Johnny To Report

Last night, the Pacific Film Archive introduced me to Johnnie To. Okay, I didn’t meet the Hong Kong action auteur personally, but the archive introduced me to his work. I liked it.

The occasion: opening night of the PFA’s new series, Hong Kong Nocturne: The Films of Johnnie To. The films: The Mission and Fulltime Killer.

To’s work, at least judging from these two films, falls into the category of wicked pleasures (as opposed to merely guilty pleasures). A wicked pleasure asks you to set aside your basic ideas of right and wrong and root for people who, in the real world, you’d find morally repugnant. My favorite cinematic wicked pleasures include The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Pulp Fiction, and Matador (the Almodóvar one).

The Mission isn’t that wicked. It concerns itself with five gunmen hired as bodyguards to protect an organized crime boss. The boss definitely needs protection; someone with a lot of disposable employees wants him dead. The often-disjointed plot left me confused and irritated, but To handled the individual scenes with so much verve I easily forgave him. First among these were the action sequences, which he built more on suspense than firepower (although there was plenty of that, too). Even when guns were blasting, there was a sense of frustrating quiet.

Speaking of quiet, he handled the calm scenes expertly, as well. In the best tradition of Howard Hawks, this is a study of men of action as people, and as a team. In one very funny sequence, as the five wait in a reception area, they play a form of sitting-down soccer with a crumpled-up piece of paper.

I liked The Mission, but I loved Fulltime Killer–a true wicked pleasure. The story actually concerns two fulltime professional killers. O (Takashi Sorimachi), widely considered the best in Asia, suffers a bit from guilt–but not too much. The up-and-coming Lok (Andy Lau) covets O’s reputation and truly enjoys his work. In fact, you could reasonably call him a psycho. He also loves action movies, uses them for inspiration, and talks about them incessantly.

Despite their dreadful occupation, To makes us like both men. O, after all, has some sense of right and wrong, plus a chivalrous streak, while Lok attacks both life and his targets with a joyful enthusiasm. And they both fall for the same woman, a modest video store clerk (Kelly Lin) who seems positively thrilled with her association with such sexy assassins.

To mixes a dazzling concoction of cinematic tricks–daringly staged and photographed action sequences, movie references, videogame references, flashbacks that may be lies, a killer in a Bill Clinton mask, and first-person narration by a least four characters. You won’t forget this one quickly.

The PFA will screen seven other Johnnie To films over June. The next one up, Running on Karma, screens next Wednesday. It also stars Lau, this time as a Buddhist monk turned male stripper. Several To fans I spoke with last night singled it out as one to catch. Click here for details on the entire series.