PTU: Police Tactical Unit (2003)
Directed by Johnnie To
Written by Yau Nai-Hoi and Au Kin-Yee
Starring Lam Suet, Simon Yam, Maggie Siu, Ruby Wong, Wong Ho-Yin, Eddy Ko, Lo Hoi-Pang
Release date: March 25, 2008
In a single night on the quiet streets of Hong Kong, two policemen could very well have their lives changed forever. When the obnoxious and out-of-shape Sergeant Lo (Lam Suet) loses his gun after being jumped by a local youth gang, he panics at the thought of the consequences that follow. Sergeant Ho (Simon Yam), a friend of Lo’s and a leader of a local Police Tactical Unit, offers to help track the gun down with his team. As long as they can find it before the shift is over, they will not have to report the infraction.
The two go their separate ways, with Lo becoming more frantic as the hours tick away, even going so far as to buy a replica toy gun as a last resort, and coming under the thumb a local triad boss who Lo believes may have come into possession of the gun. The triad boss asks Lo to kill his main rival, and he will return the gun. Meanwhile, Ho and his team keep their calm and begin hitting up the low-end criminals of the area for information. And by that, Ho literally begins hitting up anyone who may have information as he dishes out some not-quite-legal persuasive techniques to get the information he wants. As the dawn hours slowly creep up, a meeting between the two rival triad leaders and Lo on Canton Street could lead to an all-out gang war, and Ho must decide to let the events play out, or step in with his team and intervene.
As director Johnnie To was churning out light comedies in the early 2000s, he set time aside when he was not busy, and over the course of three years created this very personally stylized film. The finished product is an exercise in patience, precision, and a snail-paced building of tension that will have his diehard fans hanging on every stoic and technically inspiring shot. Those not familiar with To’s penchant for slowly setting up characters and situations in a house of cards that could topple at any moment scratching their heads, or worse even reading for the remote. To has admitted that PTU (which stands for Police Tactical Unit) does not have much commercial appeal, and that it is a very personal project and a film experiment that let him play with lighting, framing, and camera movement.
To’s film, which was written by long-time residents of To’s Milkway Productions company Yau Nai-Hoi and Au Kin-Yee, is a look into the team spirit and unity that helps to keep the Hong Kong police safe and getting the job done. To takes a very tactical approach to the operations of the unit that Sergeant Ho leads, as he follows them walking down the street, covering their blind spots, and getting the information they so desperately need. Ho’s instant decision to decide to help Lo in his time of need, even at the risk of his own reputation, is a testament to the solidarity of those that keep the streets safe. This decision carries over to his team, who in turn support Ho’s choice even when they know of the possible consequences to follow.
Both Lam Suet and Simon Yam are frequent collaborators with Johnnie To on his projects, and have an intuitive understanding of what To is seeking to do with his work. Lam Suet once again gives an honest and emotional performance that relies on his ability to not to “act” but to “react.” Simon Yam locks down his best poker face as he brings his expressionless and street-toughened role to life. Whether on the right or wrong side of the law, Yam always brings an almost frightening intensity to whatever film he is in, and this is certainly no different. Supporting these two are fellow alumni of To’s previous projects Ruby Wong (Running Out Of Time), Wong Ho-Yin (Lifeline), and Eddy Ko (The Mission), along with Maggie Siu (who would return in Election). These are actors who know exactly what To wants and are invaluable to making his pictures so memorable.
The performances they give are just what To needs to take a slow and deliberate tour through the sleepy twilight hours of the Kowloon district of Hong Kong. To often manipulates his camera speed just slightly to help punctuate the otherworldly feeling of the vacant and darkly lit streets, and frames his characters with the fuzzy backgrounds of closed storefronts and parked cars. His build-up of confrontations and executions are beautifully simplistic, with what little action that interrupts the methodical patrols and inquiries that make up most of the film is given a no-frills approach to the dished-out violence. To finishes off the film with a gun smoke-filled shootout that plays with the same slow-motion intensity and chess-like maneuvering that prefaces it. There is no glory or glamour, just a precision “this is how it happens” gunfight with To’s brilliant observational style taking it all in.
Don’t be fooled by Dragon Dynasty, who brings PTU from Hong Kong to U.S. DVD players, and their ill-designed marketing. You will find no helicopters, no exploding buildings, and no two-fisted gunplay here. The film is arguably difficult to market, but those expecting what appears to be promised Hong Kong action on the cover will be frustratingly disappointed. What Dragon Dynasty does do right though is once again bring a solid anamorphic widescreen transfer with the original Cantonese soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1 and solid English subtitles (though slightly re-written from the original subtitle track). An English dub is also presented, though it is highly advisable to discount its existence.
The extras start off with Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan returning once again with an information-packed audio commentary to help Hong Kong cinema experts and novices get the most out of their viewing experience. As always, keep pen and paper handy when listening for Logan, who will surely have films and actors to recommend and explore. From here, three individual interviews are presented with director Johnnie To, star Simon Yam, and co-star Maggie Siu. To goes in-depth into the origins of PTU and what he wanted to experiment with while making it. Simon Yam, who has worked with To almost a dozen times, reveals the surprising way that Johnnie To works with his actors, which is one of the many secrets to what makes his films so appealing. Maggie Siu, who has worked with To multiple times, also provides an excellent portrayal of how the director works. A trailer gallery for the film and previews for other Dragon Dynasty releases finish off the extras.
PTU is certainly not the first example you would think of when it comes to Hong Kong crime dramas, but keep your mind open, expect the unexpected, and journey with the Police Tactical Unit into the perilous night for a twilight rendezvous not soon forgotten.