PTU


Darkness descends on Kowloon and the chaotic multitudes that traverse her steamy streets during the day begin to dissipate like a lingering mirage to their safe homes behind locked doors.  As nighttime makes its steady progress, the storekeepers slowly close shop and bring down the metal gates to mark the end of another day. Soon the streets are nearly deserted and only shabby little restaurants remain open as lit outposts in the darkness. These hours belong to the night creatures on both sides of the law – small units of police (PTU – Police Tactical Units) who cautiously patrol their area with a God like sense of ownership and the triads who are open for business 24 hours a day. Between these two forces there is constant probing – looking for weaknesses or co-operation – as they warily dance around one another like boxers wanting to go the distance. It is in this noirish milieu that Johnny To unravels his tale of crisscrossing fates one late night in Kowloon over a radius of a few blocks of turf that they all call their own. In the shadows of the night there are only grays – no white and black – and each side does what they have to do to gain respect and to assert control.
So it turns out that Johnny To’s brains haven’t turned into mush after all. Since turning away from his run of exquisite minimalistic crime films of the 90’s to more commercial ventures one might have wondered. None of the Milkyway crime films did particularly well at the box office – even his acclaimed masterpiece The Mission brought in only HK$ 4.6 million (US$ 600,000) and so beginning in 2000 To joined the production company “One Hundred Years of Film” and began making more commercially viable films. This was probably a pretty good idea since the owner of the company is Charles Heung whose brother is one of the triad’s top big boys! So out came Needing You, which was a huge hit (HK$ 35 million) and other popular comedies were soon to follow – Wu Yen, Love on a Diet, Fat Choi Spirit, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts and Love for all Seasons. To also directed two crime films – Full Time Killer and Running Out of Time II – but these were big splashy empty-headed affairs that were completely missing his earlier poetic nuances and complexities.
PTU harkens back to those lean Milkyway days with a tense narrative relaying overlapping plot lines, a myriad of wonderfully depicted characters, terse dialogue and stylish cinematic flourishes. The film is about the rhythm of the night and of the life these people have chosen. It is about eyeing each other up in a hot pot restaurant, it is about treading the darkened streets in watchful formation, it is about loyalty to your comrades, it is about going up lonely stairs not knowing what is waiting for you, it is about surviving the night. Much like The Mission, the film is about the process – the waiting time, the stillness, the job and the anticipation before something happens. There is very little action in this film  - really none until the finale – and it isn’t a character driven film either as we learn next to nothing about these people (though To does a masterful job in making them all very real with a few quick swipes of his brush) – it’s a very simple film in many ways – it is about a few hectic hours on one hot night in Kowloon in September 2000 in which a number of people seem fated to come together and some seem fated to die.
Two PTU units of four cops each are beginning their evening shifts – one headed by Mike (Simon Yam with Raymond Wong as a member of his unit) and the other by hard-nosed Kat (Maggie Siu). News comes over the police van radio that a policeman has been killed and the young cops joke about it until Yam quiets them with a stern admonishment “Anyone wearing the uniform is one of our own” and Maggie adds, “Whatever happens, nothing beats returning home safely”. Soon they are dropped off to begin their patrols and there are no more light moments from that point on – it’s all business. A few blocks away plainclothes cop Sergeant Lo (Lam Suet) is playing sly power games with Ponytail and his four followers by showing them up in a small restaurant. Not to lose face, Ponytail has his gang brothers set up an ambush for Lo – not to kill him – but just to show him that this is a two way game. In the ensuing incident Lo is knocked unconscious and when he wakes up his gun is gone – and so too are his prospects for a promotion if he doesn’t get the gun back before his supervisors find out.
Over the objections of Kat, Lo enlists the aid of his fellow cop Mike to help him find the gun – but a deadline is issued – if the gun isn’t found by 6 a.m. its disappearance has to be reported. Mike turns his unit into a walking punch and as they wade through the seedy joints of Kowloon looking for answers anyway he can get them. Lo is searching as well and is soon faced by a dilemma as to how far is he willing to bend the law or even break it in order to get his gun back as he finds himself between two rival triad gangs. While all this is happening, an added complexity comes in the straight arrow form of CID Inspector Leigh (Ruby Wong) who is investigating a triad hit and keeps coming across the furtive tracks of Lo and wonders what he is up to. It plays out wonderfully well and comes together in a slam-bang ending that felt like a winking joke dealt by the heavens.
The pacing of the film is slow and methodical – it has its own inner logic and plays out truthfully to the situation. To never feels the need to rush the proceedings or to give it a sudden jolt of adrenaline by throwing in an action piece – this is old time noir where the mood, the designs, the shadows, the moral grayness is allowed to take root and To utilizes stark but beautifully framed cinematography to amplify it. There are numerous shots simply of the PTU unit walking their patrols – allowing light and darkness to create a sense of constant danger  - or one of them changing into slickers with a sudden rain - mood pieces but admittedly it all makes them look quite heroic and cool. Contrasted to their spick and span professionalism is Sgt. Lo – appearing for most of the film like something the cat dragged in – constantly sweating - always looking for an angle or an edge – clearly playing his own game. Though not given nearly the screen time as the cops, the triad members that To ushers into the story are an interesting lot – in some ways more honorable and personable than the cops.
It is difficult to discern what To’s attitude to the cops is here – the PTU group is certainly filmed from a heroic perspective – four men making the streets safe – always at risk – grim and straight jawed, but at the same time their acts of brutal interrogation are slaps in the face – heroes don’t beat a helpless man till he almost dies or force someone to rub off their tattoo until it is a bloody mess. And yet this is exactly the gray world that To throws his viewers into and allows them to ponder all this. It is a master filmmaker back in form again with this sleek layered minimalist tale of cops and triads – sort of where he belongs.

My rating for this film: 8.0