One of Johnnie To’s most nocturnal of films, especially since it takes place within the course of one evening into the wee hours, PTU is a veritable study of cinematic mood and movement. Within a bare-bones framework of a police officer’s gun thought to be missing/stolen by triad members and the search for it, To transforms the ordinary spaces of already shadowy alleys and brightly lit interiors alike into pockets of the near surrealist, mysterious, and/or absurd and carefully delineates the fine line that separates as well as irrevocably bonds the criminal underworld and the lawful aboveworld. For the events that the missing gun prompts among different tiers of law enforcement and investigation groups that are the Anti-Crime Division, Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and titular Police Tactical Unit and triads are anything but simple. With PTU, To and company present arguably a noir musical of sorts in that movements of individuals and groups of the above-mentioned parties are carefully choreographed at a cinematographic, narrative, and psychological level, all of which eventually converge on an urban, meditative version of the western shootout in the space of “Canton Road.” With the unforgettable, pensive musical score by Chung Chi-wing, PTU operates more precisely like a city symphony, with its detached gaze of a Hong Kong in limbo wherein the lawful and unlawful cautiously engage in a series of two-steps without trampling on each other’s toes, or at least try not to. While not the To or Milkyway film to begin with for the uninitiated, PTU is a significant and signature film within To’s thread of works that specifically studies and distills the crime film and its concomitant aspects of violence, action, and brotherhood.
In the film’s first set of sequences, the main characters and catalyst are established: Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) leads his PTU officers in patrolling the city streets and spaces; Sergeant Lo Sa (Lam Suet) of the Anti-Crime Division encounters triad member Ponytail (Chiu Chi-shing) and gives chase to one of his subordinates; Ponytail himself is killed; and the CID, lead by Inspector Leigh Chung (Ruby Wong), takes over the case of Ponytail’s murder. Yet in the midst of these major plot events is the rather absurd and minor tumble in a darkened alley that happens to Sergeant Lo, who temporarily loses consciousness as a result. Upon coming to, he finds his gun missing and assumes it to be in the possession of Ponytail and his men. The PTU arrives at the scene and Sergeant Ho and Sergeant Lo come to a quiet understanding about not reporting the missing gun just yet–including not letting CID in on the situation–in hopes of retrieving it themselves before the night is over. And so it goes that the missing gun and the accompanying decision to make it need-to-know branch out into several interconnected and sometimes contradictory situations, including a bit of tension amongst the PTU officers regarding the murky direction that said decision will take on their evening patrol.
Indeed, the film itself takes a murky but alluring direction as it follows the different offshoots and their encounters, planned or otherwise, throughout a dystopian-like Hong Kong, emptied of bustle and neon like a minimalist stage design. More often than not, the most memorable and memorably choreographed parts are also with minimal to no dialogue, favouring instead To’s brilliant framing, longtime To collaborator Cheng Siu-keung’s cinematography, the cast’s motions, and occasionally the natural soundscape of the environment rendered odd and even eerie, to convey the feeling or an attitude of the moment.
One such extended moment involves Sergeant Lo, Ponytail and his entourage, and an anonymous man with a blank expression at a restaurant early in the film. After some seat shuffling denoted by power (or lack thereof) that generates near comicality and tension, a string of cellphones ringing punctuates this moment’s unfolding. The first one is for Ponytail, who sends out a couple of his guys out in response. The second one is for Sergeant Lo, who also leaves the restaurant. The third and final one is for the anonymous man, but whose actions following the call are anything but, after which he is never seen again in the film. While this particular moment morphs into an even bigger one that connects all of the individual actions described above, the amount of time and meticulousness devoted to its unraveling is a testament to To’s deep interest in exploring alternative and always more visual ways in which to present inter/actions between both sides of the law.
Another such extended moment of impactful gestures in place of words and exchanges, or what Stephen Teo calls “abstract action” in To’s cinema, takes place in an arcade between the PTU, Ponytail’s cousin, and one of his colleagues, who suffers abuse from Sergeant Ho to pressure the cousin and find Ponytail. Cuts from Sergeant Ho standing over the seated colleague as he proceeds to slap him, as if moving to the beat of a metronome; to Ponytail’s cousin witnessing it all yet seemingly unable or reluctant to get up from his chair as if he were sculpted from it; to a bloodied cellphone in a car with no one answering it; and back again transfers the action to the cut more so than what the shot contains. This montage demonstrates what Teo has described as “emphasis[ing] stasis within motion” in To’s more auteurial works such as PTU.
Still another marvelous choreographed moment of stasis-within-motion is when the PTU arrive at a building to check out a place associated with Ponytail, following a tip. First, Sergeant Ho is the only one who follows through with entering the building since he and his colleagues disagree about the position that they have taken regarding Sergeant Lo’s missing gun. Yet, as the film cuts back and forth between Sergeant Ho inside the darkened building and his colleagues outside on the street, one by one, the rest of them enter the shadows as well. The moment’s climax is not what they find at the place but instead their wordless reconciling or forgetting their internal tension for the greater collective and purpose, as it were, which is indicated through the protocol, uniform movement of their bodies and flashlights.
Throughout the film, in addition to chiaroscuro and choreography and in keeping with the forgoing of expository dialogue, To makes splendid use of close-ups to register any given character’s second thoughts, moral conundrum, silent/passive witnessing or indignation, disagreement or complicity vis-à-vis the situation at hand and to denote the ever shifting weight of power between the PTU and Sergeant Ho, CID and Inspector Chung, and Sergeant Lo to take control of the larger context and resolve it by night’s end. In the process, they all engage in polite as well as not-so-polite tactics to achieve their ends.
The measured pacing, urban spaces made ghostly, and all parties converge on Canton Road, including peripheral figures related to Ponytail and triad rivalry and a group of gunmen unknown to all and seemingly newly arrived to Hong Kong, and a waiting game of move-countermove begins before violence erupts. Yet here, too, what ends up actually resolving the situation is not necessarily this major standoff but rather Sergeant Lo’s second and equally absurd tumble in the same spot as the first time. In this way, the film concludes in the same manner that it begins, with the playful inverting of the major as minor and vice-versa. As such, all that happens in between Sergeant Lo’s two tumbles feels as if it were one fevered dream.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.