My Boxing Boyfriend: Johnnie To Returns with "Chasing Dream"

After a notable absence, the Hong Kong maestro returns to filmmaking with the kind of movie no one ever thought he would make again.
Sean Gilman

Chasing Dream

As if 2019 had not already been bad enough, it was looking like it was going to be the first year since 1995 in which neither Hong Sang-soo nor Johnnie To released a feature film. Hong, after putting out five movies in the previous two years, was taking a well-deserved break: his The Woman Who Ran wouldn’t premiere until the Berlin Film Festival in the early months of 2020. To, on the other hand, hadn’t released anything since Three in the summer of 2016. In the meantime, there were rumors of failed attempts to get his long-gestating Election 3 off the ground, the hold-up being its probable incompatibility with Mainland Chinese censorship requirements. There was also talk of an ambitious omnibus film To was producing in collaboration with a Mount Rushmore of Hong Kong directing legends (Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Yuen Woo-ping, John Woo, Sammo Hung, and Patrick Tam) called Eight and a Half. It was finally announced as one of the films that were slated to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, albeit shortened to Septet after John Woo dropped out of the project (Ringo Lam, who died a year and a half ago, did manage to complete his section).

On social media there were all kinds of rumors: I heard that To was seriously ill, I heard that he was healthy but simply didn’t want to make movies anymore, I heard that he was so mad about the Election 3 troubles that he was going to just retire out of spite. In September of 2019, To announced that he was dropping out of his role as Jury President at the upcoming Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan. The festival had become highly politicized the previous year, when at its awards ceremony, traditionally the highest profile awards for Chinese language film, a couple of winners used their speeches to advocate for Taiwan’s independence from Mainland China. In retaliation, the PRC informally banned its filmmakers from attending the 2019 festival and scheduled its own awards, the Golden Roosters, for the same weekend. The speculation was that anyone who violated the PRC’s boycott could plan on future difficulty in getting their own films produced and distributed in the increasingly vital Mainland market. To’s dropping out was a sign that he did in fact plan to make movies in the future, and that he was under pressure to join the boycott because of it. In early October this was all but confirmed as the trailer dropped for Chasing Dream, a movie no one (at least among the reasonably well-connected and informed group of American To superfans I hang around the internet with) knew anything about, but which was due to be released a couple of weeks later, in November. This week, it’s finally getting its international premiere, in the online edition of the Udine Far East Film Festival.

In keeping with To’s long career as a contrarian, as a director who always zigs when everyone else zags, as a guy who absolutely refuses to do what is expected of him, Chasing Dream is exactly the kind of movie that no one ever thought To would make again, a slapdash romance about an MMA fighter and an aspiring singer who fall in love on their way to the top. A kinetic jumble of tones and styles, it mashes together elements from the Rocky movies, televised singing competitions, and Bollywood pop hits, with a cast of almost completely unknown (in the West) actors and an exuberant, hyper-colored visual style that couldn’t be further from the shadowy grays and stark blacks and whites of the crime films for which he is best known abroad. It’s an unstable, discordant, entirely unpredictable blend of two of his previous movies: his personal favorite among his works, 2004’s Throw Down, and the oddball 2001 romantic comedy Love on a Diet, best remembered as the movie where he and his co-director/writer/producer Wai Ka-fai built an entire movie around Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng clowning about in fat suits. To has done this kind of thing before, loosely remaking movies in wildly different registers, with mixed results. His 2008 film Linger is a more overtly dramatic (one might say lugubrious) remake of his great My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2001), while Romancing in Thin Air (2012), one of his very best movies, is built on the idea of love as role play (and the high-elevation location) first explored in the fine but mostly forgettable 2003 Sammi Cheng-Lous Koo rom-com Love for All Seasons. Chasing Dream lies somewhere in-between those two extremes: not nearly as sophisticated as his and Wai’s greatest work, it nonetheless is a film bursting with life and energy and charm. It’s the opposite of the kind of movie you’d expect from an aged director on the verge of retirement.

Jacky Heung stars as Tiger, a mob-connected MMA fighter and would-be hot pot restauranteur known as “The Gluttonous Boxer” who is nearing the end of his time in the ring. His doctor informs him that further fighting could cause him to go blind (shades of Throw Down, so to speak), irreparably damage his liver, and cause him to develop Parkinson’s. He promptly quits, but will ultimately go back into the octagon two more times for the benefit of a young singer and the honor of his former teacher, respectively. The singer, Cuckoo, is played by Keru Wang, whose only previous credit was as one of the performers in Feng Xiaogang’s 2017 film Youth. Tiger takes her in after she’s caught by his mob friends and unable to pay her debts—she’s been homeless since she was dumped and plagiarized by her boyfriend, who used her songs to rocket to pop superstardom. The boyfriend is now one of the judges on the reality show Perfect Diva, and Tiger will go above and beyond to help Cuckoo get on the show and ultimately become a star herself. 

The plot structure comes from Love on a Diet, where Andy Lau resolves to help Sammi Cheng lose 200 pounds in six months, which he ultimately finances by turning himself into a human punching bag (Lau’s mantra “It’s worth it!” finds its echo in Tiger’s “It doesn’t hurt!”). A joke where Cuckoo layers on all the clothes in her suitcase on the first night she spends in Tiger’s apartment is directly lifted from the earlier film. But in sensibility Chasing Dream is more akin to Throw Down’s story of young people tortured by but ultimately recommitting to the pursuit of their ideal selves, albeit drastically less subtle about it. Throw Down is one of To’s lightest works, a minimalist screenplay that slowly builds our understanding of its characters more through lighting (or the lack thereof) than dialogue or plot action. There’s nothing subtle about Chasing Dream: it’s a film as broad and open as Jacky Heung’s smile.

That smile, or at least the actor it belongs to, accounts for some of the muted and even hostile reaction to Chasing Dream in Hong Kong, where the film has been dismissed as an act of nepotism: To doing a favor for his longtime producer (and subject of many a local legend having to do with his Triad connections) Charles Heung. Heung and his wife (and Jacky’s mother) Tiffany Chen have been major figures in Hong Kong film for decades, and have long been connected to To: their company, China Star Entertainment, has co-produced and distributed most of the films from To’s Milkyway Image studio. That To made an entire film as a favor to a friend seems doubtful to me, though that may be just because I like Heung’s performance, the way he shouts his lines and grins like a maniac, barely containing his dark side beneath an outsized facade. The Rocky IV subplot of the film, where Tiger’s old boxing master gets pummeled in an ill-advised sojourn into the octagon, is the weakest part of the film, though it does give To the opportunity to also borrow a scene from the hit Bollywood wrestling picture Dangal, which smashed box office records on its release in China and Hong Kong in 2016. The Bollywood influence is even more evident in the Chasing Dream’s one non-diegetic musical number, which comes near the climax and deftly interweaves images and jokes from throughout the movie into one climactic musical montage. Here and in its singing competition scenes the film recalls Farah Khan’s dance competition/heist movie extravaganza Happy New Year (2014), albeit with none of her choreographic genius.

There’s a long and persistent tendency in the field of Johnnie To studies to divide up his vast and diverse filmography into the movies that count and the ones that don’t, the movies he cares about and the ones he makes out of obligation (to his bank account, to his friends). Traditionally, this meant that his romantic comedies were viewed simply as ways to finance the crime movies. The rom-coms were silly and starred pop idols like Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau, and were co-directed with Wai Ka-fai, while the crime movies were serious and starred real actors like Anthony Wong and Lau Ching-wan and were credited to To alone. There’s an obvious gender bias here (the crime films are almost always about men exclusively, while the comedies are focused on either a couple or a single woman), but To himself has at times furthered the perception that the crime films were the ones he really took seriously. Thankfully, as more people are able to watch To’s romances they have risen in esteem, especially the later ones like Romancing in Thin Air and the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart movies. At the same time, his odder crime films have gained an audience, with something like the baroque A Hero Never Dies directly refuting the idea that minimalist crime movies like the Election series or Drug War represent the full range of his meaningful work in the action genre. His films that defy categorization, Throw Down as well as Running on Karma and Sparrow, have deservedly been recognized as among his best, while intrepid To-heads have even journeyed to the pre-Milkyway era and discovered gems like The Big Heat, The Fun, the Luck, and the Tycoon, and even Happy Ghost III, alongside local box office smashes The Eighth Happiness and All About Ah-long. But still the tendency remains with each new Johnnie To release: is this a real one, or is it a work for hire? To this, in these fraught times, is added the question haunting every Hong Kong filmmaker working both sides of the Pearl River Delta: is this a real Hong Kong movie, or is this a work designed to appease the Chinese market?

Chasing Dream already seems destined to be dismissed as one of the non-real Johnnie To movies: it’s a romantic comedy with a woman as co-lead, it is loud and garish and colorful, it stars the son of his longtime benefactor (who may still have organized crime connections and thus the wherewithal to force even a Johnnie To to capitulate to his vanity project), and it’s set in a non-specific location (I assume the Mainland) with a largely Mainland Chinese cast. But it’s also the story of a young man from an impoverished background who is willing to do whatever it takes to help out his friends and the woman he loves, even if it causes himself serious injury or maybe even death. It’s Love on a Diet and Throw Down, but also Love for All Seasons and A Hero Never Dies, All About Ah-long and The Odd One Dies, A Moment of Romance and Running on Karma. Chasing Dream is, for all its good and bad qualities, a thoroughly Johnnie To film. But hopefully it won’t be the last one.

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