Johnnie To Kei-fung’s PTU

Michael Ingham,
Johnnie To Kei-fung’s PTU.
Hong University Press, Hong Kong, 2009
ISBN: 978-962-209-919-7
HKD135.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Hong Kong University Press

It has become something of a commonplace to observe that, by the time cinema studies discovers a film movement, it is generally over. For the past couple of years, even as the books have appeared in more generous numbers, we’ve nodded sadly and wondered if that was it for the glory days of Hong Kong cinema. The main obstacle to arriving at this sorry conclusion has been the rich body of work associated with Johnnie To Kei-fung and his Milkyway Image company. It seems doubly apt then that the latest monograph to appear as part of Hong Kong University’s New Hong Kong Cinema series deals with To’s noirish police thriller, PTU from 2003.

With Stephen Teo’s recent book on To (also a part of HKU’s film series) added to Laurence Pun’s anthology, there is now a useful body of material to help us better appreciate To’s work.[1] Flashier (and I think, lesser) filmmakers such as John Woo and Wong Kar-wai generated more immediate critical appraisals, because their work fitted more easily into internationally marketable frameworks: popular cult film and the art cinema. To’s prolific and solidly commercial genre filmmaking has taken longer for academics to draw a bead on, despite the fact that To’s films have been staples at Cannes, Venice and Berlin these past five years. As a director, he might invite comparisons with Howard Hawks as an unabashedly commercial director who moves back and forth between romantic comedies and action films with male ensemble casts.

Ingham, who teaches locally at Lingnan University, accounts for the lack of scholarly attention to To by writing that “as regards narratives of Chineseness, of diaspora or of transnational, global identity, his work doesn’t seem to be part of any school, trend or movement, or of direct significance to such debates as, for example, the output of such directors like Ann Hui or Fruit Chan has been” (p. 4). This chasm between the grander concerns of academic film studies and the everyday business of producing and consuming movies can be seen in the two introductions to this volume. Series editors Ackbar Abbas and Wimal Dissanyake sum up their aims by writing that “we wish to explore how films both reflect and inflect culture” (p. ix) while Ingham ends his Acknowledgement by confessing that “no matter how many times I watched, I always found some formal or aesthetic detail to add to my enjoyment of the film” (p. xii).

Ingham’s book resides – a little uneasily – in the attempt to synthesise these two approaches to cinema: one whose interest is not so much in the film as the ways it can be read to signify wider social contexts and larger scale theoretical interests, and on the other hand, a genuine enthusiasm and interest in the close detail of mise-en-scène, cinematography and editing.

Ingham divides his study into four chapters: an introduction to To’s career is followed by a chapter on the urban contexts in which the film is situated. The longest section of the book is the third chapter where the author promises us a “frame by frame analysis” of the film (p. 70) but gives us instead a scene-by-scene breakdown of the plot with some on-going interpretation. The concluding chapter aims at a synthesis, and introduces a short interview with the director which is appended.

Ingham is an unabashed enthusiast for PTU and for To’s work in general. On the basis that any friend of Johnnie To is a friend of mine, I’d immediately recommend this book as much for the areas of interest it sketches out as for the way it fills them in. Ingham cites Stephen Teo, who calls PTU an “exercise film,” suggesting that To is becoming more interested in the formal abstraction to which genre narratives can be subjected (pp. 117-118). In a similar vein, Julian Stringer is quoted on the back cover, referring to PTU as “a film that offers viewers space to think.” What’s at stake here is a minimalist quality which is coming to the fore in To’s work. This is built around formal tactics such as simple characterisation, set piece construction of the narrative, and sparse use of dialogue. Ingham concludes that:

The film’s strengths are in its creation of mood and atmosphere, its temporal compression, its downplayed but finely judged acting performances, its adroit use of camera and location, its darkly humorous and ironic style and subtext, its ensemble production values, its aesthetically satisfying post-production work and canny direction. (p. 126)

Ingham’s defence of To’s formalism as, a response to criticisms levelled by Teo, is welcome and convincing. It is, however, something that might be sustained better throughout the author’s analysis. One example might suffice: Ingham discusses as a narrative element the bike riding child who appears at a couple of points through the film. However he has relatively little to say on the way the child functions as an element in a rich, complex and ambiguous spatial play. While these are ultimately the kind of things that Ingham values in To’s filmmaking, I’m not sure he sustains his analysis with the rigorously detailed analysis that a “frame by frame” (or perhaps that should be, shot by shot) approach might imply. This is excusable in a monograph of this length.

What we get instead are digressions into the kind of capital T Theoretical categories through which film academics have made their livings (just like triads make a living from pirating dvds). These include discussions of whether the film is surreal or hyper-real or whether the film represents a postmodern space. This is the terminology of top-down, large scale, globally attuned academia. They are terms which are extremely general and ill-defined or multiply defined. In the context of Ingham’s discussions here I’m also not sure what is at stake by invoking them.

Ingham is more comfortable writing bottom-up spatial analysis. It is here that he writes as a local who understands the specific geography of Tsim Sha Tsui; who knows where the Tom’s Music shop is in Cameron Road and who knows that there is no laneway where Johnnie To puts a laneway. As a local, Ingham wants to contextualise the film for us by showing the way its depiction of issues involving the Hong Kong police relate to a referential context, just as the cinematic spaces created by To relate to the urban places of Kowloon.

Reading this book sent me back to my dvd collection of Johnnie To’s films with a refreshed eye for the intricate abstractions to be found there. As a stylist, To provides a fine case study for the type of close sustained reading that is called for by this monograph series. As a fellow enthusiast for To’s films, Ingram effortlessly wins and sustains my interest. It is perhaps a sign of our shared enthusiasm that he leaves me wanting more.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, South Australia.


[1] Stephen Teo, Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film (Hong Kong: Kong University Press, 2007): Lawrence Pun (ed.) Milkyway Image: Beyond Imagination (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 2006).

Created on: Saturday, 19 December 2009

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →