

I wonder if the male actors were sabotaged in an attempt to draw attention to the heist-gone-bad widows Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez – or if they just misjudged the tone of the movie. Colin Farrell overacts as a cartoon-villain politician, Daniel Kaluuya plays a basic enforcer of a crime boss/politician stalking Viola Davis, and Liam Neeson goes from sympathetic victim to archvillain when he’s discovered by wife Viola (in the movie’s best scene) to be shacking up with the fourth widow after arranging the deaths of his buddies to get away with all the money. Does Viola throw aside spousal emotion for the sake of sweet revenge, killing Liams herself at the end? She does!


Transit (2018 Christian Petzold)

Watched at the Tara, huge, alone. Sicinski’s review says it all.


High Life (2018 Claire Denis)

I took no notes about this, mostly remember the ending of Robert Pattinson and daughter alone on the ship hurtling towards a black hole, and the haunting Pattinson-sung Tindersticks song. These two most recent Claire Denis features have helped offset the brutal unpleasantness of her previous two, and even though this one has its share of rape and murder, it also has beauty and wonder and general strangeness… and that song…


Us (2019 Jordan Peele)

Watched with Pro at Atlantic Station – on the secret screen with its own bar, not that this mattered. I don’t have a firm handle on the symbolism, but it’s a hell of a thriller regardless. See smart articles by Kyle, Monica, Mike, and Carol.


In Fabric (2018 Peter Strickland)

Watched at the glorious Plaza as part of the Atlanta Film Festival.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies) visits a creepy clothing store during sales week, is talked into buying a cursed red dress by a cheerfully coercive saleswoman (Fatma Mohamed, speaking in retail-poetry). Marianne dates Barry Adamson (a Bad Seed!), gets chastised by boss Julian Barratt, and keeps getting injured until she’s finally killed in a car crash. It’s a strange tone overall, kind of a creeping dread mixed with splashes of comedy – but Marianne is a sympathetic character stuck in a crappy job, being intimidated in her own house by her son’s new girl (Gwendoline Christie of Top of the Lake season 2), so the campy horror-comedy gets overwhelmed by sadness. The dress survives, and gets shared by another guy with a crappy job (Leo Bill) and his girlfriend Hayley Squires (of the latest Wheatley and second-latest Loach), misfortune and death follow, but this time the department store burns down during a consumer brawl.

Strickland:

A lot of us filmmakers have had to do the kinds of jobs these characters do: temping, retail. The challenge is to usher those experiences into one’s films without it feeling like a vendetta, because a lot of those experiences are quite ball breaking. It’s more desirable to find humor there, to take characters like [Sheila’s employers] Stash and Clive and make them funny.


Election 1 & 2 (2005/06 Johnnie To)

Watched a couple of HK double-features on the long flight back from HK – on the iPad, tragically, so no screenshots. These are Hong Kong underworld power struggle movies – Lok (Simon Yam, star of at least six other To films) wins the election that Big D (Tony Leung 2: Evil East) thought he’d bought, so Big D revolts and threatens to start a war. Lok placates the dude, offering him the chairman position after Lok’s two years are up, and the two become friends – until the moment Big D lets his guard down and gets murdered.

Part two is more complicated, starring Jimmy (Louis Koo, the movie star in Romancing in Thin Air) as a businessman using his gangster ties to get ahead, but with plans to go straight – until he’s arrested and forced by the mainland government to run as their puppet chairman. Lok attempts to run a second time, which is against the rules, Kun (Ka Tung Lam, a cop in some of the Infernal Affairs movies) kidnaps some of the elders to get ahead, and Jet (Nick Cheung of Exiled) attempts to eliminate the competition. In both movies, the baton signaling the chairman’s power is hidden as a strategic move, then the baton is recovered through scheming and brutality.


A Better Tomorrow 1 & 2 (1986/87 John Woo)

I alternated these with the Election movies, and they’re either good indicators that John Woo is no Johnnie To, or that the 1980’s were a horrible decade for filmmaking. Gangster Ho (Ti Lung of a ton of Shaw Brothers movies) is protective of his cop little brother Kit (Leslie Cheung). He tries to get out, but they pull him back in! A few years later, Kit and Ho and his best friend Mark (Chow Yun-fat) sort-of team up to take down the gangster boss. The movie’s main attractions are guessing where the shifting loyalties will land, and watching Chow Yun-fat overplay his part as the super-cool guy, a schtik that nobody would fall for (jk, he became a massive star from this role and won the best actor award). At least he definitively dies at the end of the movie, so he won’t be in the sequel.

Part two is pretty much the same movie, Ho and Kit versus new gangster Lung (Dean Shek of Drunken Master), but it turns out Lung is being set up, so they all team up against the new superboss. Kit is killed as his baby is being born across town (by Emily Chu, also Cheung’s costar in Rouge the following year). The movie suffers from the lack of Chow Yun-fat’s stupid energy… ahhhh kidding, he appears as Mark’s identical twin brother, a non-gangster who transforms into a Mark-like badass after about twenty minutes.

Alternate prequels were filmed – producer Tsui Hark made the official A Better Tomorrow III, and Woo adapted his own prequel script into Bullet in the Head (in which Simon Yam played a character named Lok, an unexpectin’ Election connection).


Lu Over The Wall (2017 Masaaki Yuasa)

Schoolkid meets a manic pixie dream mermaid – sort of a Walk On Girl-distorted version of Ponyo. Not as thrillingly nuts as Walk On Girl – surprising, since that’s a teen drinking drama and this one’s about a rock music-loving mermaid. She gets discovered, captured, rescued, etc., less interesting for the story than the wavy-jumbly animation style.


Diamantino (2018 Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt)

Loopy, extremely fun cult flick about a massive soccer star manipulated by his scheming sisters, a mad scientist, and a cop who masquerades as his adoptive daughter. Everyone spends the movie trying to catch him out, but Diamantino is too simply sweet to be scheming.

Lead actor Carloto Cotta also starred in Tabu, and appears in Mysteries of Lisbon and all three of the Arabian Nights. I’ve been rooting for Abrantes since his Brief History of Princess X, so glad this was wonderful. I haven’t watched many movies at the Plaza since getting back, but between this and In Fabric, they’ve been extremely Plaza-appropriate.

Katy hated this, and sure it’s not one of the better or even more memorable movies we’ve watched this summer, but when I heard that Johnnie To made a movie starring Andy Lau as a monk/stripper/strongman in a rubber muscle suit, I knew I had to watch it right away, and I regret nothing. Guess I’m on my own for Johnnie To’s comedy Love on a Diet starring Andy Lau in a fat suit…

This movie starts out crazy enough, with bodybuilder Lau making a nude getaway while a more serious crime is being committed, running into a cop and seeing a vision of her future. They team up and fight crime… but then Andy retreats to a mountain for years, battles his past self, and captures a reclusive killer… and we sense that they either filmed a three-hour epic then cut it to ninety minutes, or everyone was making it up as they went along. The staging of even simple scenes is better than it needs to be, the movie’s never boring, it features some villains straight out of the comics, and it follows through on its promise to kill Andy’s romantic interest (the cop, Cecilia Cheung of The Promise and Zu Warriors), so I admire it despite the parts that never really work (the editing, the muscle suit).