The Mission (1999)

Produced and directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Yau Nai-Hoi
Starring: Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, Simon Yam, Jackie Lui & Eddy Ko

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2000:
Best Director (Johnnie To)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2000:
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor (Lam Suet)
Best Action Choreography (Cheng Ka Sang)
Best Film Editing (Chan Chi Wai)
Best Original Film Score (Chung Chi Wing)

Awards at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2000:
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Best Actor (Francis Ng)

I was aware of the triad- and action theme of The Mission but what I wasn't aware of was the execution of it.

The Mission centers around a mission (funnily enough) where 5 especially choosen bodyguards must protect triadboss Lung (Eddy Ko from Lethal Weapon 4) from attempts on his life. It's becomes clear though that a traitor is in Lung's organization...

Director Johnnie To made the terrific Running Out Of Time the same year and here again he's at his creative best even if this is a genre that has been done to death. We're immediately thrown into a world that only seems to consists of triads and their followers and if you're not familiar with how Johnnie has choosen to tell this story, you're going to feel a little bored and restless during the first 20 minutes. I did and was waiting for some indication as to where the movie was aiming for but I just couldn't figure it out. Johnnie doesn't give out any clues regarding that, the characters were lifeless, dialogue felt stiff and all in all everything was standing still...literally.

It's roundabout the 20 minute mark that a thing or two is made a lot clearer and I soon realized Johnnie's intentions with this piece. While the pace was still a bit slow, the first action scene reveals something quite wonderful. Many viewers were probably getting ready to be blown away by a ballistic and elaborate John Woo-esque shoot-out but what Johnnie and Cheng Ka Sang (action choreographer) gives us is almost a scene of carefully framed still shots. Shots are fired sparsly one by one and the camera isn't conveying the intensity we're used to seeing in Hong Kong action movies. May sound like a bad thing but I absolutely loved the approach taken here! It does feel a little bit more realistic (which isn't a word normally associated with Hong Kong movies) and it's a good thing Johnnie To didn't do a typical John Woo scene just because the latter defined gun play violence in Hong Kong films. Johnnie is far too much of a veteran and were not going to start emulating a guy like that at that point in his career. The rest of the movies, actually few, shoot-outs can be described in the same way and it's not hard to to be sucked in and almost hypnotized in the way the action is presented. I thought of Takeshi Kitano for possible inspirations for Johnnie To but again he's done his own thing here.

While all this was established, I finally understood The Mission's structure directorally and was immersed into it more and more. The plot is very minimal, intentionally so, and in between Johnnie injects a very subtle and layered development and bonding between the bodyguards. Their character's are extremely calm and cool (as well as the camera which is rarely ever moving) and more is suggested through looks rather than dialogue, kind of like, again, the works of Takeshi Kitano. Comedy for the most part pretty out there and not very low key in Hong Kong movies but as in Running Out Of Time, we're treated to a few very off beat and subtle comedic scenes that actually work in the context of the story. Especially the soccer sequence between the bodyguards is unexpected and could've just failed on so many levels. By maintaining his way of shooting one angle only and the stillness, the scene triumphs.

If it's something that doesn't work in this movie, it's the music by Chung Chi Wing. During the opening credits the main theme is played and while it was different, I didn't particularly care for the almost 80s computer game-music I heard. For me it just didn't fit well with what I was seeing on the screen and even though the theme is timed well in a few scenes, it's just didn't click for me. During the first shoot-out there was music that could've worked very well WITHOUT the beats. Again it kind of took me out of the scene back and forth. Can't say it ruined an entire movie experience for me though.

Talk about a cool cast though! Francis, Anthony, Simon, Roy and friends! Even though very few of the characters get any kind of back story or arc, the performances work tremendously well. For Johnnie To and his casting director the goal was simple: get a group of cool guys together and you can never go wrong when one of them is Francis Ng (from Juliet In Love). Probably my favourite actor after Chow Yun-Fat, Francis does what he can do well on cue, act cool and convey the feeling that he is untouchable. That typical Francis Ng glare should not be forgotten also...

He and Anthony 'Bunman' Wong are the most interesting characters to follow and despite the age difference both are on the same level of wisdom and professionalism. When Anthony actually acts, he's amazing to watch as the calm and honorable bodyguard/barber. While the other cast is pretty good, I felt that this is Francis and Anthony's show and the old tired cliché of that they have magnificent screen presence is applicable here. They both shine the most when the script calls for nothing to be said and they just have to be there and convey everything, yet nothing. Only guys like Francis and Anthony can pull that off successfully.

The Mission I truly hope will for work for you also during a first viewing but I think the second one will be even more rewarding, especially the first part of the film. This movie takes it's time and rarely misses, just like our characters when guns are in their hands.

The DVD:

This is the remastered pressing of Mei Ah's disc. The first one had something that could be described like a logo burned into the image, which was seen in more darker scenes. Sadly, there's still something burned into the print, now a square. This again is more evident in darker scenes and during the first half of the movie. It is distracting but I could live with it in the end. The 2.35:1 print is otherwise pretty clean but feels murky and the colours are pretty lifeless. Detail and sharpness are barely ok also.

As per usual, Mei Ah gives us Dolby Digital 5.1 & 2.0 Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks. The 2.0 Cantonese track has some nice effects and music spread out to all speakers but bigger effects sounded rather thin. Dialogue was always clear though.

The English subtitles are better than usual coming from Mei Ah and only scene was heavy on grammar errors and such. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Extras consists of the usual crappy Mei Ah Data Bank (inside are cast & crew listings and a plot synopsis) plus trailers for this movie and Victim.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson