Set against a Hong Kong that never sleeps, a stolen police gun triggers a suspensful chain of events.
Tracking down his missing gun before dawn, Sergeant Lo first has his car vandalised and is then beaten up. Suddenly he finds himself wedged between two gangs on the brink of a bloodbath, while at the same time staving off investigations by both Vice Squad and Homicide units embroiled in their own turf war.
His only lifeline is a maverick Police Tactical Unit squad who have one night to help him find his gun.
Johnnie To is a well established Hong Kong director who has directed some classic films in his time. He has ventured into many genres with his films, but it is largely stated that his best work has been his cop, crime dramas. So after making quite a few films that were certainly geared towards being more commercial, To returned to his fans preferred genre for PTU.
This film marked the first film I'd seen on the Third Window Films DVD label. They are a new UK company releasing quality Asian films and given their current catalogue and their forthcoming films, are definitely a group that are worth looking out for. I was fortunate enough to be sent a 'check disc' by the company for review purposes and while that will not bias my review, I feel I owed it to them to get this review published on my site asap.
I had heard that this film was a return to classic To stuff and with that I was looking forward to a film that I would really enjoy. It is with regret that I have to say my expectations were nowhere near reached. While the film is unquestionably not a bad film, I didn't feel that there was anything special about it either. The events which transpire in the film are far simpler than you might imagine. The film's story is based around a cop who loses his gun and is trying to get it back. This was a refreshing change of pace as having such a simple premise as the catalyst for the story is uncommon these days. While other plot threads interact with this, none of them leave an overly lasting impression. I am not saying that plots have to be grand in scale or complex to leave an impression, but that in this case the story for PTU wasn't made engaging enough to raise the film to higher levels.
In the main story there are several plot threads, and it is the interaction between these that is the film's strong point. A simple event is shown and it is the knock on consequences of this event and the people that are affected by it that make the film. I did think at first, "Why not just own up to your gun being stolen when you were unconscious?" While it wouldn't have been liked, I didn't think it would be regarded as your own fault. Maybe I just don't appreciate the importance of a policeman losing his gun...
In a lot of the Hong Kong films that I have seen in the past, the police have frequently not been portrayed as the good moral guys that you would expect to see. They have often used violence on suspects to beat the truth out of them and have also been shown to be quite corrupt. PTU is no exception. The officers in the PTU are all guilty of those things I've mentioned, but what is also made very clear is the apparent moral code that exists between fellow officers. As is stated in the film by Simon Yam "Anyone wearing the uniform is one of our own", and they look out for each other.
In helping Lo find his gun, Yam and his team are shown to be anything but the law-abiding officers that they should be. They beat suspects, where possible they remove any evidence that implicates them, and they will bend rules to breaking point or beyond if necessary. However, the comfort in carrying out these corrupt acts is only there when they are within their own team. When someone who they don't know and trust as much is in their presence they are far more reluctant to go against the rules. In contrast to this is the CID officer played by Maggie Siu, and her team. They seem to be the type that goes by the rules, maybe bending them a little (on one occasion it looks as though they break the rules, but it is explained), and she basically wants to capture anyone who is guilty. With these different units operating in different ways, but both playing for the same team, as the saying goes "something's got to give".
Credit has to be given to To and his team for not making anything at all in the film over the top. The merits of the film work because of their simplicity. Dialogue is at a minimum to get the necessary point across, special effects and glamorisation are also at a minimum, as is the pace. There is no in your face action with everything happening hyper-kinetically, the events just draw on at their own natural speed. For some this may not be entirely to your tastes, and I have to admit I did find the film dragged a bit in places as a result of this - I will mention my thoughts on this in a moment. First though a few comments on the effect of the minimalist dialogue approach. By not having elaborate speech from any character, it helped keep everything simple with no unnecessary complications thrown in. It additionally made the characters primarily be defined by their actions rather than by what they said. For Simon Yam's character this is most clear in the arcade scene. He wants something and his actions shows the manner in which he is going to go about getting what he wants. The focused determination is always there and is clearly seen on his face.
When a film moves slowly throughout, I usually associate this with a slow but gradual build up to a great finale, but in PTU this was not the case. I found the ending of the film to be somewhat of an anti-climax. I wasn't expecting huge explosions or anything like that, but I was expecting something that was a little less contrived looking than what is actually given. That being said I did find the conclusion to the missing gun plot thread to be quite funny! When you see it, you'll know what I mean. Decreasing a lot of the impact that the scenes in the film could have had is the musical score. I thought it was simply awful. It reminded me of all that crap synthesiser style tunes that you heard in the 80s films from Hong Kong. Silence would have been better. I know some people may like the music, but I just couldn't stand it, and that may have had an affect on the outcome of the film as far as my opinion goes.
Something that I am unsure as to whether it works for or against the film is the characterisation. With most films you are told something about the background and history of the important characters as the story progresses. This way you are either given something to relate to, something to show how they have changed or something along those lines. This does not happen in PTU; the characters simply are. They are PTU officers; they are there on shift that night and that is it. They simply exist and nothing more. As a result emotion towards the characters suffers, as there isn't really anything you can relate to so that you can feel for them or against them. In addition character development is also at a minimum, although this is probably due to the short time-scale in which the film takes place, as you can't expect much change to happen in 6 hours of someone's life! To a degree I did find the relative lack of growing or changing of the characters to be quite refreshing, as it seems that in most films these days the main protagonists have to undergo some form of character change to make them a better person. PTU largely chooses to go against this unwritten rule.
This 'simply existing' extends to another aspect of the film, the kid on the bike. Unless I missed something, there is no explanation for him. He is simply there that night, maybe committing a few crimes, but that is it. He is not involved in any of the plots in the film; he just turns up every now and then as the film progresses. There wasn't even a little explanation about him, with the rest left as a mystery for you to think about, there was no explanation at all. Without any explanation by the end of the film, I was left a little confused as to why he was even there, but thinking about it a bit more, I came to the conclusion that this was something I liked. Like with absolutely everything around us in our lives, whatever is happening in our own little 'stories' or 'plots', there is a world existing outside of them that may not have any effect or significance to them, but can still be seen nonetheless. For me, that is what the kid represents. In Hong Kong I would find it hard to believe, even in the dead of the night, that the only things stirring at that time were all connected to the events in the film. The kid may be insignificant, but he shows the world outside the film.
In the acting department pretty much everyone uses the quiet restrained approach, with the exception on Lam Suet. He is desperately panicked about the loss of his gun and what he gets himself involved in as a result, and this panic is clearly portrayed in his performance. In all the films that I have seen which he has been in, he has always been one of the second string actors, but this is the first one I've seen where he has one the main starring roles. Despite being higher up on the billing list, he handles his role very well.
The main actor though is Simon Yam. His character never has much of a range of emotions to portray. He is determined towards what he is doing, and the lack of emotion does highlight this determination in his character. Maybe I am reading too much into his performance and character there, but Simon Yam is an actor that I've always been a fan of and have thought of as being right up among the top actors in Hong Kong. Due to that I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here. The same comment about the lack of emotion and determination applies to Maggie Siu's CID character. I don't know whether it is because she is female, but her determination and lack of emotion makes her come across as a potentially far nastier person than Simon Yam's character. In the mood and setting of the film, both of these understated performances work.
My last comments on PTU will be about the thing that you are most likely to remember after watching the film. That is the cinematography. In a practically polar opposite way to the likes of Zhang Yimou's Hero, PTU is simply stunning to look at. In the majority of shots, camera positions and angles are chosen to highlight as much as possible the contrast between the darkness of the night and streets and the sections illuminated by the streetlights. In all the films I have ever seen that have been set in Hong Kong, I have never seen the streets made to look this way. They are unlikely to fill you with the awe and splendour that you'd get from watching Hero but you have to admire the work that has gone into making the contrasting appearance. It is as if the film is saying that there is black and white, and not really that much in between.
Audio & Subtitles
This release of PTU features both a Cantonese DD 5.1 and stereo audio track. I watched the film with the former. The sound was good. The surrounds were used effectively and clearly throughout the film, with cars driving past the front speakers and into the rears. Dialogue was crisp and clear and subtle noises like the creaking of leather boots are perfectly audible and greatly add to the suspense.
The subtitles feature flawless grammar and spelling throughout, so no complaints at all in that department. The only comment I do have about them is that they appear to have been changed a little from the original Hong Kong DVD release English subtitles. Whether they are more or less accurate a translation than before I don't know. In the extra features there are clips of scenes from the film featuring the original burnt in English subtitles. In some of the same scenes when watching the feature, the subtitles are different. If I spoke Cantonese I'd tell you if it is better or not, but I can't. However, the point and details still come across ok.
The film is presented with an anamorphic widescreen transfer. There are virtually no blemishes, marks or bits of dirt on the print, colours are excellently reproduced with some scenes looking quite stunning. There is no evident colour bleeding, which is very thankful given the hugely colour contrasting scenes throughout. Detail is sharp and there was no evident grain on the print. Overall I was impressed with the print and think Third Window Films have done a good job here.
DVD & Extras
This release comes with a few extras. There is the obligatory film trailer and trailers for many of Third Window Film's catalogue. The main extra is an interview with director Johnnie To and actor Simon Yam. This is quite a good interview as it states To's reasoning and justification for his portrayal of the policeman in the film. You also learn about Yam's views of the film and the challenges he faced in filming. The two interviews run in at about 17 minutes in length.
Watching this Third Window Films release of PTU was my second viewing of the film. I have largely left the film review part of this review the same as the review that was already on this site as I still have the same opinion about the film. It looks stunning and there is entertainment in there, but nothing about the film really raises it up to 'must see' levels. It is a little better than average, with some very refreshing approaches to story telling but after watching I felt nothing more than "Yeah, it was alright."