Hong Kong’s Johnnie To has been directing films since 1980, but you can really divide his career into two phases. One, a journey-level career in making relatively derivative features heavily inspired by existing genre conventions. Then, from 1999, a more bespoke career with a specific personal style and visual aesthetic. It is the second phase that comprises most of his famous works, including Election, Exiled, PTU, and Drug War, and which has led to an international status as one of Asia’s most popular filmmakers. Loving You, released in 1995 and starring regular collaborator Lau Ching-wan, is from the first phase. It lacks the slick, unpredictable flair of To’s later works, but you can see that the style is already developing.
Liu Chen-hai (Lau) is an immoral police detective; he cuts corners, cheats on his wife (Carman Lee), and unfairly berates his officers. When he is shot in the line of duty, he is forced to re-evaluate his life and career.
Later To films do a remarkable job of shifting genres within the narrative, dropping emotional drama into action films or sudden tragedy into comedies. It is a real talent that To developed over time, and sadly back in 1995 that talent is yet to fully form. Loving You struggles with tone. It wants to be a gripping police thriller and a tragic melodrama at the same time, and ultimately fails to convince as either. Both sides of the film feel rather underdeveloped. The film’s villain (Tou Chung-hua) nor Liu’s wife do not even appear to get names, and in the former’s case there is not even any real motivation for his murderous pursuit of Liu.
Lau Ching-wan brings a fair amount of personality to his character; this was his second collaboration with To and was followed by a string of other roles for the director. He gets by largely due to the screenplay (by Yau Nai-hoi, another regular fixture of To’s films) giving him a little bit of character with which to work. Carman Lee suffers because she gets nowhere near as much. Her character is pregnant to a man with whom she was having an affair, but that is effectively all she gets. Every time the film focuses on her it immediately shifts away to Liu’s career troubles or recovery from his near-death experience.
Loving You is absolutely mediocre-level To, and only really passable as a Hong Kong melodrama. It is certainly watchable, and does entertain in fits and starts, but the potential is squandered. This is definitely one for the To completists, the students of Hong Kong cinema, and the generally indiscriminate. Everyone involved has done better work elsewhere.
Loving You is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.