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.