Running on Karma is such an unrepentantly absurd movie that it works simply by dint of being unrepentantly absurd. Even for a Hong Kong film, it’s pretty far-out—but let’s face it, what other country would dare to make a movie about a kung-fu bodybuilder who can see people’s past lives when they approach their deaths? It’s like a throwback to the Hong Kong moviemaking of the Eighties, where hyperkinetic pacing and thoroughly oddball subject matter were used as a way to compensate for tiny budgets and cramped shooting schedules. But it’s entertaining and offbeat, and out of that grows a fascinating that makes it hard to dismiss the movie out of hand. Someone—most likely director Johnnie To—was definitely not painting by the numbers when they made this film.
Biggie (Andy Lau) is the bodybuilder in question, who earns cash by gyrating for screaming girls in underground strip clubs. One night there’s a sting and he’s busted by a female cop, Yee (Cecilia Cheung)—who, ironically enough, was one of the loudest ladies in the front row. He bolts, and runs afoul of another gang of cops who are chasing an Indian man, a contortionist who probably committed a savage murder earlier that night. The police aren’t amused by Biggie wasting their time and manpower, and after putting the boot to him they dump him back in Yee’s lap. But during the chase Biggie witnessed one disturbing vision after another—one involving a police dog, and another involving one of Yee’s own comrades. When someone approaches death, he explains, he can see their karma—the fate that has been dealt out to them in a past life—and so knows when someone is about to die.
Yee doesn’t believe him for a minute, of course, and there’s a funny scene where he has to explain that what he has is not the same thing as telepathy or precognition, even. But he proves it to her, gradually, by re-enacting the scene of the very murder she’s investigating. Yee isn’t sure how seriously to take any of this—after all, she’s got problems of her own with her boss growing increasingly disgusted with her performance. Still, she takes a chance on him, even when he does dumb things like trashing her moped, and after he’s been deported back to China she goes through the trouble of tracking him down to learn more about him. And then the film gets even stranger, but in a way that’s actually rewarding instead of alienating.
Sure, it’s beyond ridiculous. There is never a moment when the movie convinces us that this whole foofaraw about karma and past lives is anything more than a goofy gimmick designed to keep things speeding along. But I didn’t think the movie was designed to take such conceits any more seriously than they had to be to make the story work. Most of the reason the movie works is not because the plot is solid but because the film is so heedless of failure that we get pulled along with it. They could have held the camera upside down half the time and it would have been no less deranged.
Johnnie To has been cited as a revitalizing force in Hong Kong’s cinema, and after seeing several of his movies (Running Out of Time, Breaking News, PTU, etc.), it’s becoming easier to see why. He hasn’t confined himself to one approach or genre, and even if he doesn’t completely hit the mark sometimes he’s still interesting. This movie for him must have been like a genre shopping spree—there’s action comedy, supernatural horror, quiet everyday drama, spiritual quests, you name it. Some of the craziest moment in the film actually have nothing to do with Biggie’s spiritual talent—consider the contortionist, who steals more than a few scenes with the fact that he can jam himself into the tiniest of spaces. One such moment is a redux of the old horror-movie cliché that you never, ever stick your hand (or your face) into a box that has blood dripping from it.
Not long ago I reviewed a Korean movie, Some, that started in an ordinary way and gradually worked its way up to the supernatural—but did so in a way that somehow negated everything of significance about the movie. Karma’s plot is no less preposterous (in fact, if anything, it’s even more out-there than Some’s story), but it’s set up and executed in a way that is at least fun to watch, and I admired its boldness even as it flew in the face of every form of common sense. That goes triple for the ending, by the way, which is so far-out that it’s practically a genre unto itself. Kind of like the rest of the film.