Where A Good Man Goes (1999)
by: Johnnie To
| Director Johnnie To gave himself a fairly heavy
workload during 1999 by directing three movies and producing
one (Derek Chiu's Sealed With A Kiss). The Mission and Running Out Of Time both received much accolades
from fans and critics alike but Where A Good Man Goes seemed to always rank below those. Not that it's a shameful
position to be in considering the quality of those To directed
films. It made sense for him to cap the year with a smaller
film and he clearly possessed enough creative energy to deliver
Triad Michael (Lau Ching Wan), after getting into a fight with a taxi driver, angrily, checks in at the International Inn close by. It's run by widow Judy (Ruby Wong) who lives there with her young son. Clearly not wanting to have anything to do with this hot-tempered, loud triad, Judy goes about her business but Michael's unexpected kindness makes her aware of how dangerously closed her life is. He sticks around to help out at the inn and an unlikely connection begins to shape itself between the two...
Stripping away the quirky narrative, almost all of the subtle humour and violence in favor of low-key character drama is the recipe for Where A Good Man Goes. It slightly resembles aspects of To's All About Ah Long but is not similar as such in terms of characters and content. The theme in the film revolving around if a triad can actually be good is a well written premise by Yau Nai-Hoi along with the Milkyway Creative Team (that is the actual credit, To surely must be one of them?) but it all comes up a bit short in different areas.
The small environment of the inn holds the movies key scenes & themes and To involves the viewer right from the beginning stages of the main characters relationships. We sense and get to see familiar story elements, like the transition in Lau Ching Wan's character, but To remains low key enough to avoid any long lasting cliché traps. The dynamic between the two is nicely dealt with because she really doesn't want involve herself in anything but running the inn. Guests are business and triads doesn't equal good. She is not ignorant to think so because who would want to pay attention to such an insensitive bastard as Michael? A bastard that, through his stay at the inn, removes layers of his tough exterior and by actually being tough, makes Judy realize a thing or two about how she runs her family. To plays with the audiences in a few scenes where we are not totally sure of, primarily through Judy's behavior towards Michael, if there's a connection or if she's putting on act to get him off her back. Eventually they do connect more strongly and To rightly chooses the subdued route in conveying this. Not resorting to expository dialogue and instead focusing on getting the chemistry right between the actors. What's missing in the writing is actually a bit of exposition in fact. By doing little, To does not fully hammer home the reason why Michael, that we've seen as nothing but unsympathetic, does involve herself in Judy's life. It's a bit of a stretch to believe that, this early, the kindness is so close to the surface. Really towards the end it's made more clear but should've been earlier to a small extent at least.
Michael's journey is a valid one and his transformation to someone who actually has a worthy future doesn't sit well with the police force. Milkyway regular Lam Suet plays the cop, uncle of the taxi driver who jumped Michael near the beginning of the film, hell-bent on catching the triad when he does the wrong thing. While Lam's character is correct about wanting to nail someone that's immersed in triad activity, he's not interested to hear, at all, of a progress in Michael to become a better man. This hatred even goes as far as hassling Judy's son, which is a disturbing scene with a funny, unexpected comeuppance for Lam's character. Also unexpected in the way Michael handles the situation at this point in his journey. Talking briefly about the ending, which did please me to a fair degree, To wrongly steps out of the quiet drama and into more hysteric melodrama. It's not very suiting when looking back at what we've witnessed but in terms of closure to characters, it works when looking at it that way.
Lau Ching Wan I think one day (but do not hope for one bit) is going to wear the audiences out because he's in so much film, in particular the Milkyway produced ones. Just like the best character actors in Hong Kong, he can bring that professionalism to elevate a one dimensional role. This is however not that and Lau combines the triad in addition to the human elements to Michael really well. The flaw I could argue is his acting towards the end but that blame I believe lies with To's direction than an acting choice by Lau.
Ruby Wong is not yet up there with the best of the female actresses but playing a quiet, and in this case, introverted widow is a role she adapts in a suting way. She has good skill of changing her looks from film to film while her acting, in the roles I've seen, comes off as dedicated. The character of Judy almost walks with her head and eyes facing the floor in her quiet, planned out existence. An existence that is about to be cheerier thanks to a criminal of all things. The conflict within her to not accept having someone with bad values around her son and at the same time developing feelings for Michael is one Rudy performs with skill. Her presence in Milkyway films, for instance in the recent PTU, has always been welcomed by me, Where A Good Man Goes being no exception.
Where A Good Man Goes IS the weak link in Johnnie To's 1999 filmography. It does have a good load of merit as a character piece even if it's apparent that this approach is not where To excels most in. Fine performances from Lau Ching Wan and Ruby Wong makes this a fine viewing experience more for those familiar with To's directorial style prior to this.
The fetching dvd cover has on the disc a 1.85:1 transfer that generally does the job. Clean print but a murky appearance and darkness does drag the grade down (if I had actually used one).
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 track is preferable and has decent separation but rough recorded dialogue. The 5.1 counterpart however drowns out most of the dialogue with added foley effects. While sounding clear at a first listen, it soon becomes obvious, when flicking between the two, which one made the viewing experience better. Same audio options exists for the Mandarin dub.
The optional English subtitles contains little errors besides a few amusingly structured sentences. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. Data Bank has the plot synopsis and cast & crew listing and the only trailer on hand is for Gigolos Of Chinese Hollywood (with Eric Tsang as Princess Leia).
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson