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    The Mission (1999: Johnnie To: Hong Kong)

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    Masterofoneinchpunch

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    The Mission (1999: Johnnie To: Hong Kong)

    Post  Masterofoneinchpunch on Thu May 21, 2015 9:55 am

    “I only knew what filmmaking was about when making The Mission” – Johnnie To

    1999 was a breakout year for Johnnie To. He started off with the underrated Where a Good Man Goes, but it was the next two films that would help raise his status as an auteur. The commercial success of Running Out of Time was followed by the critical success of The Mission (which was not a commercial success) where he would win best director at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Golden Bauhinia Awards and Golden Horse Film. It follows a pattern of To filming more personal projects which were funded by the more popular fare of his co-owned production company Milkyway. The Mission was invited along with two other To titles to the Berlin Film Festival after Ulrich Gregor saw the film. This led to more Milkyway titles being shown at various cinematic events.

    The Chinese title (鎗火) translates to gunfire. I prefer the English title which refers more to the homosocial nature of the team aspects in this film (a theme also explored in other To films like PTU and Exiled). In many ways this was a typical Hong Kong production. It took 18 days to film, cost about 320,000 American dollars (2.5 million HK dollars) to make and there was no script. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the results were atypical. What was created was an elliptical, sometimes enigmatic yet energetic film about honor and languor among lower triad members. It is among my top 50 Hong Kong movies of all-time.

    The film has a simple yet elegant structure to it. You can break it into three acts, but it really consists of a prologue (five minutes), the main act (58 minutes) and a coda (21 minutes; or you can consider this the second act.) There is a prologue which economically shows all five of the main characters who will later be hired as bodyguards. Afterwards there is an interesting use of having the shootout start and background noises in the credits which starts the main mission. Then there is a minor mission as the coda.

    The main mission which takes the majority of the film is started when a triad boss Lung (Eddy Ko Hung: The Thundering Mantis) has an attempt on his life by unknown assailants. His brother Frank (Simon Yam: PTU) hires five bodyguards (Curtis: Anthony Wong, Roy: Francis Ng, Shin: Jackie Lui, Mike: Roy Cheung, James: Lam Suet) to protect him. They are basically sequestered until whoever is behind the attempts on Lung is found and removed as a threat. This means hours of just sitting around, playing pranks and doing menial chores like chauffeuring Mrs. Lung. This is most exemplified by the most famous scene where the bodyguards kick a paper ball back and forth to each other while waiting for Mr. Lung. It writes banal but it comes across as exhilarating as the chatter between Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction (itself a scene reminiscent of Shoot the Piano Player). The scenes of boredom reminds me of pertinent aspects of several jobs that are rarely filmed such as police officers, private investigators where you have hours of tedium sometimes followed by intense life-and-death activities like the assassination attempts in this film.

    Small spoilers ahead in this paragraph: Surprisingly the mission is wrapped up quicker than you might realize. However, this leads to the coda where their codes of work and honor will be tested. To had two different endings for the film. The bleak ending was not used because the past several post-handover films from Milkway like The Longest Nite and Expect the Unexpected had doleful endings. He wanted to make his films lighter.

    This is a must watch for not just Hong Kong film fans, but anyone who studies cinema as well. Fans of action might be put off by the static compositions and use of lethargic pacing. To’s mix is akin to combining John Woo and Michelangelo Antonioni. Where else do you see jianghu (literally translated as rivers and lakes but it is an idiom that means the fictional universe inhabited within a wuxia or gangster movie) concepts mixed with malaise? But with this film To showed that he was an auteur and a brilliant one at that who could mix a variety of seemingly incompatible influences into a genre film and create one of the unique films of the era. If there is a weakness to me it is the soundtrack. Sometimes the minimalist electronic beats are effective and sometimes it comes off as reminiscent of the computerized scores prevalent in the 1980s though sometimes the beat is strangely catchy. It is but a small flaw. The acting is superb with the intense Francis Ng among my favorites here. The cinematography has been dissected and rightly heralded by critics. Since it carries many To’s trademarks it helps to view this film more than once or at least pay strict attention while watching it. Plot points are alluded to and rarely repeated more than once. It is a challenging work and it is no wonder that this film continues to be among the top Chinese languge lists.

    I always find cinematic connections fascinating and this film is abundant with these allusions. To has stated “I was under the influence of Akira Kurosawa when I was shooting “The Mission.” You can see it in To’s use of the vertical wipe as well as the use of camera movement.* Stephen Teo documents a lot of them in his monograph on Johnnie To in the book Director in Action. But you can also see the influence of Takashi Kitano on him as well especially in Sonatine. You can see this less explicitly in the torture scene (one of the most disturbing scenes in Sonatine to me was when the gangster was drowned by being left in the water too long, you do not get to see the result of what happens to analogous character in this film right away though another example of To’s use of elliptical technique), but much more explicit on the Tsuen Wan Shopping Mall shooting scene which paralleled the laconic and Spartan bar shootout in Sonatine which almost looks like a Civil War standoff. The gangster malaise seen throughout this movie in common with Kitano is also familiar to fans of French auteur Jean Pierre Melville another big influence on To and John Woo.** The split screen scene is most likely influenced by the split-screens used in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair which also was the basis of To’s 2004 film Yesterday Once More.

    This OOP Mei Ah R1/NTSC copy is interlaced and the picture quality suffers a bit. The darks tend to be too dark. I am sure this is just a port from the laserdisc. There are three sets of subtitles: Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese and English. The English subs are pretty good. The two audio tracks are Cantonese and Mandarin with either Dolby Digital or Dolby Digital Surround 5.1. There is a trailer for the film (strangely has some scenes sped up) and one trailer for Ringo Lam’s Victim (1999). The only other extras under the hilariously titled Data Bank are a Synopsis and Cast & Crew in both Chinese and English.

    This is a movie that needs to have a good BD/DVD release of. For the States it would make a nice Criterion edition – if only Criterion treated Mainland, Taiwanese and Hong Kong films as seriously as they do Japanese. When Johnnie To did his top 10 Criterions (this is a superlative selection, make a point to see these movies if you have not already) for the company I was hoping this meant a release of one of his films but alas nothing came of it. At least the British Masters of Cinema put a release of Mad Detective (highly recommended; it is surprisingly R0/NTSC.) But I would love for any company to put out a remastered BD/DVD of this.

    * Akira loved using the vertical wipe as a transaction for small shifts in time while he would use the fade for longer periods of time. His use of excess amounts of rain in scenes is well known and influenced many Hong Kong directors. You would find countless influences in works by Johnnie To and John Woo.

    ** I find it fascinating that all three of those directors (Woo, To and Melville) have stated that they prefer and understand directing men’s character and have trouble with women’s characterizations. All three also have similarities where they deal with gangster’s codes of conduct. To and Woo are both fans of musicals and have wanted to direct one.

    Notes:
    You can always find connections in To’s movies to other To films besides Lam Suet. Some are more obvious than others while some are just small connections. The loss of fingers by an unpaying client by Roy reminded me of the finger gag in The Odd One Dies. The video game playing reminded me of Throwdown where there it plays a more important aspect. Anthony Wong’s unusual looks is also commented in Exiled. The boss making coffee is a scene similar to many in To’s films where food is often prepared like the robbers in Breaking News and Costello making the meal in Vengeance.
    The more I watch this the more I realize that the boss Lung is controlled quite a bit by his brother. Pay attention to who makes the calls for people to be killed (of course one can make the argument that it keeps Lung’s hands clean.) Also pay attention to Lung’s demeanor. In history many important figures were secondary and smartly in the shadows. It makes you less likely for an assassination attempt.

    Sources:
    These two books below have quite a bit of information on the movie with plenty of references. So much I was wondering what I could add that has not already been written. Though I was able to find some connections that no one else had mentioned (that I have read.) Stephen Teo has in depth interviews with To that is a must read for anyone interested in this director. Bordwell goes over the cinematic aspects of the film quite well and his writings are always a joy to read. Both of these books should be in your possession. Both books refer to Hong Kong Panorama 1999 – 2000 (2000) which is a book I would love to have though it is difficult to find now.
    Book: Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Films (2007) by Stephen Teo
    Book: Planet Hong Kong (Second Edition: 2011) by David Bordwell
    Interview: Senses of Cinema -- Interview: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai (2001)
    Criterionforums.com Johnnie To thread

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