The opening scene of Breaking News, a single unbroken take that lasts eight minutes and includes a gunfight of startling ferocity, is so good I half-expected the rest of the movie to fail miserably. This opening shot involves most of a city block, with the camera gliding effortlessly around and even going from floor to floor in a neighboring building, and turns to violence so suddenly and unexpectedly that it doesn’t even feel choreographed. It’s quite a feat, and in a way I expected about as much from director Johnnie To, one of the best of Hong Kong’s current crop of directors. He’s turning that country’s pop action cinema away from sheer firepower and more towards the kind of ragged realism that’s come into vogue elsewhere as well (such as Korea).
So how’s the rest of the movie? Pretty good, actually. As the title implies, Breaking News is as much about the media image of the police as it is about actual cops-and-robbers action. It starts as a fairly straightforward cop / action story—the aforementioned first scene involves a detective (Nick Cheung) on a streetside stakeout to watch a gang of suspected bank robbers, headed up by a charismatic leader (Siu-Fai Cheung). The stakeout turns into a horrible firefight, one of the police is killed, and one of the robbers is wounded. Each side limps off to regroup.
The police are horribly embarrassed by the whole thing, especially since most of it wound up happening right on live TV. Inspector Rebecca Fong (Kelly Chen, of the excellent and mold-breaking Infernal Affairs) decides to make use of the media the next time they clash, and stage an event that’ll keep public sympathy firmly on the side of the police. Meanwhile, the detective is determined to nail the rest of the group and expends a fair amount of shoe-leather energy to find them. They eventually turn up in an apartment complex, where they’re cornered by legions of PTU (Hong Kong SWAT) soldiers.
The leader and one of his cronies retreat into an apartment and hold hostage a cabdriver and his two children. What they don’t know is that two other criminals, hired killers, are also hiding out in the same building, and that the inspector and his cronies have gone in against orders. This creates an interesting five-way-tension—criminal vs. hostage vs. criminal vs. police vs. police captain—and the movie boils the complexity of the situation down to a few basic gestures that work well. It’s the sort of thing that could have become unwieldy and impossible to follow, but it doesn’t.
Most of the movie is strategic tension, played out in various clever ways. When the criminals want to show that they’re treating their hostages well, they film a video of them eating a lavish supper (cooked by their captors, who turn out to be very capable in the kitchen). The police “retaliate” by handing out equally-lavish box lunches to the PTU and the press. Towards the end the film veers back into more conventionally preposterous action-movie territory—there’s a bit involving a bunch of hostages decked out with grenades that’s a bit of a head-scratcher—but the last fifteen minutes consists of three scenes of near-genius back-to-back, two of them filmed in the same single-take format as that staggering opening moment.
To is definitely one of the better directors working now in Hong Kong, and it has little to do with how he manhandles the camera (although he does that very capably). He picks existing subjects that are fairly shopworn material in other people’s hands—cops, criminals, corruption, etc.—and rings quirky changes on them. PTU and Running Out of Time are two good examples of the man at work, and he’s also created Throw Down (widely described as his answer to Kurosawa’s judo movie, Sugata Sanshiro), Election, and Fulltime Killer, a “postmodern” heroic-assassin movie that was more interesting for what it tried to do than because it actually succeeded at any of it. He’s made movies I haven’t enjoyed, but he’s almost never made a completely bad film, and that alone is fairly rare.
I met To in person when he stopped off in New York City for an almost completely unpublicized appearance at Kim’s Underground Video. I liked him immediately; he was genial and friendly, not at all full of airs, just a guy who made movies. When we asked how Hong Kong filmmaking differs from Hollywood he replied, “We improvise just about everything.” That made it all the more surprising to see how News was so polished and sleek all the way through, but then I also remembered that Hong Kong has outgrown its image as a shabby imitator and is now an innovative force in many ways (fashion, for instance). It still feels strange to a longtime fan of the country’s movies; while Hong Kong’s cinema is growing glossier on the surface it’s also becoming that much less interesting to watch for that same reason. To seems comfortable working on both small and big budgets, though—I just hope what makes him special doesn’t get drowned under a wave of functional studio technique in the future.
Much has been made of the recent stagnation of the Hong Kong filmmaking industry, with all of the usual culprits trotted out: things haven’t been the same since John Woo left; the mainland government is smothering true artistic innovation; etc. I’d be inclined to blame the whole thing on simple creative exhaustion. No industry with that much output and that fierce a base of talent can last forever, and there are other stars on the rise (Korea, anyone?) that take that much more of the bloom of Hong Kong’s rose. Every now and then, though, a movie like Breaking News comes along, and I tell myself the little island that could is not totally out of the game.
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