Breaking News (2004)

Directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Chan Hing-Kai, Yip Tin Shing & Milkyway Creative Team
Producers: Johnnie To & Cao Biao
Starring: Richie Ren Kelly Chen, Nick Cheung, Cheung Siu-Fai, Hui Siu-Hung, Lam Suet & Maggie Shaw

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2005:
Best Picture
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Shaw)

Best Editing (David Richardson)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2005:
Film Of Merit

Awards at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2004:
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Best Editing (David Richardson)

Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2004:
Best Picture
Best Visual Effects (Stephen Ma)
Best Action Choreography (Yuen Bun)

While many of Hong Kong cinema's current movies and talent get little or no widespread attention, it's always pleasing to know that Johnnie To still can create a buzz with a large crowd of fans of Asian Cinema. Since 1996, Milkyway Image have been responsible for some of the more original, creative and engaging pieces of Hong Kong cinema, mainly in the crime-thriller genre, one that Johnnie To thankfully returned to in trademark style with PTU in 2002. Having been stuck way too long in more commercially driven cinema, in retrospect, PTU marked a return and turnaround, which seems to have been able to hold its momentum since then. A special and exciting question that pops up for To projects such as Breaking News, is which style are we going to be subjected to? In other words, is it The Mission or, and this is the film and its style that evoked most feelings with me, having viewed the trailer for Breaking News, Expect The Unexpected (rumor has it that To ghost-directed large parts of the latter)? Attentive fans will notice the lack of Wai Ka-Fai in the credits, another sure sign that this, in intent, is a Johnnie To movie, his..own...way. Earlier this year, the audiences at the Cannes Film Festival got a chance to take in Breaking News, now it's the dvd audiences turn.

A failed police operation to catch a dangerous gang of Mainland thieves, led by Yuen (Riche Ren - Elixir Of Love, Fly Me To Polaris) leads to the TV- and newspaper journalists catching the sight of an Hong Kong police officer surrendering at gunpoint. A potential image breaker for the Hong Kong police, that impression has to be reversed and when the wanted Mainlanders take refuge in a residential building, the police operation not only becomes about catching but about image, an operation led by Rebecca Fong (Kelly Chen - Lost And Found, Infernal Affairs III). The thieves realize that two can play at that game though...

No doubt the most successful cinematic style, in my view, that Johnnie To has brought to Hong Kong cinema has been through The Mission and PTU, while some of the works he's produced more resembles Breaking News. Most prominently so, Expect The Unexpected (yay, I was right!). But that's talking style, not all out content. With a fairly short running time, To consciously opts for less quirkiness, less character depth (or rather serviceable) and more slam-bang action-thriller filmmaking. Heck, this is even approaching hugely commercial but thank god it's not in the vein of Needing You!

Breaking News starts with a bang, and it's a long one. I read prior that To wanted to accomplish a 7 minute long, one take action set piece for this film and roughly 2 minutes in, that is right in our faces courtesy of the street shootout. I also read that To had trouble accomplishing exactly how he conceived this and what's there is admirable considering its length but also comes with bumpy and shaky camerawork. It's a neat little concept that comes with flaws that became difficult to overcome on a schedule one must guess. The good thing is, Breaking News doesn't go downhill after this big opening as the well-paced chase scenario, soon confined to select locations, continues to develop.

Development that is more about achieving tension in the media game played out between cops and robbers with shooutouts in between. There is a topic brought up here by To about the power of the media but also how easy it is to affect and spin the truth. This isn't slamming the media because this case really doesn't come out of sensationalistic journalism but it's a rather slight examination in the long run, rather than a full-on satire. At times, To goes into quirky territory as the highly tension filled stakeout by media and police is interrupted by lunch and the film actually manages to be humorous here without the moods disrupting each other. Considering it features flatulence gags on two occasions, the fact that laughs can be found is a testament to the thinking of Johnnie in regards to HOW, oh HOW, to properly have humour enter and exit the picture.

Outside of this main theme and portrayals, the cliché of the different branches within police not working together appears but it's easy to let go off . It plays out well in the 90 minutes of action-thriller entertainment that nor is Hollywood or your usual 2004 Hong Kong thrill-ride. The reason? Johnnie To, Cheng Siu-Keung Yuen Bun and all the rest of our usual Milkyway suspects that reliably delivers the technical goods!

First of all, we welcome back the beautiful scope frame that many Milkyway productions began adapting when starting out back in the late 90s. Main location that cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung shoots is the confined hallways of the residential building and while not playing with the huge contrast between light and dark as in PTU, there seems to exist a conscious choice to light so naturally that you sometimes don't see the actors. It's a questionable choice but the rest of the cinematography work a treat as Cheng keeps the camera moving and shoots some very crowded and exciting Hong Kong street location footage to great effect.

Yuen Bun also recalls some of his best action- and stunt work from the past Milkyway productions, in particular one of his finest in that regard, Expect The Unexpected. Even the big opening shootout does suitable retain a level headed nod to realism with no ballistic outbursts and main gunplay in the residential building plays out very similar. While not emphasizing it as much, he and To, really do make unknown figures deaths hurt a little bit more than it really has to. Human lives, especially civilians, are still human lives, which produces a good, lasting effect. That theme, again, is more profound in the mentioned Expect The Unexpected.

For the actors, the writing team really only provides 90 minute arcs, which works absolutely fine based on what the film itself is. Contrary to what you might think, Nick Cheung really is the third man here, playing the super-rash and hard boiled cop who just got to, got to, got to, catch them bastard thieves. Again, there's no real harm in presenting him like that if you're not aiming for depth but also, you need someone who can make those rather simplistic traits work. Cheung actually adapts himself decently in that regard, not playing to his otherwise known comedic persona one bit. For his character, To does inject some sly doses of humour when it comes to his relentless pursuit of the bad guys, in particular during a bus chase at the end.

No, this is more Kelly Chen and Richie Ren's picture. Starting with Kelly, who has to be considered the weak link here, although I was expecting worse. Playing the team leader of the operation, at times she equips herself well and radiates authority and at others, her delivery comes off as awkward and unnatural. As written towards the end, her apparent strength as a female character gives way for some clichéd happenings and solutions that doesn't really ruin or enhance, it's just too familiar of an outcome, for women.

Richie Ren therefore stands out the most. In particular since he finally breaks through with traits such as coldness, charisma, slight humanity and is adept as an action participant. It's definitely a slight performance just because this again isn't much of a character to work with but Ren brings as much as one could hope for, quite well so. It's also a sign of versatility as we've seen him in lighter roles this year and this is a step forward for the Taiwanese actor. Lam Suet provides reliable and welcome support as the father of the family whose apartment is used as refuge for the Mainlanders. Simon Yam and Maggie Shaw log "special appearances as well, with the former role feeling rather pointless in the whole.

Johnnie To's Breaking News delivers fast-paced and tension-filled action entertainment with little attention to characters and a media study of smaller proportions. However, it's a choice that greatly succeeds. Take that and the excellent technical merits and you can chalk up a Johnnie To effort that plays out more like the Milkyway efforts he produced during the late 90s. We've been missing that as well, Johnnie.

The DVD:

Megastar presents the film in a 2.24:1 aspect ratio approximately that has been anamorphically enhanced. Both a muted and more colourful palette was choosen for the film and it's presented well. A few nicks and scars are on the print but nothing that will detract.

The Cantonese 5.1 Dolby Digital EX track enlivens the front stage the most with music and effects while dialogue comes across as clear. A Cantonese DTS 5.1 track and a Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 dub is also included.

The English subtitles on the whole seem excellent with only a few select spelling errors. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Extras-wise, Megastar has included The Story. No, it's only the plot synopsis from the back cover. Useless therefore. There's a 2 minute, 17 second Deleted Scene included (in Mandarin only). Only two sets of Chinese subtitles are available and one can only guess it was there for the Mainland China release, for whatever reason. It was clearly meant for the opening minutes of the film though.

EDIT: Asian DVD Guide's Balzac13 briefly described the deleted scene as a basic set-up of the Mainland Gangsters and that the Hong Kong cops are on their tail. If this is a way to soften the blow against Mainlanders, then job well done but not very exciting extra footage. The film certainly benefits from opening the way it does currently.

Behind The Scene (3 minutes) has small interview bites with the actors but mostly features quickly edited shots from the set, focusing more on the gunfights. The theatrical trailer follows next, along with previews for The Eye 2 and Xanda. Cast & Credits contain the usual subsections Cast & Staff listing, which is exactly what it sounds like, and then Bio & Filmo. Starting with Johnnie To's file, it opens with a statement from the man himself about his thoughts going into shooting Breaking News. What follows is a bland and basic outline of To's career in text. The actors Richie Ren, Kelly Chen and Nick Cheung get short character and actor biographies as well.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson