Lo Sa, a tired and overweight detective in Hong Kong’s police department, chases a gang of youths into a Kowloon alleyway. He slips and falls, knocking himself unconscious in the process. When he wakes, his handgun has been stolen. This sparks off a series of encounters as the local police tactical unit (PTU) work to retrieve his weapon before he has to formally report its theft.
PTU is a police-based crime thriller directed by Johnnie To. It’s one of the most fascinating Hong Kong film productions of the past 20 years. Set over one night, yet shot over a period of two years, it helped to kick-start To’s career from industry journeyman to internationally feted auteur. Its release also coincided eerily with one of the greatest social crises to hit Hong Kong since its 1997 handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, giving the film a resonance that – while not intended – nonetheless made it stand out as one of the most striking and memorable films of its time.
Johnnie To Kei-Fung was born in Hong Kong in 1955. His first job out of high school was as a messenger for the local television network TVB, and his entire career has been spent working within the screen arts. His career has essentially fallen into three distinct phases. The first was within television, where he gradually rose up through the ranks of TVB until he became a noted writer and producer for serialised dramas. The most widely acclaimed of these was the 59-part serial The Legend of the Condor Heroes (1983), which To produced and co-directed, and which became the most popular television series of its year.
It was while working for TVB that To first tried his hand at directing a feature film. ‘I really liked the idea of making a feature film,’ he said, ‘but after my first attempt I said to myself that I wasn’t cut out to be a director. I went back to television, then, seven years later I made my second film. It was another ten years before I felt like a real film-maker.’[i]
To’s first feature was the martial arts thriller The Enigmatic Case, released in 1980. His second was Happy Ghost III, a 1986 comedy sequel starring Raymond Wong and Maggie Cheung. It was his fourth film, The Eighth Happiness (1988) that saw To become a commercially successful director for the first time. This comedy, which starred popular actor Chow Yun-Fat and was released to coincide with the Chinese new year, was a smash hit.
It was during this second phase of his career that To found extensive commercial success, directing a range of populist comedies, dramas and action films. While he enjoyed a large number of hits, he did not appear to develop the same cult-like reputation as several of his contemporaries including John Woo, Ringo Lam and producer-director Tsui Hark.
Several films from this period did make their way to international audiences, notably the 1989 drama All About Ah-Long – which won Chow Yun-Fat his fourth Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor – and the 1993 heroic fantasy film The Heroic Trio.
Between 1986 and 1997 Johnnie To directed 20 films – an average of almost two per year. He also produced an additional nine films for other directors.
Through this entire section of To’s career 1997 loomed large on the horizon. Both Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula had been ceded in perpetuity to the British Empire in 1842, following the First Opium War with the Chinese Qing Empire. As the colony developed and expanded however, a need for further land led to the British government leasing an additional tract of land from China in 1898. These ‘new territories’ were leased for a 99 year period, set to expire on 1 July 1997.
The ‘Hong Kong question’ loomed large between the United Kingdom and China from the early 1980s. By that time Hong Kong had become a highly industrialised centre for international shipping and trade, and China had become a large communist super-power. It was clear that a further lease of the New Territories was untenable. It was also clear that a split-city situation akin to Berlin would be similar untenable. As a result Britain and China entered a protracted series of negotiations to hand the city of Hong Kong over to Chinese sovereignty while maintaining as many British-style democratic laws and economic freedoms as possible.
Hong Kong’s transition from British Dependent Territory to Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR) was ultimately a rather smooth process, but uncertainty and panic among Hong Kong citizens in the lead-up to the handover led to a mass exodus of citizens for other countries. Between 1984 and 1997 close to a million citizens left the city for the United Kingdom, Australia and other nations.
Members of Hong Kong’s film industry joined in with this exodus. Popular directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam started making films in Hollywood, and even some actors started investigating the possibility of broadening their careers to other countries. The Hong Kong film industry underwent a significant contraction in scale. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s the number of feature films produced in the city halved. Nervous anticipation of the handover was compounded by aggressive promotion of Hollywood films by distributors, an Asia-wide financial crisis, a sharp rise in cinema ticket prices, and the growth of video piracy across the region.
As an experienced director and producer, Johnnie To was very much aware of the challenges facing future film production. On the one hand he remained keen to write, direct and produce films that stimulated him creatively. ‘Before I turned 40,’ he said, “I started to ask myself: do I really just want to continue being a technician? An operator? Or just a businessman? Then in 1995, I made up my mind that I really wanted to become a film director in the long term, making films that are decided by me and me alone – not the cast, nor the investors, nor the market.’[ii]
On the other hand he knew that commercial considerations were what made creative ones possible, and that a careful eye needed to remain on production budgets as well as popular tastes. To ensure better creative and commercial control over his own works, To joined with his frequent collaborator Wai Ka-Fai to form his own independent production company: Milkyway Image.
Not content with simply producing feature films, Johnnie To set himself no smaller target than the rejuvenation of Hong Kong cinema in general. ‘If we cannot rejuvenate the industry,’ he explained in 2001, ‘give it support, and make it more exciting, then perhaps investors will have no interest in putting more money into it. Why does an investor want to put money into the Hong Kong film industry? To make a profit. At Milkyway Image, we aim for a balance between the kind of movies we like and the kind of movies audiences like. That is our goal.’[iii]
The formation of Milkyway Image in 1996 marked the third phase of To’s career, where he shifted from a commercial director to a highly creative and distinctive filmmaker in his own right. In addition to making his own widely acclaimed films he also fostered future talent, producing films for a range of new directors including Law Wing-Cheong (Punished, Iceman), Yau Nai-Hoi (Eye in the Sky) and Cheang Pou-Soi (Motorway, The Monkey King).
After a slightly fraught few years, in which Milkyway Image’s productions were not particularly profitable, the company settled down into a successful formula that alternated between artful crime thrillers and populist comedies. A film like Fulltime Killer might not have attracted mainstream audiences, but a comedy like Love on a Diet – released in the same year – would earn enough profits to keep the company flush with production funding.
While To’s more comedic and commercial works tend to be filmed from a finished screenplay, his more personal films are developed and shot in a much looser fashion. The creative process essentially runs like this: Johnnie To will meet with his writer – usually his occasional co-director Wai Ka-Fai. They will discuss general story ideas. The writer will then develop a storyline, from which they will break down a series of scenes. To will then go and shoot those scenes, improvising dialogue and action with the writer and his actors as they go.
‘We work together very closely,’ said Wai, ‘and mutual confidence is really important. Quite often, whether Johnnie or I actually come up with an idea, he has a lot of faith in me. So I’ll run off with the idea and build a script from it. Sometimes, the creative process of scriptwriting takes place quite close to the actual film production time. Johnnie is in the front lines making the movie, and I’m still writing the script. But we’re so in tune with each other that whatever I give Johnnie will work, even while he’s shooting the film.’[iv]
‘In fact,’ said To, ‘I prefer not to have a very concrete script before I started to shoot a movie. The reason is until the moment I shoot, I still want to introduce some new ideas. Maybe it’s true that I didn’t thing thoroughly in advance, or I couldn’t come to a final decision. However, I love this production environment. I don’t want the script to limit my instant creativity.’[v]
Even To’s action sequences are usually invented on the fly. ‘Setting and character are the two basics of action,’ he said. ‘First of all, everything you see here – the curtains, the chairs, the tables, the candles, the stools at the bar – everything can move. Even the curtains can move, can become part of how the scene is constructed. But the more important element is the character. Who is he? What is he like? What will he do in this location?’[vi]
PTU is one of To’s semi-improvised films. The basic premise – a police detective loses his gun and goes on the hunt to reclaim it – was set very early into development. The precise details of the story were slowly formed over the course of the film’s protracted shoot, with the cast only discovering the narrative on a scene-by-scene basis. ‘As for the actors,’ said To, ‘they had no idea what I was shooting at the beginning. But I told them my idea and what to do, and they tried to follow it as closely as possible. I mean in the sense, they were discovering things just like the characters are discovering them. They didn’t know what was going to happen next.’[vii]
For PTU Johnnie To was most interested in the concept of the ‘blue curtain’, also known as the ‘blue wall of silence’. It is an unwritten rule found among many police forces around the world, in which officers do not report on a colleague’s errors or misconduct and profess ignorance of any untoward incidents if asked.
For the characters depicted in the film, observing and upholding the law is a secondary priority to saving the reputation of a fellow officer. To achieve that goal, the PTU under Sergeant Mike Ho’s command will break numerous laws and commit multiple crimes to save Lo Sa from disgrace.
To said: ‘Viewers from overseas and from Hong Kong have asked me if cops really do what is shown in the movie. I don’t want to say. Things happen in life. It is not a creation of my movie. If you read the paper or watch the news, you know what goes on.’[viii]
As with most of his films, Johnnie To cast PTU with a group of actors with whom he had previously collaborated. He said: ‘The reason I use the same actors is because they trust me. During the film process I believe they also enjoy it. Other than the trust between me and the cast, the other reason is that I’m kind of a lazy person. I don’t want to spend too much time trying to find people who don’t understand me. Also, my favourite film director is Kurosawa. He does the same by using the same cast. I am still learning from him.’[ix]
The lead role of PTU Sergeant Mike Ho was played by Simon Yam. Originally a model, Yam had worked for many years under contract to TVB before graduating to feature films. In 1999 he co-starred in Johnnie To’s ground-breaking crime film The Mission, and collaborated with the director again on FullTime Killer (2001) and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002).
‘Johnnie To is like my brother,’ said Yam. ‘I’ve known him for over thirty years. He got me started in my real acting career. Most of the movies I was in before him were action shows, nothing about characters or humanity. He let me make human movies and allowed me to play humane characters.’[x]
Following PTU Yam continued to work extensively with Johnnie To and Milkyway Image, co-starring in Breaking News (2004), Election (2005), Exiled (2006), Eye in the Sky (2007), Sparrow (2008) and Vengeance (2009).
Lo Sa was played by Lam Suet. Suet was originally a production assistant, but observing actors at work led him to begin pressing directors to let him appear on screen. His first on-screen appearance was in the 1992 film The Story of Ricky, but it was the directors Stephen Chow and Johnnie To who both started casting Lam in prominent supporting roles in their films. Since 1996 he has become a perennial face in Hong Kong cinema, appearing in more than 80 films – at least 20 of which have been directed or produced by Johnnie To.
During the film two separate PTUs patrol Tsim Sha Tsui. The first is commanded by Sergeant Ho. The second, which investigates a mysterious series of car break-ins, is commanded by Sergeant Kat – played by Maggie Shiu. Shiu first worked with To on The Longest Nite in 1998, and like Lam and Yam continued to perform a variety of roles in his films.
To complicate matters for both Mike Ho and Lo Sa, there is yet another police team roaming the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui. This one is a criminal intelligence bureau (CIB) team led by Inspector Leigh Cheng, played by Ruby Wong. Wong had already worked with Johnnie To and Milkyway Image on Expect the Unexpected (1998), Running Out of Time (1999) and its sequel, and Needing You (2001). Shortly after PTU’s release she retired from performing.
PTU was shot on location across Hong Kong. The majority of scenes were shot in the suburbs of Kowloon City, Mongkok and Tsim Sha Tsui – where the film is set – although some additional scenes were shot on Hong Kong Island. Specifically, the alleyway in which Lo Sa loses his gun was filmed in Central, while the climax was shot in Ap Lei Chau.
Part of what gave PTU such resonance upon release, particularly with Hong Kong audiences, was the eerie fashion in which it treated the city. The first thing we experience in the film is the sound of the city, while the opening credits play out against a black screen. During the film shots are regularly composed to frame actors in the distance dwarfed by the city’s architecture. Most significantly, the streets are nearly empty for the vast bulk of the film.
In the Spring of 2003 Hong Kong was struck by an epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a flu-like virus. The epidemic started in the neighbouring Chinese province of Guangdong and spread across the city. In total almost 1,800 Hong Kong residents were infected with the virus; 305 of them died. During the epidemic Hong Kong’s usually busy streets were deserted. Hospitals were overrun by concerned citizens with colds or other flu-like viruses, and at least one apartment block was quarantined. Hong Kong’s film industry was effectively suspended for the duration of the crisis: few films entered production while there was a risk of the cast and crew being infected, and even fewer were released into the city’s near-empty cinemas.
Into this tense, fearful environment came PTU. After two years of on-again off-again shooting the distributor Mei Ah Film Production was happy to see it released into cinemas under any circumstances. They released in on 17 April 2003, and it grossed a fairly disappointing HK$3 million dollars (about US$385,000).
What is striking about PTU’s release, however, is how eerily the film’s own aesthetic reflected the environment in which it was released. The film presents an uncharacteristically deserted Kowloon, which is typically busy with pedestrians twenty-four hours a day. Mongkok, for example, with 130,000 people per square kilometre, is the busiest city precinct in the world. In PTU the streets are effectively empty, and To shows the various police officers and Triad members running around them with the sort of edge usually reserved for a horror movie. When he started shooting the film in 2001 it was a deliberate stylistic choice. When the film was released in 2003 it accurately reflected the reality of the city outside.
It is fascinating to compare PTU with earlier Hong Kong-based thrillers, notably John Woo’s violent, carefully choreographed action films including A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Hard Boiled (1992). Both Woo and To’s films present uniquely Hong Kong stories, deeply infused with the city’s geography and cultural identity, yet while Woo heavily pushes themes of brotherhood, honour and loyalty To appears to actively subvert them.
We first meet Lo Sa (Lam Suet) in a restaurant – the exact same restaurant in which gang leader Ponytail and his associates are eating. From the outset To positions the police alongside the Triads, and seems to suggest that there is not much of a difference between them. They are, in effect, symbiotic: without one there would be no need for the other. There’s a clever duplication in the way each man behaves. Ponytail’s first act is to force a random diner out of his table to sit there instead. The first thing Lo does is to force Ponytail out of the same table, to sit back down where he originally was – amusingly forcing the random diner to a third table. Gangster or police officer, they both behave in identical ways.
There is a remarkable contrast between the aesthetic of PTU and the depiction of its characters. Visually the film is a stark combination of black shadows and bold colours, depicting a sort of film noir environment. The characters, however, are significantly more ambivalent in their behaviour: not presented along a black and white morality but rather multiple tones of grey. Police officers seem more interested in protecting each other’s careers than standing for justice. There is a scene of Sergeant Ho questioning a low-level Triad gangster in a basement amusement arcade. He repeatedly slaps the man in the face. He does it with impunity, since a colleague has already surreptitiously unplugged the security camera and distracted the other gamers. Ho’s assault extends far longer than the viewer would reasonably expect, until it becomes genuinely uncomfortable to watch. It is an act far below what one would expect from a heroic police captain, and forces the viewer to question just how honourable and principled the character is. Ho may be on the law’s side, but throughout the night he breaks many of the laws he is supposed to uphold.
Lo and Ponytail’s encounter ends with two bizarrely comedic twists. Lo steps outside to find a hoodlum vandalising his car. He gives chase, but before he turns a corner into a violent ambush he accidentally slips in an alleyway and knocks himself unconscious. Back in the restaurant, Ponytail is violently stabbed in the back by the diner he had twice forced out from his table. Not a random diner at all, but a rival gang member specifically waiting for orders to murder Ponytail.
There is something absurdly funny about the manner in which Ponytail, a large carving knife jammed so hard into his back that it’s protruding out of his chest, runs in a panic out of the restaurant and about half a block before crawling into a taxi. The taxi driver freaks out and flees, and so Ponytail – the knife still impaled through his body – shifts into the driver’s seat before dying from shock and blood loss a few blocks down the road.
Johnnie To said: ‘This scene was inspired by our research into the Hong Kong Triads. In one incident, a Triad was stabbed and ran for half an hour to check himself into a hospital. Of course, this person had a very strong will, but these things really happened in real life. We, of course, changed it for the movie, but the incident could have happened. In another real life incident, one Triad in a knife fight got his stomach sliced open and didn’t even know he was hurt until the fight was over.’[xi]
In another moment of absurd humour, Ponytail’s gang flee from Lo’s unconscious body onto the street and nearly get hit by Ponytail’s crashing taxi. They shout abuse at the driver while running away, never realising it is their own gang leader bleeding to death.
Lo wakes, covered in blood and bruises, to find his handgun has gone missing. He is found by two PTUs, led by Ho and Kat. Kat wants to report the missing gun immediately. Ho agrees to hold off from reporting its theft, in favour of spending the night tracking it down on Lo’s behalf. Lo is two weeks from a promotion, and the loss of the gun could ruin his career.
It’s worth noting the background of the scene that, while Lo, Ho and Kat argue over what to do, Ho’s own officers are engaged in some sort of petty physical squabble: another example of the police doing little different from their criminal counterparts.
Shortly afterwards, the scene of Ponytail’s death is taken over by the CIB under the command of Leigh Cheng. Cheng instinctively dislikes and distrusts Lo Sa, who was supposed to be working an anti-gang beat when he went into the restaurant, and begins to follow up on his whereabouts and behaviour. Lo and Ho are simultaneously off looking for the missing gun. Ponytail’s father is out looking for the gangsters who had his son killed. Kat’s PTU are following up on a weird spate of car break-ins.
There are essentially five interlinked storylines running through PTU, each of them a strange, slightly off-kilter adventure akin to some odyssey through the underworld. In what is a masterstroke of plotting – particularly given the loose manner in which Johnnie To develops his films – all five threads weave together into a single climax.
It’s a remarkably distinctive film. It lacks a traditional three-act structure. It lacks clear heroes and villains. By the end of its comparatively brief running time (88 minutes) the only lessons learned by its protagonists are arguably bad ones. What action that exists is sporadic and remarkably brief, and regularly subverts expectations. In one scene midway through the film Ho’s team spend literally minutes infiltrating an abandoned warehouse complex to capture Ponytail’s gang – only to discover the gang isn’t even there.
While the SARS crisis put a serious dent in PTU’s box office, it was warmly received by both local and international critics. The following year it received 10 nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, winning Best Director, while over in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards it scored 11 nominations, winning Best Screenplay for Yau Nai-Hoi and Au Kin-Yee.
Following the success of PTU on home video, Milkyway Image produced a series of spin-off and sequel films that were released directly to DVD in Hong Kong. Five films were produced in total in the Tactical Unit series between 2008 and 2009, under the supervision of directors Law Wing-Cheong, Lawrence Ah Mon and Andy Ng. Simon Yam, Maggie Shiu and Lam Suet all returned to perform in these sequels, although they each assumed new roles.
In terms of Johnnie To’s career, PTU marked a significant step forward in his development as a director. It solidified many of the techniques and styles that he would become renowned for: loose, idiosyncratic plotting, ambivalent morality, and eye-catching visual imagery. Since its release he has directed a number of outstanding feature films, including Throw Down, Election, Exiled, Mad Detective and Life Without Principle. PTU remains one of his absolute best works: bold, immersive and memorable. When Hong Kong was handed over to China, To dedicated himself to renewing and reinvigorating Hong Kong cinema. As one of the most active and interesting creative forces in the industry, it’s fair to say that he’s done exactly that.
[i] Interviewed at “Interview with Johnnie To”, Festival de Cannes, 19 May 2011.
[ii] Edmund Lee, “Johnnie To: the auteur”, Timeout Hong Kong, 14 July 2008.
[iii] Shelly Kraicer, “Interview: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai”, Senses of Cinema, December 2001.
[iv] Shelly Kraicer, “Interview: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai”, Senses of Cinema, December 2001.
[v] François, “Interview Johnnie To”, Cinemasie, October 2004.
[vi] Noel Murray, “Johnnie To: A Hong Kong action master adapts to a changing China”, The Dissolve, 22 July 2013.
[vii] Michael Ingham, Johnnie To Kei-Fung’s PTU, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2009.
[viii] Michael Ingham, Johnnie To Kei-Fung’s PTU, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2009.
[ix] Jacqueline Valencia, “TIFF’s a century of Chinese cinema: in conversation with Johnnie To”, Next Projection, 16 July 2013.
[x] Yvonne Young, “Actor, Simon Yam Tat-Wah”, HK Magazine, 5 January 2006.
[xi] Sean Axmaker, “Karma chameleon: a talk with Johnnie To”, Green Cine, 19 February 2004.