Johnnie To confuses me. I have never been able to satisfactorily account for why I enjoy his films so much, and I don’t like that. It has always seemed to me that he strikes a very uneasy balance between visual style and dramatic substance; those devices (plot and character-related) To employs to lend weight to the emotional side of his films are usually very conventional, but somehow he always manages to obscure this until I think about it afterwards, which I find really frustrating.
Well, now I’ve seen Breaking News. I can tell you why I enjoyed it too, but it hasn’t supplied me with any principles I can apply to my assessment of To’s other films; in fact, Breaking News‘ success is actually dependent on its exaggeration of the problem — my problem — outlined above, with To so privileging style over narrative substance that the former essentially renders the latter irrelevant. This is, of course, the point; Breaking News is a film all about image and how to sell it using any means possible. In their fight to control public opinion, both the police and the besieged gangsters constantly try to find new means of communicating with their audience in a way that recalls the proliferation of new media in the ‘real’ world outside the film. Internet web-cams and message boards and mobile phones with built-in video capture capabilities are the primary tools in use here, but even boring old television has its place in this hi-tech mix when the police hire a film director to edit and digitally retouch the ‘live’ footage they are supplying to the networks.
From reading the synopsis for the film, you might be forgiven for thinking Breaking News is a comedy. It’s not. Despite featuring plenty of laughs (mostly in the satirical vein), Breaking News is a police action flick, albeit one that constantly strays outside the boundaries of its generic form. The basic premise for the film is fairly straightforward, but the reason To can use such a predictable cops-and-robbers story to such great effect here is because there is almost no narrative tension generated by the formulaic plot points that unfold on-screen; instead, what matters here is the spin that the police/gangsters put on these events after they have happened. However, this is not to suggest that the film is simply formed out of an uneven combination of scenes ‘valuable’ and not-so-valuable; rather, Breaking News works as a cohesive whole due to some excellent work by the cast (including To regulars Simon Yam and Lam Suet) and To’s stunning direction (the standout scene being the seven-minute single-take gun-battle that opens the film).
An almost total emphasis on style, no matter how deliberate, can only go so far though, and despite (or perhaps because of) Breaking News‘ effective satirical elements, the film still feels a little hollow. Only a little though — this is a great film and easily one of To’s best. As usual, I’m looking forward to whatever he does next, and, also as usual, I’m going to spend the time until its release trying to work out why I like him so much!