With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Monday, March 31, 2008

ACF 095: PTU available on DVD

PTU: Police Tactical Unit
Directed by Johnny To
Hong Kong, 2003
Runtime: approximately 85 minutes

When it comes to crime capers or police procedurals, Johnny To is the contemporary Hong Kong master. In this film he's produced a fine study of what he calls "the blue curtain," the protective brotherhood that binds enforcers of the law together, even when they engage in questionable, if not outright illegal, tactics. It was a personal film, shot over a three year period on a very low budget. While not one of his best films, it's a good one. And it recently became available on a single-disc Special Collector's Edition from Dragon Dynasty.

Simon Yam (above) stars as Sergeant Mike Ho, who heads a unit out on their nightly rounds. As they are driven to their drop-off point, they discuss a major robbery earlier that day which cost one of their fellow officers his life. Little do they know the strange and dangerous evening they're about to face.

The same is true of plainclothes policeman Lo Sa, played by Lam Suet, one of Hong Kong's finest character actors. In the course of chasing a punk who's damaged his car, Lo Sa loses his pistol. Though this should immediately be reported to the superintendent, the blue curtain comes into play, and the PTU personnel agree to hold off until morning, hoping that either they or Lo Sa will be able to retrieve the gun by then.

Meanwhile, the young son of one triad leader has been killed by a member of another gang, so murderous revenge is in the air. And someone is going around breaking the windows of parked cars on the city's silent streets, setting off their alarms.

Before dawn arrives these various developments will come together in a finale that provides a satisfying payoff, even if it's a bit heavy on coincidence.

Director To wanted to make this a personal statement about the way a group of policemen work, to show their team spirit, even if he didn't personally agree with all of their methods. To finance it, he had to keep costs down. That's part of the reason why it takes place in the course of one evening: he didn't want to have to deal with the difficulty and expense of crowd control during the busy daylight hours.

He also had to meet his commitments for making other, commercial films, seven of which he shot during the three years it took to get PTU in the can. This meant that for continuity his male actors and the two featured actresses had to be able to wear their hair the same way and to keep their weight consistent during this lengthy period. At one point when shooting was to resume, one actress had put on several pounds that altered her look too much. To gave her fifteen days to lose ten pounds, according to Simon Yam!

Knowing all this, one can't help but be struck by what a remarkable achievement the film is. There isn't the slightest hint that it was shot over such a long period with numerous interruptions of various lengths.

Lam Suet as Sergeant Lo Sa

Still, PTU is a little thin on the bone. I found the finale very satisfying, as I've said, but there's not a lot of action along the way. Some scenes just didn't have the payoff that I was expecting or hoping for, leaving me with a "that's it?" feeling. A scene in a video game parlor and another in a stairwell come to mind.
On the other hand, I've watched the film twice, the first time several months ago, and I wasn't bored watching it again on this new DVD release. (The DVD, by the way, has the fine video transfer and really good audio quality that's a hallmark of Dragon Dynasty releases.)

So all in all, I think PTU deserves 2.5 out of 4 stars, a recommendation that's a bit on the moderate side, not quite solid. Like I said at the beginning, it's not one of To's best films (Breaking News, Election, and Exiled are just three of his better outings), but it's definitely got his style and panache; it's well worth watching and holds up to repeated viewings.

And I feel it's only fair to mention that the film won 11 out of 19 awards that it was nominated for at various festivals and ceremonies. Wins include best original screenplay for Yau Nai-Hoi and Au Kin Yee at the 2003 Golden Horse Film Festival and best director for To at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, both in 2004.

As for the DVD extras, listed below, they're definitely decent. There's no "making of" doc, but the interviews are quite interesting and a commentary by Bey Logan is always welcome. The guy really knows his stuff and puts it across well.

DVD info:
Format: widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 TVs
Languages: Cantonese Dolby 5.1, English Dolby 5.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish

Feature Commentary:
- by Bey Logan, an extremely knowledgeable veteran of the Hong Kong film industry
Three Interviews, in Cantonese with English subtitles:
- Into the Perilous Night with Director Johnny To
- On the Trail of the Smoking Gun with Simon Yam
- Cool as a Cat with Maggie Shiu, who plays Kat, another police officer
- Original trailer
- U.S. promotional trailer

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