I’ve been trying to understand this intriguing film in the past few days, and I haven’t come to any conclusions I feel confident about; and while I probably should continue thinking and writing about the film, I’m also anxious to start a discussion about it. Before I do that let me say a few words for those who haven’t seen the film.
This a Hong Kong action film directed by Johnnie To, but it’s not a typical action film, either. (More later.) The plot involves a special police unit chasing after some criminals—most the chase occurs in the city with the criminals running or driving through the city and hiding out in apartment buildings. (It actually has some simliarities to the recent film, The Raid: Remption.) Later, the general police force gets involved, wanting not only to capture the criminals, but do so in a way that enhances their public image. This leads to the atypical qualities of the film.
The film seems to explore the effects of the modern press and media technology in our world—specifically the way we understand events and the way governments and large organizations manipulate the press and media. (The film might also be trying to satirize both the government and the press as well for the way each manipulates the other.). It is very conscious of the differences between the real events and the ones manufactured by government, the press and even the government’s enemies. The film wants to showcase this awareness, as well the differences between the two. For example, the film gets beneath the image of criminals and police by humanizing them. (I’m thinking of scene with the criminals cooking and eating with the family.) The film also has a very “looking-behind-the-curtain” quality, as it explicitly shows the way the police manipulate the press and actual events.
Now this all takes place within an action movie. As an action film it didn’t work as well as it probably should have. I suspect the film didn’t have elements that I personally favor in a good action film (really likable leads, for example). The action set-pieces and clever ideas within them weren’t as satisfying, too for some reason. (I feel churlish for saying this because the set pieces and the way the film weaves them into the plot seems pretty good. But maybe the film doesn’t work because the characters didn’t work so well for me, including the villains.)
The film also has fairly clever ways to incorporating technology into the action. The police and the criminals both use the media technology in a chess like fashion to outdo the other. Having said that, on some level, I felt this was a bit contrived and mainly done to provide interesting twists to the action. For example, I’m not sure what the criminals would gain by hurting the police’s reputation and image. (If they were terrorists, that would make a more fitting and interesting situation. The film is relevant in relation to the battle between Islamist groups and countries like the U.S., as the battle involves public relations as much as the military.)
I’m not sure what and if the film is saying anything really insightful about the media technology, the press or governments. (This is the part I should think more about.) Off the top of my head, I don’t feel like it says anything really revelatory. This makes me wonder about the reaction of Chinese viewers or even people who enjoy action films. Are they aware and savvy about these issues? (I wonder if the film raises these issues to make Chinese viewers more cognizant of the way the Chinese government and the media in China.) If they’re not and this film raises their awareness, that’s definitely a good thing.
Some other comments and questions off the top of my head:
>I noticed the long, single-take shot in the beginning. There’s no doubt it’s technically impressive, but I’m not sure it serves the scene well—at least not in terms of presenting the action in an enjoyable fashion. The camera focuses either on the criminals or the police, so it’s hard to really “enjoy” the action. Also, the shot took me out of the film a bit as I was very aware of it and kept wondering how long it would last.
>What’s the deal with the way Yuen (the criminal mastermind) and Chun (the hitman) switched jobs at the end of the film?
>The music was interesting in the film. There’s one with the percussion that I liked as it worked well with the action. But then there’s another acoustic guitar picking one that didn’t always seem to fit. Or even more strangely, there’s a loungey-jazz score that seemed a bit odd. It occurs twice: once with the Ass’t commissioner seems to make a move on Rebecca Fong. (What was the deal with that scene? Eric, the officer who eventually assists Rebecca, barges in on them, and this suggests that the Assistant Commissioner only went along with Rebecca’s idea because of his feelings for her. Was the film mocking Rebecca’s idea of “putting on a show?” I get that sense that it does.) The other instance is when the police buy box lunches for the press. Here the feeling is one of comedy and satire—as if the film is mocking the press for being manipulated so easily.
I’m interested in hearing interpretations about the film’s attitude towards Rebecca and her idea of putting on a show. Is the film being satirical?
>I get the sense that the film is several movies rolled into one—or at least it’s trying to do multiple things. I’ve mentioned a few possibilities, but I’m interested in hearing if anyone else had any other ideas.
It is a thought provoking film, with a lot to say about our media saturated age. Better made than other post 2000
HK action pictures.
Here’s the opening shot in case anyone hasn’t seen it but is interested.
It’s interesting in that it’s sort of the type of scene that typically would be shot in an extreme of montage style, and instead To chose to do it an more of an long take/mis en scene style. The practical effect is that rather than focusing on the individuals involved in the scene, it’s more interested in preserving the spatial integrity of the space in which the scene happens.
Compare it to this vaguely similar scene from Michael Mann’s Heat,
which is a fine scene, but because it’s assembled from numerous shots, spatially speaking it’s much more disorientating for the viewer.
It’s interesting in that it’s sort of the type of scene that typically would be shot in an extreme of montage style, and instead To chose to do it an more of an long take/mis en scene style.
Mis-en-scene? I can’t make out the details that’s happening in the frame, Parks. What are you suggesting? ;)
Seriously, the point about how this is really different from the conventional approach is a good one. On the other hand, this is a bit ironic for me because while those extreme montage styles make “savoring” the action more difficult, I didn’t think To’s approach was too much better. Yes, the approach captures of the space of the scene well, but it doesn’t convey the action within that space very well, imo. But I suspect To had other things in mind—the question is, what? What was the purpose of using the long take and capturing the space well?
C’mon—it’s not that difficult to follow.
1. You start with a shot of the skyline, then drop down to street level . . .
2. . . . to follow a particular character about whom you don’t yet know anything . . .
3. . . . he enters a doorway and walks up one flight, the camera rises up to view through the window the interior of the apartment at the door of which he’s knocking . . .
4. . . .a man opens the door and a group of men assemble inside the apartment and prepare to leave, one walks over and looks out the open window . . .
5. . . . the camera follows his eyeline down toward street level, then apparently gets “distracted” by a newspaper which blows down from one of the shop awnings and lands on the hood of a parked car . . .
6. . . . the man seated in the passenger’s side of the car takes the paper off of the hood of the car and begins reading it, the camera travels toward the car and veers around to the passenger side window, which is rolled down . . .
7. the two receive a radio communication from someone, it becomes clear that these are policeman (the “good guys”) performing surveillance on the apartment the man just entered . . .
8. the camera travels around to the rear of the car, so that you get a nearly “over the shoulder” (in this case it’s over the top of the car’s roof) perspective of the men in the car. The group of men (the “bad guys”) are visible as the come out of the building . . .
9. the camera drops a bit more so you’re closer to the cops’ eyeline, looking through the rear windshield of the car. A car pulls up and backs to a position immediate in front of the cops’ car . . .
10. . . . the camera rises up over the roofline of the cop’s car again. Uniformed policeman approach the other car, the man driving gets out of the car and begins speaking with the policemen. The camera tracks to the right and over to a man from the group of men who is watching the converstation reflected in the window glass. He turns and the camera turns 180 degrees to follow his eyeline (here’s we get a clear sense of the limited space to maneuver because of the construction work going on, a quick glance at the surveillance cops’ car . . .
11. . . . then an apparently unrelated argument between two men breaks out across the street . . .
12. . . . one of the uniforms walks over to break it up . . .
13. . . . the other continues talking to the driver , and then notices something in the car, reaches for his radio . . .
14. . . . the man who had been watching in reflection turns and draws a weapon, fires across the roof of the car at the one uniformed officer, then the other, then the plainclothes cops who have drawn their weapons and are getting out of their car., the camera moves over to them as the radio for assistance, then crosses the street to show other plainclothes officers exchanging fire with the bad guys, travelling in the process, to show construction workers taking cover behind a stack of tires . . .
15 . . . then it turns back to show the “bad guys” shooting at the policemen across the street, travelling back down the street toward the cars . . . on of these men now has an assault rifle . . .two more police cars arrive . . .
16 . . . camera turns back to the bad guys returning fire, camera goes up one floor to show a man shooting from an open window . . .
17. . . . the man jumps from the window onto a ledge, the down onto some stacked boxes and down onto the street . . .
18. a police van now arrives at this end of the street and he opens fire on it . . .
19. Officers get out of the van and return fire, run for cover . . . the camera travels back a little to reframe, one of the bad guys entires the frame turns and speaks to the other men, then is apparently shot in the leg . . . the camera cranes back up . . . shows these men entering the abandoned police van . . .then travels backwards to the POV of the first two officers on the scene . . .
20. . . . as the van is about to drive off, the camera pushes back toward the bad guys slightly so that you can see one of them apparently firing a grenade launcher, which explodes a little behind the cops . . .
21. They drive away in the van.
It’s very different from the typical action film montage-y shoot out, but it’s very clear where things are in space and how long everything takes to happen.
Compare this to what Scott does in True Romance, where he’s creating tension by intentionally jumbling spatial and temporal relationships and perspectives (the feather stuffing from the coaches and pillows is falling for at least a couple of minutes):
I could follow what was going on, but I couldn’t “savor” the action and the action set piece wasn’t very interesting (two groups simply shooting at each other at close range). By “savor” I’m thinking of the moment at #14 and #15—when the camera slowly pans to the construction workers, you lose site of the people firing. As a comparison, think of a camera turning away from the main dancers in a ballet sequence and focusing on the stage hands working to move set pieces or something like that. That would take away from enjoying the action.
Btw, do you have any responses to some of the questions and comments I made?
“I couldn’t “savor” the action "
This is because you’re hooked a certain style of filmmaking for this type of film ;)
In all serious you could be right. But I go back-and-forth between thinking this is mainly a personal preference versus the right way to do it. Actually, I think the approach depends on the objective of the scene. I think if To broke the shot with editing, it might have been more exciting and satisfying (yeah, maybe according to my preference), but maybe he was going for something else, which is the reason I asked about what the long take achieved—in terms of conveying or supporting a larger theme or idea.
Btw, the filmmaking doesn’t remind me of Tony Scott. It reminded me more of someone like McTiernan, if anything.
“Btw, the filmmaking doesn’t remind me of Tony Scott. It reminded me more of someone like McTiernan, if anything”
Right, I was meaning the Scott thing as a sort of extreme in the opposite direction from what To’s doing in that scene.
(Actually, I wasn’t referring to your Scott example—it was just an observation I threw out there.)
So, since you didn’t comment much on my OP, can I assume you agreed with everything I said? :)
Actually I want to take another look at it so that I make sure I’m clear on most of the plot points, but I can’t do it right now because I’m out in a cabin on the beach in Rodanthe with the fam for a few days.
You mean you don’t have a dvd player out at the cabin? What the heck kind of cinephile are you anyway? ;) (I look forward to you comments—and hopefully, I will remember enough so that I won’t have to re-watch it! :)
Heh . . . it’s a small miracle we manage to get an internet connection here. I actually do have a a few films on my laptop, so I’m not totally de-geeked—chances I’ll get around to watching them while I’m here are slim, though.
I actually do have a a few films on my laptop, so I’m not totally de-geeked—chances I’ll get around to watching them while I’m here are slim, though.
Well, I won’t tell your wife. :)