English Title: PTU
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Milky Way Image HK Ltd., Mei Ah Film Company
Director: Johnnie To
Producer(s): Johnnie To
Cinematographer: Cheng Siu-keung
Art Director: Jerome Fung
Editor: Law Wing-cheong
Runtime: 88 minutes
Sgt. Mike Ho and his Police Tactical Unit assist in the dual investigation of a policeman’s missing gun and the murder of a Triad boss’ son, Ponytail. Sgt. Lo Sa loses his gun after he slips on a banana peel in an alley after chasing a young thug that has vandalized his car. While unconscious, Lo is beaten by members of Ponytail’s gang. Rather than report the missing weapon, Lo tries to hide his blunder by illegally purchasing another gun and by asking PTU to assist him in his search. Lo’s actions are scrutinized by Inspector Leigh Cheng, a member of the Criminal Investigation Department who suspects Lo of tampering with evidence. Meanwhile, Ponytail’s father, Baldhead, seeks to avenge his son’s murder by killing his chief Triad rival, Eyeball. Unbeknownst to both Triad leaders, though, Ponytail may have been killed by a gang of robbers from the Mainland, who commit the murder in an effort to distract police away from their own nefarious activities. All of these lines of action come together in a bloody shootout at Canton Road. Baldhead and Eyeball are both killed along with the members of the Mainland gang. Lo recovers his gun in the same alley where he lost it. In the aftermath of the shootout, the various police factions all lie to corroborate the accounts of the others involved in the incident.
Johnnie To’s PTU is among the most challenging and rewarding of the director’s self-described ‘exercises,’ a term To uses to characterize the more personal, less commercial side of his oeuvre. The film is unusual for To in that its action is confined to a single September night in Kowloon’s Tsimshatsui district. PTU also has a slightly unusual narrative structure in tracing out several separate, but interrelated, lines of action that receive almost equal weight over the course of the film. Although one could easily characterize PTU as a ‘cops and robbers’ thriller, that description fails to capture the complexity of the internecine struggles that the film depicts within each group. On one side of the coin is the turf war between Baldhead, Eyeball, and the gang from the Mainland. On the other side is the inter-unit rivalry among Hong Kong’s regular police force, its Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and its Organized Crime and Triad Bureau (OCTB). For To, one of PTU’s central themes is the ‘Blue Curtain,’ the tacit agreement that police ultimately will protect one another despite any rivalry and despite acts of illegality committed in the course of an investigation (Ingham 2009: 137).
Much of PTU’s power derives from To’s ability to capture the ambience of hotpot restaurants, arcades, and barren streets in Tsimshatsui. The area, normally a bustling commercial district, is eerily de-populated in PTU, an aspect of the film that led some critics to see it as a dark allegory of the SARS crisis of 2003. To himself dismisses this interpretation, noting that he began shooting the film in 2000, long before anyone even knew what SARS was. To shot the film over a two-year period, working on location on Sunday nights between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. (Ingham 2009: 38). To used the ambient light of Tsimshatsui for exposure, and the mise en scène of the film’s exteriors are dominated by the bluish and yellowish hues of the area’s lamp posts, storefront signs and night-time shadows. Indeed, Tsimshatsui’s empty commercial areas are so important to the film’s tone that one might easily describe PTU’s look as ‘neon noir.’
The ominous mood created by these empty urban spaces proves to be a perfect backdrop for the casually brutal acts that punctuate the film. Sgt. Ho coldly slaps a sullen gang member about his tattoo; the gang member responds by rubbing his skin raw trying to remove it. Ho’s team kicks a young asthmatic, but they then have to perform CPR on him when he stops breathing. These acts of small cruelty, though, pale in comparison to Baldhead’s torture of Ponytail’s gang. In a genuinely horrific image, To’s camera shows Ponytail’s gang stripped down, their heads shaved, locked in small cages that line the floor of a warehouse. Baldhead noisily clangs on the cages and screams at their occupants for failing to protect his son.
The aura of tightly coiled aggression created by such offhand cruelties finds release in the climactic gun battle at Canton Road. Taking a cue from Akira Kurosawa and John Woo, To films the scene in super slow-motion, creating a ballet of muzzle flashes, blood spurts and falling bodies. When the proverbial smoke clears, PTU and the other law enforcement officials are the only ones left standing. In a brief epilogue, To crosscuts among Ho’s, Lo’s, and Cheng’s accounts of the incident. Each of them has something to gain in their collective lie. The sequence reinforces the notion of the ‘Blue Curtain’ described by To. As Ho says earlier in PTU, ‘Anyone who wears the uniform is one of our own.’
Author of this review: Jeff Smith