• Sebastian Mann

PTU (2003) review

Lam Suet and a fearsome team of cops search for a lost revolver in the streets of Hong Kong in Johnnie To’s nebulous police procedural drama, screening now as part of the Chinese Visual Festival.

There are few filmmakers as consistent yet diverse as Johnnie To. A native of Hong Kong, his films have spanned almost every genre, from his politically-inflected crime series Election to the bizarre horror-comedy My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002) and Heroic Bloodshed-inspired tales of brotherhood like Exiled (2006).

But Hong Kong has never looked how it does in PTU, To’s 2003 thriller. Plunged into darkness, the streets are lit only by intense, theatrical street-lamps and neon signs. No one walks the streets but criminals and cops.

To regular, Lam Suet, plays Sgt. Lo Sa, a lazy cop who’s up for a big promotion. After a local drug dealer called Ponytail (Chi-Shing Chiu) is stabbed in a restaurant and Lo loses his gun in the ensuing chase, he calls up Sgt. Ho (another To stalwart, Simon Yam), who leads the fascistic Police Tactical Unit on patrol.

There is a sense of fatalism to To’s films, a rich philosophical vein that transcends his work in the action genre

Ho agrees to find the gun before morning. He and his men wander the street like a pack of stray dogs (creating a nice, metatextual link to Akira Kurosawa’s similarly-plotted though vastly different 1949 film Stray Dog), cracking down on various small-time criminals and brutally extorting them for information. There is no emotion to Yam’s portrayal of Ho, just unflinching menace.

To has always compellingly explored that blurred line of morality between cops and robbers (a staple element of many Hong Kong action films), but here presents them as an almost preternatural force. They move swiftly, their tight leather boots crunch on the road, and they prowl the shadows and kick their way through doors as if nothing can stop them.

There is a sense of fatalism to To’s films, a rich philosophical vein that transcends his work in the action genre. Characters losing at Street Fighter in an arcade are urged in spite of dying to keep playing the game, while outside it feels as though the sun may never rise again.

The streets are their stage, and the film’s climactic shootout and the exhilarating use of slow-motion remains a high point in To’s career and the wealth of Hong Kong action thrillers.

Watch PTU at the Chinese Visual Festival.