Johnnie To is an interesting director from Hong Kong. In many ways, he reminds me of Quentin Tarantino despite some stark differences. To writes very unique characters and situations that are specifically designed for the worlds he creates. There is a distinct style, both in the writing and in the cinematography that Johnnie To films possess, and it is that style which carries the movies and makes them attractive. He deals with a lot of violent people, be they on the side of the law or not. His movies can turn on a dime, where in one moment the viewer feels entertained because of the hilarity on screen, and the very next moment the screws are turned and the viewer suddenly feels very uncomfortable and possibly feels sorry for a character who earlier would not have earned our sympathy. To really enjoys mixing different ingredients together to see what happens and consistently lends his movies a beautiful visual style in which lighting is used to great effect. Unlike Tarantino however, To’s characters don’t often say very much. When it comes to the dialogue, the Hong Kong director prefers minimalism.
PTU, or Police Tactical Unit, follows a great number of characters for one night, but the central character is Inspector Lo, a chubby, ill-tempered man who earns the wrath of the Ponytail gang during a tense but comical scene at a diner early on (the blending of styles begins early). Upon chasing one of Ponytail’s gang members down an ally, he slips on garbage and loses his pistol in the process. This is obviously a big mistake and he is forced to spend the remainder of the night desperately searching for his gun. This quest pits him in the middle of a gang rivalry (other than Ponytail’s gang), under the loop from the chief of the homicide unit, and generally leaves him tired and frustrated. In his corner, temporarily at least, is a peculiar PTU that agrees to help Lo in his search. Given how it is suspected that the Ponytail crew have possession of the missing pistol, the PTU hunts down for any contacts and leads that may help them with their goal. However, this unit of officers is comprised of some nasty characters. They are in essence street bullies who obtain what they need through means of intimidation and embarrassment. Their badges provide them with immunity from repercussions that may emerge from the city’s criminal world, or so they seem to believe at least. They don’t smile very much but their sense of unity and camaraderie means they look out for each other. You stir trouble with one, you have stirred trouble with the entire unit.
There is much to admire about PTU. Filming at night lends an entirely different look than filming during the day. Artificial lighting can become an amazing tool in creating mood and a world for the characters, and it would seem that director To understands this very well. The pacing of the camera during the action sequences is pitch perfect, and there is always something interesting to look at on screen. A colour shade here, ominous shadows there, cigarette smoke playfully swimming in the air, PTU occurs in a beautifully shot world where light and shadow engage in a terrific dance. The shadows are thick and would discourage anyone from venturing deeper into the neighbourhood. Yet, when the light shafts emerge from the lamp posts or from the seeming warmth of a late night diner, the faces you encounter might not be the friendliest. Perhaps the shadows were not so terrible upon second thought. A perfect example of this is the scene in which one by one the members of the PTU, equipped with their flashlights, enter a tall building shadowed in complete darkness and slowly make their way up the flight of stairs.
Something that struck me very early into the movie was how frequently I was laughing. The story is not funny per say and none of the characters display much of a sense of humour, but there are several hilarious moments throughout the movie. Make no mistake, none of these laughs were produced unintentionally where a scene or character was taking itself too seriously. Johnny To has a knack for finding comedy at the most unsuspecting moments. I don’t know if To was afraid of people finding is movie too dark and consequently uninteresting (an argument that holds little water when one considers his two Election movies), or if he was aiming for a strange hybrid of police drama and comedy, but the mixture succeeds every time. Many of the comedic moments are of the ‘shit happens’ variety, such as when Lo accidentally slips on garbage near the beginning when chasing a hoodlum. It’s unexpected, occurs at the worst possible time for the character and somehow is filmed in a way that makes it really funny. Another example is the scene in which a young man eating at a diner is forced to change tables each time a new intimidating personality arrives at the restaurant. There is a running joke involving cell phones, and even the scene mentioned earlier with the PTU members going up the dark flight of stairs has a funny, if brief, moment. On the surface, and particularly given the look of the movie which has many dimly lit scenes, one wouldn’t think PTU would be ripe for comedy, but there you go. I hope I haven’t given the impression that PTU is a laugh-a-minute comedy festival, because there are in fact far more darker moments.
As I wrote briefly already, the police tactical unit which assists inspector Lo on this night are a vicious bunch. More than once in the movie members of the unit exercise their status over the scum of the district they patrol. In once scene which I shan’t spoil too much, the PTU encounter’s Ponytail’s cousin at an arcade game establishment. The PTU really put a clinic of stress on the cousin and on his friends. Another moment sees some unit members viciously attack a gang member on the run. This goes back to what I wrote about in the introduction to this review, about certain victims of these abuses earning a certain degree of sympathy when they arguably would not have done so a minute earlier. There are some deep psychological and emotional elements at play during these scenes. Perhaps the hoodlums themselves have practiced similar forms of intimidation or worse still. The teenagers and young adults who populate the streets at night have a nasty and outsider look about them. They believe that they’re pretty tough, one can read it on their faces. Does that justify the actions of the PTU? I highly doubt it. When faced with those who wish us ill, be it physically, emotionally or psychologically, it is tempting to imagine oneself returning the favour, but seeing the PTU doing just that doesn’t make the prospect very attractive any longer. It seems that we have been flirting with this very topic a few times this week. Movies have many ways of depicting characters who, for good or ill, choose to serve by offering those who choose to break the law a taste of their own medicine. In some cases, as in Dirty Harry, those actions look cool and we cheer for the anti-hero. In Johnny To’s PTU, the results provide the opposite effect. Although the film held my attention and was entertaining on many levels, it had me wishing, if only slightly, for a character who could come across as a bit more virtuous. Even the woman who leads the homicide unit is a hard ass. None of this actually hurts the movie in any significant way. It arguably makes it all the more intriguing, just to see where the night would carry this band of characters and maybe to see if anybody would get their ‘cumupins.’
I had been waiting for a To film that would make a better case for why he is a so-called ‘great director.’ Sparrow and Election, while both good, didn’t convince me enough. PTU, with its gorgeous cinematography, quirky blend of humour and drama and its cast of unique personalities (while all being jerks in their own way) is my favourite To film to date. Fans of Hong Kong cinema and cop films would do well to check it out.