Tartan UK release Johnny To’s 2004 Film, Breaking News, and we wonder is it action or satire. John White puts his thinking cap on
One moment you’re riding high on ironic celebrity with other celebrities tending to your every whim and then you drop your guard and become the prejudiced person you really are. Suddenly the sky falls in, the nation turns against you and newspapers like the Daily Mail write hypocritical pieces about your racism. If only you’d been able to do something about it rather than stay locked up in the TV prison you are staying in. If only you could talk about all of your black friends and your abused childhood and your utter shame and penitence to a variety of magazines and talkshows, then the damage would have been limited. If you’d only been able to react quickly then after a couple of months of self flagellation and anti racist charity work, that second volume of your auto-biography could have hit the bookstores. It just goes to show that in our modern world, everyone needs PR and media management.
This is the basic premise of Johnnie To’s Breaking News. When a stakeout and attempted arrest of a gang of robbers goes badly wrong, the media gets pictures of cowering and surrendering policemen rather than the preferable image of the defeat of the evil criminal. As voters react to this footage on their TV, politicians are already on the warpath and using the police as a political football and public confidence in law and order hits rock bottom. Whilst the original cops chase down the gang, the rest of the police force is organised to provide "a great show" for the watching media and public. Rebecca Fong directs the action in the fight against the robbers and manages the news and when the gang is found in a block of flats, she sees her chance to undo the damage done to the Hong Kong police’s reputation. She has two problems though – Cheung won’t obey orders and may ruin her efforts, and the robbers know how to play the media game too.
As I said, it is a terrific premise and there are moments of Fong’s media skills which will be horribly familiar to those of us aware of the management of bad news. Faced with little progress to tell the media, Fong re-edits the footage they have of prosaic journeys with stirring music, and confrontations which resulted in impasse are re-presented more progressively – as her ultra capable assistant says "we’ll fix it in the editing". The gang of robbers fight back with their own media offensive – pictures of the police beaten back and a scene of their hostages enjoying lunch. Fong, not to be outdone, arranges packed lunches for the journalists! This part of the film works really well and Kelly Chen is icy as the media savvy cop and had the film kept to this satirical drama perhaps Breaking News would have worked better.
What compromises the film is its efforts to play to what represents a Johnnie To movie. It complicates the central notion by throwing in an action vehicle, some romance, some criminal brotherhood and an earnest rogue cop, and this means that the plot descends into a whole heap of confusion and the early impetus is lost when switching between the two sets of cops and the three sets of baddies involved in the whole affair. Five or six plot strands can be weaved into a thoroughly satisfying action film, but Breaking News ends up with competing storylines and a lack of proper exposition in all of them. To make up for a lack of backstory, the film relies on hints of character with Fong presumably being the ex lover of her boss and the robbers ending up forming a pact with some killers in the style of Strangers on a Train simply because they made a meal together.
When the action flows it is up with the usual standards of the director and the opening stakeout scene is bravura with an audacious continuous long take crane and tracking shot. The opening chase and the siege are well put together and it is only when the film tries to build up some repartee between Fong and the gang that the story falls apart, veering towards bad comedy and weak melodrama in its lack of confidence in the drama on show. The performances are limited by the excessive plotting and the result is a lot of two dimensional people who respond to this explosion or that. Still it is Johnnie To and simply for the satire on media and the opening crane shot it will rock your world. Patchy but definitely worth the effort.
After getting a bad reputation for standards conversions on their Asian releases, Tartan have recently upped their game with fine treatments like their recent release of The Bow, and this continues their fine work. Breaking News is given an anamorphic transfer in original aspect ratio and this transfer is very nice indeed. Sharp, detailed and with excellent contrast, this treatment is as good as the fine R3 disc already available from Megastar. See the comparison below, Megastar disc is on top:
R2 Tartan UK
Soundwise, the Tartan disc offers three original language options including a stereo track not available on the R3 disc. The sound is without defects from mastering or source and the option of DTS and 5.1 is a welcome one for a film with so much action. The DTS track felt smooth enough but a little quiet, and I preferred the greater impact and better bass of the 5.1 mix. Both surround mixes have a strong subwoofer channel and voices are properly mixed into the appropriate speaker to match some of the 360 degree camerawork. The English subtitles have a few odd moments – "I’d be amputated" – and the quality is about the same as the R3 disc, I did like the font though.
Small beer in terms of extras with a two and a half minute behind the scenes segment and the original trailer, again the R3 disc boasts a deleted scene with more background on the robbers. The biographies from that disc are not present here.
A fine concept gets mixed results from Johnnie To. The film is on balance a success and Tartan have done another fine job on the transfer. The R3 disc is marginally better in terms of extras but the price here is rather tempting….
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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