Friday, December 23, 2011

Johnnie To And Wai Ka Fai's Running On Karma


My reaction to seeing Running on Karma for the first time was a sense of bewildered excitement, the film that at first appeared to be another of To and Wai's commercial efforts, in fact turned out to be something wildly different. Rarely does a movie throw me so far off balance as this one did, I had no idea where the story was taking me or by what route, leaving me with a sense of giddy disorientation that hasn't been equalled since. Revisiting the film again recently via the Hong Kong blu ray release, obviously it doesn't have quite the same dizzying effect, but it's easier to appreciate the bravery in the choices the film makes, and at the same time making more sense of the film as a whole.


By choosing Andy Lau and Cecilia Cheung, two of the biggest box office stars in Hong Kong at the time, and after the success of To and Wai's Love on a diet where Lau donned a fat suit, using the gimmick of a latex muscle suit for Lau's character together with careful marketing made Running on Karma appear to be another light comedy. If what cinemagoers were expecting was a simple popcorn movie they would have been either thrillingly surprised or horribly disappointed depending on their predilection by what they saw. To and Wai manage to cram multiple genres into Running on Karma, featuring elements of comedy, police procedural, horror, action, wire assisted kung fu, romance and drama (and I've left some out!). While this approach is nothing new to Hong Kong cinema, what is quite different with this film is how everything combines into a strong narrative, even as the film shifts from genre to genre and flashback to flashback, the spine of the film holds firm. The end result is a powerfully affecting rumination on the laws and nature of Karma, told in a terrifically entertaining and completely unique manner, which may not suit all tastes, particularly viewers who aren't used to the shifting tones of Hong Kong cinema, but must surely be appreciated for it's verve and originality.


Best experienced going in to the film as cold as possible (hence the lack of any plot here!), To and Wai demonstrate an amazing ability to create a totally different atmosphere to any of their other movies and sustain it throughout the entire film, even as the constantly evolving storyline throws curveball after curveball at the viewer. This is in no small part thanks to the film's stunning photography by Milkyway regular D.O.P Cheng Siu Keung, again giving his shots of Hong Kong a unique feel, both in crowded and deserted street scenes. Another huge addition to the atmosphere is the wonderful, understated score by Cacine Wong. The film is not set in any reality we understand but it looks and more importantly feels close enough that the film's power of vision comes through with real strength, and all this without spoon feeding the audience as they leave the last act of the movie open to a number of interpretations.

As I've written before I consider Andy Lau to be less an actor and more of an old fashioned movie star, but all credit to him, in Running on Karma he really pulls out all the stops and gives a superb and emotional performance along with the charisma he always brings to the table. Carrying the film completely, without Lau's performance the film just wouldn't have worked. Equally adept at the comedy and in the more dramatic scenes, Lau deservedly won the best actor award at the 2004 Hong Kong film awards. Cecilia Cheung has been wasted in far too many of her film roles, when she gets a great part, she always delivers and here she does so again, despite playing second fiddle to Lau, she does a great job balancing out all the elements of her character, making the viewer really care for her.


Running on Karma is challenging, satisfying and emotionally powerful cinema, you may not like it but I urge you to see it, regardless of your taste in movies. Milkyway image movies are frequently criticised for all being variations on the same film, this film is completely different and is testament to Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai's skill of being able to effortlessly shift gears both in terms of this film and their careers as a whole. The film's uniqueness and ability to surprise is seen all too rarely, not just in Hong Kong film but cinema from any territory.

10 comments:

YTSL said...

Hi "A Hero Never Dies" --

I can really feel your love for "Running on Karma" -- and I agree that the love is well deserved. :)

OTOH, a -- you knew this was coming -- quibble:-

"To and Wai manage to cram multiple genres into Running on Karma... While this approach is nothing new to Hong Kong cinema, what is quite different with this film is how everything combines into a strong narrative, even as the film shifts from genre to genre and flashback to flashback, the spine of the film holds firm."

Um... how about "Peking Opera Blues" (slapstick comedy, political drama, actioner, (chaste) romance, etc.)? ;b

Rich Flannagan said...

Great film! HK cinema seems to be able to mix disparate genres and styles in the same film better than most. Not always successfully, mind, but you do have to admire their spirit.

A hero never dies said...

Hi YTSL,

Yes, I didn't mean this was the only HK movie to achieve this, as in anything there are always exceptions! With Peking Opera Blues certainly being up as one of the best of them. I love how your comments keep me honest, I do occasionally get carried away. Thanks for taking the time.

A hero never dies said...

Rich, yep great film, and yes that's one of the most rewarding things about loving HK cinema.

robotGEEK said...

I remember reading about this one some time back, but completely forgot about it. But I had no idea it was such a huge mash up of different genres. I will definitely have to make it a point to check this one out in the near future. Great review!

Daniel Thomas said...

I've never seen this and avoided reading your review, although I get the impression you like it. It's a favourite of the guy I know who works for Milkyway.

Any how, the DVD is on my shelf an I'm planning on watching it then adding it to the blog.

Daniel Thomas said...

Well, it's been watched and enjoyed. I went in to it knowing only that Andy Lau wore a muscle suit and nothing else, apart from that it is To'n'Wai and Cecilia was in it...

I'd say that the trust one has in Milkyway gets you the opening scenes. By showing you Andy in his big muscle suit, in bright lights, looking its worst, it then pretty much allows you to accept it and forget about it for the rest of the film, where it looks much better and more subtly lit...

I'll agree with almost everything else you said about it too. A very interesting movie.

And, thanks for posting the pic of them eating at that restaurant: it was a reminder that I'd found that location, but forgotten to post it...

A hero never dies said...

Glad you enjoyed it Dan, it's probably even better on a 2nd viewing. Any reason why you held off on watching it for so long? I've loved your posts on the film, lots of pics to take next visit!

Daniel Thomas said...

Glad you enjoyed the posts, there's a few nice little locations in there; definitely some spots to visit...

I guess I just didn't get round to it; I wasn't holding off, I just have a very large 'to watch' pile...

A hero never dies said...

Dan, I understand re. the large to watch pile, I really do!

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