When you were a kid, did you make all sorts of poses with your toy gun or just with your fingers? Do you still do that? Johnnie To made a movie guys do that with real gunsâ€¦and it is awesome.
Free on Youtube.
In a busy district of Hong Kong, five men are going about their lives. James or Fatsâ€¦ermâ€¦plays Dance Dance Revolution in an arcade and then just wanders around outisde. Curtis is styling a womanâ€™s hair at a salonâ€¦at night. Mike is helping some drunken hotel guests into a taxi. Roy and his underling Shin are managing their club and verbally sparring with some cops. Just another night.
It is daytime, and Mr. Lung was having lunch in an associateâ€™s restaurant when two men attempt to kill him. They manage to kill most of his bodyguards, and the last one sneaks away like a coward. Mr. Lung manages to find a place to hide and call his brother Frank. The two would-be-assassins are told to abort the mission and leave before Frank arrives with about a dozen men. Furious about the attack on his brother, Frank has the surviving bodyguard found and tortured, even though the guy most likely did not actually know who was behind the attack. Meanwhile, Frank has a whole bunch of guys with a series of cars parked outside of his brotherâ€™s house. Mr. Lung thinks that the horde of shady-looking guys blocking the road is is merely attracting unwanted attention from the neighbors. Frank says that he will get different guys and Lung tells him to get Curtis.
Frank talks to Curtis, Shin, Fats, Roy, and Mike, and tells them to come to Lungâ€™s office. Lung is well acquainted with Curtis, seems to know Shin, and Curtis can vouch for Fats. Lung does not know Roy or Shin, but Frank hired them on reputation. And, like that, they are his new temporary bodyguards, complete with guns and all of that. They are to drive him around, drive his young wife wherever she goes, stay at his house when he or his wife is there, and guard against any further attacks until the mastermind behind this is found.
The story isâ€¦rather simpleâ€¦and the execution isâ€¦also rather simple. A group of men come together for a job. Yet, it is that sparse simplicity that makes this movie so special. There are at least two levels to this movie: there is the impenetrable surface and there is what might be just underneath that impenetrable surface.
One thing that one might not pick up on at first is the style of the movie. That is probably because there is not really a well-known term for it. Well, not known to me. There is a sense of detachment and mild interest on the part of the director, even though that is not true. It sort of reflects the attitude of the bodyguards: that they are doing a job and that is it. What matters the most is cohesion and cold professionalism. This is the same principle whether they are just watching footage of the surveillance camera outside Lungâ€™s house or getting into gunfights with would-be assassins. They are not trying to be cool; they have a job to do.
The gunfight scenes are where this movie reveals itself. When one watches the first real action scene in the movie, one could be forvgiven for thinking that something is off. It is too slowâ€¦too calculatedâ€¦there are too many pauses. It is almost like an inaction scene. Those looking for the next John Woo gangster movie will not find it here. It was not until the halfway point in the movie that I realized that this was a stylistic choice. The idea of characters spending most of an action standing in one place and barely moving sounds lame, and there is really no way that I can make it not sound lame. Yet, it actually works. And not in some pretentious artsy-fartsy way either. Once I was able to accept this stylistic choice, I really got into it. It gives off the sense of streamlined professionalism as opposed to bombastic awesomeness. They are not flashy; they are economical and efficient, meticulous minimal, and patient and precise. Sort of like the movie itself. Sure, it may not actually be realistic, but it is hardly realistic for so many guns to be floating around the Hong Kong underworld either. It is more the image of professionalism that they put forth; the impenetrable surface.
The movie may seem cold at times, but there is actually quite a bit of heart buried under it. Individual personalities and loyalties reveal themselves, and various revelations of their being human help bring them together or drive a wedge between them. There are times when the bodyguards clash over mistakes. Instead of getting into fisticuffs or talking it out, they work out their anger through deeds that express their commitment to cohesion. The men are constantly trying to work out their relationships to each other in terms of friendship and within the mission. Much of these attempts go without much overt discussion about it, as do expressions of loyalty, honor, duty, and anger. Actions have both practical and emotional meanings, but they are not always explained. There are also times where they do goof around, though mildly so. Frank, who first comes across as rather cold-hearted, turns rather jovial when he is not angry, and seems to make an effort to maintain a sliver of the good-old-days when gangsters would have fun. Unfortunately, this is a story where there is work to be done.
If you are looking for a gangster movie that has an interesting twist on a familiar premise, The Mission is a very good choice, should you choose to accept it. Just keep in mind that Robert DeNiro is not in this one.
WTF ASIA 102: The Flower in Hell (South Korea: 1958, approx. 85 minutes)
WTF ASIA 103: Matrubhoomi (India: 2003, approx. 95 minutes)