Johnny To is turning into a real favorite of mine. After praising Mad Detective and Sparrow earlier, now it's time to rewind and take a look at a slightly older To film. PTU proved to be just as impressive as his successors.
I try not to expect too much when I approach older films of a director as his trademark style might not be perfected yet. This is the point where PTU surprised me the most. It just breathes To and even though it is starting to age a little, you will hardly notice it when watching the film. To's trademark style is already fully present and already a real spectacle to behold.
Do mind the marketing of the film though, as it is often presented as somewhat of an action flick. PTU is clearly not that. Even though there a few action scenes and one major stand off, the rest of the film is brooding and slow, playing on atmosphere and emotion. But if you've seen any other recent To flicks, you'll already know what I'm talking about.
Visually PTU is a little gem. The lighting is exquisite as Hong Kong's nightly appearance is a collection of dark patches broken down by bright lights. To is constantly playing with the visuals, trying to create a ghostly and barren city which at the same time steams and is ready to burst. Camera work is equally impressive as the camera floats and flies through its surroundings. To knows how to shoot film, that much is certain.
The soundtrack is interesting (again a trademark To element) as it captures a certain atmosphere not often found in a film like this. Always a little off-key and uncommon, but To manages to make it work time after time. The film benefits from the score in several key scenes where the tension is built up to explode into a stylish climax. Good stuff alright.
I guess most people will trip over the storyline, since PTU is pretty sparse when it comes to actual events. The setup is simple, as Lam's character loses his gun and Yam and his crew aid him in recapturing it. Things get out of hand and it all leads up to an impressive gathering of all parties involved (which are quite a few near the end). And even though the film boasts a very amusing ending the key is not within the main story arc but within the individual scenes themselves.
To is one of those directors that can bring life to a scene. He dares to stretch them and brings audio and visuals together to build up tension and to develop a solid atmosphere. The storyline becomes nothing more than a hook and for those hungering for telltales to keep them occupied this could well be quite frustrating. Other film fans will appreciate To's magic and the way he applies it to turn each scene into something more than just a presentation of a storyline.
PTU is first class film making. Lam en Yam are good actors and know how to play their parts. The soundtrack is solid and the film is visually impressive. It even boasts a simple but fun and sufficiently developed storyline. But if that is what you care about the most, you will miss the real magic of To's film making.