Johnnie To Kei Fung has been working on PTU for around two years, in between other projects, and so the film has gained a degree of notoriety purely for that reason. As a result, To was a trifle anxious as to how this pet project would be received: speaking briefly before the opening night screening, he expressed a hope that the audience would forget The Mission, and give PTU its own chance.
Well, it’s not The Mission. It doesn’t pretend to be. It doesn’t need to be. What it is, is Johnnie To doing what Johnnie To does best: gritty urban drama with minimal dialogue and maximum style. It is, in some ways, strongly reminiscent of The Mission, just as it is reminiscent of other To works, and just as a Takeshi Kitano film, or a Peter Greenaway film, are recognisably Kitano or Greenaway. To is primarily a visual artist, and so the mood is conveyed using visual means.
For starters, his cast is strong and unified. I’ve never found the nerve to ask what his actors think of working with him, but it’s clear he makes them work for their money. Here we see a well-matched cast, including Simon Yam, Ruby Wong, Maggie Shiu, and the ever-popular Lam Suet, acting their socks off under the To whip. You’ll never find characters using the dialogue to narrate the plot in a To movie: expressions hint at inner conflicts, while glances communicate unspoken thoughts. Where and how the characters stand shows their affiliations and degree of certainty, making the whole screen a canvas rich in meaning.
Another aspect of To’s mastery of the visual is his use of lighting, which in this film is stark and dramatic. Each scene looked suitable for a poster, so carefully was it composed and lit. And the sets and costumes, utterly ordinary police uniforms and Hong Kong streets, are transformed in To’s hands into a shadowy streetscape awash with tension.
I can’t let this rest without mentioning the plot, wherein To once again uses a simple story composed of diverse threads that ultimately combine in a conclusion that affects all characters. I should mention that the “missing gun” plot, while used heavily in publicity materials and descriptions of the film, is actually immaterial, according to To: he merely used that as a device around which to wrap the characters, giving a situation to respond to and actions to take which would define each character. And it works admirably well: the characters become sufficiently real that we sit breathless, waiting to see what they’ll do in each situation, instead of waiting for crucial plot points to be revealed like clues in a treasure hunt.
In summary, then, PTU is another excellent film from an excellent director. I suspect that, like many To films, it may lose something in transition to the small screen because of the rich visual composition, but it still a damn fine piece of cinema.