PTU (2003)

Produced & directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Yau Nai Hoi & Au Kin Yee
Starring: Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Ruby Wong, Raymond Wong & Maggie Shaw

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2004:
Best Director (Johnnie To)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2004:
Best Picture
Best Screenplay (Yau Nai Hoi & Au Kin Yee)
Best Actor (Simon Yam)
Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Shaw)
Best Cinematography (Cheng Siu-Keung)
Best Editing (Law Wing-Cheong)
Best Original Film Score (Ching Chi-Wing)
Best Visual Effects (Ma Man-Yin)
Best Sound Effects (Martin Chappell)

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2004:
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Film Of Merit

Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2003:
Best Original Screenplay (Yau Nai Hoi & Au Kin Yee)

Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2003:
Best Picture
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Best Actor (Simon Yam)
Best Supporting Actor (Lam Suet)
Best Cinematography (Cheng Siu-Keung)
Best Editing (Law Wing-Cheong)
Best Make-Up & Costume Design (Suki Yip)
Best Original Film Score (Chung Chi-Wing)
Best Visual Effects (Stephen Ma)
Best Sound Effects (Martin Chappell)

Time for a real Johnnie To movie again! To, often accompanied by Wai Ka-Fai, nowadays have to fight to get projects off the ground that they and Milkyway wants to produce. Investors aren't easy to come by so by making generic romantic comedies or rather commercial movies, parts of the budget can be assembled into projects like Fulltime Killer. Now, that film was To and Wai's last real movie and it remains a love it or hate it film with fans. Milkyway have continued to produce films of various genres but the creative flow seen in the late 90s by this company and from To in particular is sorely missed now in 2003. Does PTU mark a return to form for the director and the production house then?

Sergeant Lo (Lam Suet from The Mission) loses his gun after being ambushed by triad Ponytail's henchmen. Meeting up with the Police Tactical Unit (PTU), headed by Mike (Simon Yam from Bullet In The Head), an acquaintance of Lo's, it's decided to not report the gun theft until dawn. The search for it begins on the quiet night street of Tsimshatsui where triads, CID and the PTU roam...

Thriller is the genre but because it's a real Johnnie To film, defining the genre fully is not an easy task, nor is there conventional filmmaking on display here. First thing that strikes you is the slick and professional look of PTU. The scope photography does enhance that but bear in mind that this level of technical professionalism can not carry a movie all the way through. In the midst of our enjoyment of the look, To slowly begins to show evidence of his return to aspects that made movies like The Mission so good; being and doing very little.

It's not like PTU it's a rollicking comedy but in between the serious search for the gun, To injects comedy I respond very well to. It's not humour that will take you out of the thriller, it's realistic humour created through the serious situation. To doesn't like to draw attention to himself too much and audiences may miss the comedy because of it, with no harm done in any way. Others can sit back and enjoy the subtlety of it, the restaurant scene near the beginning being a very good example. The pursuit on foot by Lo that sets the main plot in motion is another great To-moment that shows how he sees comedy in this type of film. He also skillfully weaves together the different smaller plot strands that sometimes goes on within the frame and outside of it, edited and directed so the viewer still feels safe, not lost. The director's none rush to the proceedings may not be to everyone's liking but I just love how To is not afraid to linger on people and events. When it's happening in a compelling visual palette, I certainly have no problem with it. It could be argued that PTU has a problem to an extent though, a character problem.

It's a short film, clocking in at only 88 minutes, so I don't exepct fully developed character arcs, nor is that To's intention either. The PTU team behind Mike, Yam's character, are one dimensional but To makes sure they're a heavy presence instead, a wise and well-made choice of direction here. The fact that exposition is not present makes the audience not aware of next step in the hunt. The PTU team hits different spots but we're not, at first, clear of what connection it has until closer to the end of a scene. It creates the odd moment of boredom but the cage revelation scene is an example of To seriously grabbing our attention again. That scene has striking visual imagery and comes, almost wonderfully, out of nowhere. It is what's hidden within Tsimshatsui's buildings at night.

You can't talk about PTU without mentioning Cheng Siu Keung's cinematography that portrays the Hong Kong night like never before. There's activity near the beginning but as soon as the shops close, people disappear and the streets almost go dead except for the law enforcing teams inhabiting it. It's not eerie, not tense and a look not gone overboard with. It's superbly integrated with To's original direction. From watching the trailer, I always found the contrasting between bright light and pitch black highly compelling and from watching it in the film, I have to say, in my mind, that it ranks as the best work in the film by Cheng.

This isn't a cop vs. robbers story as such and To chooses not to portray the police as clean cut heroes. Like so many other films, they use violence to get the information they want but by the created mood, To manages to avoid any obvious cliché trappings. It is in particular effective when the violence hits within the quiet nature of a scene. How many times have we seen witness interrogations like the one in the arcade hall? That alone is very distanced from genre conventions. No heroes as said but the film isn't about that thematically speaking. It's one story, in one night, showing conflicts between the forces that uphold the law, sympathetic or not.

A good dose of Milkyway's regular acting troupe turns up, starting with Simon Yam. There's not much to the character of Mike but what Simon so nicely radiates is the authority and menace of the PTU officer. A menace that perhaps is of the explosive kind in one situation or the subtle one in another. Yam is literally an even bigger presence when almost being surrounded by complete darkness, a big compliment to this accomplished veteran actor. Lam Suet gets to create more of a character than usual because he's given a chance to do a starring role really. Lo, a fairly well respected sergeant on the streets becomes reduced to almost nothing in his gun-less, beat-up state. That leads into a very funny and sad scene where he's sawing of the end of a bought gun and spraypaints it black to pass it off as his while the hunt goes on. It's a desperate character, the To-comedy relief character and Lam plays it with the right mood to suit the film. In other words, slightly out there but far from over the top because the latter would've hurt the film obviously. If anything PTU proves Lam is very capable, when given chance, to star or co-star. Ruby Wong's performance is a good example of a stock character that, under the direction of To, will remain compelling even without a big arc.

That To directs alone I think matters but not in the biggest of ways even if his best works are his own so to say. PTU is definitely a sign of Johnnie To getting back on form. It's not another The Mission but with superb technical merits, trademark subtlety throughout, Johnnie To has staged a Milkyway thriller of high caliber.

The DVD:

Mei Ah has packaged PTU in a very nice slipcase with different cover art on the dvd packing itself, similar to what Megastar does nowadays. The 2.42:1 framed, approximately, anamorphic widescreen transfer is pretty spot on when dealing with blacks and strong colours. Being a new film, the print is very clean except a speck or two. Mei Ah are a definite player on the Hong Kong dvd market nowadays.

Two Cantonese audio options appear, one track in 5.1 DTS ES and one in Dolby Digital 5.1. My choice was the latter and even though it's downconverted to 2.0 for my setup, it's a great enveloping mix that works very well the atmosphere on screen. A Mandarin Dolby 5.1 track is also included.

The English subtitles are excellent and are only missing the odd letter in a word here and there. This quality is what you expect from subtitling jobs on recent Hong Kong movies. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Main extra is an interview with director Johnnie To and Simon Yam (shot separately) lasting 17 minutes and 24 seconds. Unfortunately no subtitles is provided for this segment. The Data Bank has a plot synopsis screen plus cast & crew listing. The trailer for PTU is included and in the Best Buy section, a preview for 20/30 Dictionary resides.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson