PTU - Johnnie To and His World with No Heroes

Quite many people, after watching PTU, say that they have reservations with the "hero" image as portrayed in the film. In their attempt to help Sergeant Lo (played By Lam Suet) to recover his lost gun, the PTU, led by Simon Yam and Raymond Wong, not only abuse their authority and destroy evidence of misconduct, but also disregard the safety of brethrens "in the same uniform". Po Fung calls them "dangerous heroes", and Shek Kei, quite disapprovingly, says it is "not a laudable heroic cop film". I myself, however, always feel that a "hero" is something that never features in Johnnie To's films. If heroes in cop films must be loyal cops or heroes in undercover films must be selfless moles who risk the lion's den, then the cinematic world would be a "perfect world", so perfect as to ring phony, reminding viewers of watching a fictitious play instead of relating to the characters and be drawn into the development. Moreover, there are no perfect heroes in the real world, and not all cops are good cops. To measure the cops in PTU with the "ideal" yardstick may have missed the point.

In fact, the anti-hero hint can be found in all Johnnie To works, whether directed by himself or co-produced with Wai Ka-fai and directed by Patrick Yau. By anti-hero I don't mean parodies but a more down-to-earth look at their lives and worries. Whether the group effort in Lifeline, Expect the Unexpected and The Mission, or the face-off in The Longest Nite, A Hero Never Dies and Running out of Time, the underlying theme is not unlike Edmond Pang's You Shoot, I Shoot, which is a response to a line in Fulltime Killer, "even killers need to worry about mortgage, putting food on the table and contracts getting scarce": all so-called heroes have their individual worries, the firefighter's marital problem, the cop's love interest, the bodyguard's loyalty test... and what Johnnie To has been doing, is to strip them of their heroic figure and, through the mundane, get to the human story behind it.

Hence PTU opens with a news report of a cop killed on duty, which sets up the internal conflict faced by all throughout the film. Despite joking with it they are saddened by the death of one of their own. It is this peer empathy that drives Simon Yam to help Lam Suet recovering his lost gun, for none other than helping a brethren in trouble. Though we are not told of their friendship, it is not necessary in understanding why Johnnie To would want to make a film on covering for such a bumbling cop; PTU is a "project" in making a very different cop film which does not rely on the hero kicking, as Jackie Chan, or blasting, as Chow Yun-fat with a gun on each hand, his way out, but hinges on subtle development. The viewers will thus see that in PTU, all the characters around Lam Suet are understated yet full of personalities. Though minimal in packaging and with no explicit revelations, Johnnie To succeeds in letting viewers believe they each have a story to tell, an "achievement" in any sense! The one scene that leaves me with the deepest impression is the video game arcade, when Simon Yam slaps a gangster non-stop, which reminds me of the static violence of Tekashi Kitano in Hana-bi and Sono otoko, kyobo ni tsuki. Speaking a few lines, the characters nonetheless exude a past. That is why I will not argue whether the cops in PTU are heroes or flawed heroes, because Johnnie To is not talking about heroes. Or even, his focus is on the "ordinariness" of the people involved. Ditto with the films mentioned above, the discussion should be on a world with no heroes instead of on the heroic image being portrayed!

By Chan Ka Ming

(Translated by Teri Chan)