Johnnie To is as smart a business man as he is a film director. He’s been at the forefront of some of Hong Kong’s most successful features over the past ten years or so, ever since setting up Milkyway Image with fellow co-director Wai Kar Fai in 1996. While Milkyway’s early output made his name, certainly in terms of producing gritty humanistic crime dramas such as The Longest Night, Running out of Time and The Mission, he’s also been known to back the more friendlier and popular Chinese New Year romantic comedies. Since 1999’s The Mission his most hardened fans were left waiting for quite some time, before he’d go back to his roots with Full Time Killer (starring To favourite Andy Lau) in 2001, mainly due to his involvement in said comedy features, which were designed purely as money-rakers, so that To could fund further projects based more specifically on his personal ideals. However, he even showed a deft hand for turning seemingly dull rom/coms into enjoyable fares, such as the considerably underrated Andy Lau vehicles Fat Choi Spirit and Love on a Diet. Whether it’s comedy or drama, Johnnie To and his business partner War Kar Fai seem to have their fingers firmly on the pulse of cinema goers and have as such made some very safe investments over the years. 2003 would see Johnnie To finally go back to what he does best. PTU was initially halted, mainly due to To overseeing work on two other feature films, both released in the same year: Turn Left, Turn Right and the Andy Lau in another prosthetic suited Running on Karma. It’s safe to say then that a lot was riding on whether or not it could live up to past movies.
Caught up in the middle of a gang war, Sergeant Lo (Lam Suet) of the Anti-Crime Division finds himself at odds whist in the pursuit of “Ponytail” and his hoods. After slipping on a banana peel and falling unconscious he reawakens to discover that his gun is now missing. Knowing that his superiors will chew him up for breakfast if word gets out, Lo tries to cover up his stupidity and goes so far as to confiscate important evidence pertaining to the death of “Ponytail” which took place in the same evening. The case is quickly handed over to CID, led by Inspector Leigh Cheng (Ruby Wong), who already has suspicions over Lo’s recent behaviour. With no other choice Lo beseeches the help of the local PTU B2 unit, led by Mike Ho (Simon Yam). Bound by honour, Mike agrees to help Lo search for his piece along the quiet streets and retrieve it before the night is over. But with CID keeping a close eye on them and local gangs hiding in the wings their mission isn’t going to be easy.
PTU (that’s Police Tactical Unit by the way) does indeed see Johnnie To back on favoured form, yet of his most revered productions it’s perhaps his most minimalist to date. It shares all the unmistakable trademarks of his, while exploring underlying themes of human imperfection but it’s considerably low-key in its development. At just over 84 minutes, To sets the perfect run time for this unusual caper which takes place over the course of one night, as local law enforcement officers band together for the common good of their work. As a result the film moves at a brisk pace, establishing characters with ease, while foregoing the need to develop them beyond their purpose. While ordinarily that might prove to be a detrimental move, Johnnie To sees to it that events can remain intriguing enough without worrying over details that might ultimately cloud his intentions. For the most part PTU simply looks at various levels of corruption, though in tying them together they share a common factor in that they’re brought on through unavoidable circumstances. Thus To creates a kind of “what if?” scenario, questioning whether or not such drastic measures taken by the good guys are a necessity, next to the equally unscrupulous nature of the criminals they seek to bring to justice. It’s a brave move, but a well played trick on To’s part, primarily due to each character having a total lack of sympathy. We’re never allowed to get to know our protagonists or antagonists, save for brief passing comments, which means that we have no personal attachment to them. We can therefore sit back and watch these people carry out their duties, doing what must be done for a greater good, even if that means breaking a few rules along the way.
That’s not to say PTU’s cast doesn’t give their all, indeed they do. Simon Yam is perhaps a little too underappreciated these days, mostly carrying out supporting roles, but he’s a proven leading actor and can certainly command a role when given the opportunity, and in PTU’s case he’s perfectly cast as the leading officer. Likewise Lam Suet is suitably cast as the buffoonish sergeant Lo, acting as the antithesis to Mike Ho’s confident officer, being quite pathetic really and showing that even specially trained officers of the law can be as equally fallible as anyone else. Otherwise we’re left with a fine support, if only underwhelming due to them being background participants; from Ho’s loyal unit to the CID team and Ruby Wong’s hardened female lead inspector, with drug addicted undercover agents thrown in, through to the bit-player hoodlums who loiter the streets at ungodly hours.
PTU could just as well be a silent movie, what with its lack of overall dialogue forwarding an already sparse narrative. Its biggest strengths lie in Ching Chi-Wing’s pleasantly romanticised scoring, featuring predominantly subdued guitar wailing, in turn complimenting Cheng Siu-Keung’s gorgeous cinematography, whereby he creates a strong contrasting environment with the quiet neon-lit streets belonging to the PTU’s regular early hour patrols. It’s an unusual clashing of ideas, which I don’t suppose will resonate with everyone, what with the feel-good score rarely ceasing, even during the moments where we’re supposedly meant to feel some kind of tension (such as Ho’s accent up a dark flight of stars, ready to bust a gang of thugs), but it adds a spark of life that otherwise the film may have been dormant without.
I have to say that I was pleasently surprised when I inserted this disc into my player. PTU is Third Window Film’s first proper PAL release under Metrodome’s distribution, with a run time of 1:24:22 accounting for PAL speed up. Naturally I assumed it was going to be a standards conversion (who could blame me?), but this release goes so far as to better Mei-Ah’s non-progressive (interlaced with ghosting artefacts) 88 minute release from a few years ago. But then PTU did get a limited UK theatrical release this year at selected cinemas, so that would certainly explain a film source being used. So I’m happy to say that there really isn’t a great deal to cause fuss over with this nicely presented anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. Edge enhancement isn’t an issue for a change and just about the only thing worth mentioning is the slightly high contrast, given the nature of the dark setting, along with certain black levels and shadow detail not being quite as perfect as they could be. Still, it’s far from a distraction and in all the colour palette is excellently reproduced, with To’s strong sense of lighting coming through well and skin tones looking accurate, while detail is fine, exhibiting only a slight softness for wider shots. A very fine effort and a standard which I hope will be maintained for future releases.
Unlike the Mei-Ah issue, however, we lose out on the optimised DTS track. Still, we do have Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 Surround options, the latter being another first for this relatively new company. For the purpose of this review and my own enjoyment I naturally went with the 5.1 mix. It’s not exactly immersive, but it does a nice enough job. Dialogue, while not suffering from drop outs or distortions, is spread a little thinly across the front channels, which means that during busier scenes it tends to lose a little focus. The rear channels pick up various ambient effects and handle bits and pieces of the limited action moments (by which I mean standing shoot outs), but it rarely pushes them, saving itself for the score, which is very lively, being steered across front and rear channels.
Optional English subtitles are included, and while we’re being consistent with everything else they read very well and I can’t say that I noticed the kind of goofs seen on every one of Third Window’s previous releases.
A trailer for PTU is provided as standard, along with several previews for future Third Window releases. The main draw is a seventeen minute interview featurette, with Johnnie To, followed by Simon Yam. To discusses his thoughts on making PTU and questions how many critics perceived it as an art film. We learn about his intentions regarding the characters in the film and how they and their given situation could relate to real life police work. Simon Yam talks about approaching his role and how he feels about the overall work.
PTU’s interest lies in the fact that it’s not approached from a typical cop movie standpoint; there’s barely any action to speak of and rarely a hint of comical banter, excessive dialogue or even a sense of overall fun. In fact from the outset it doesn’t appear to have anything going for it at all and yet somehow Johnnie To comes up trumps with his curious take on police life and corruption, set against the backdrop of an almost barren city.
As for the disc, it’s the best one we’ve seen so far from Third Window and Metrodome, and one which I hope isn’t going to be a rarity.
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
4 out of 10