On Johnnie To’s The Big Heat

Johnnie To’s first crime movie and his fifth feature, following a period action film made eight years earlier (The Enigmatic Case, 1980), several years of work in television and a trio of romantic comedies (Happy Ghost 3 (1986) (co-directed with Raymond Wong, I think, imdb credits it to Ringo Lam with To as assistant director) and Seven Years Itch (1987)). Produced by Tsui Hark (who has a funny cameo at the end as a “long-haired weirdo”), it feels more like one of his films than anything else, with super-graphic slow motion violence that’s less elegant and more shocking than anything To would do later in his career.

The film was apparently a very troubled production, going through a number of directors (see this interview with its screenwriter, Gordon Chan, who wrote and directed one of Jet Li’s greatest films, Fist of Legend, in 1994. Thanks to They Shot Pictures‘s Seema for the link) But there are certain visual touches that distinguish the film from the other crime movies of its time (Ringo Lam’s City on Fire or the Hark-produced John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow or The Killer) and point to what would prove to be one of To’s unique qualities as an auteur. Most obviously, there’s shootout between cops suffused in fire engine-red light, alternating with deep blue in reverse shots (much like the blue in the opening of To’s 1999 film Where a Good Man Goes), which abstracts the action into pure the image that Tsui’s graphic violence works so hard to make nauseatingly ‘realistic’. Later, there’s a magical bit of release as the cops, rejecting a bribe from the film’s villain, throw piles of cash into the air, watching it blow in the breeze, that recalls moments of childlike freedom snatched from darker realities in Throw Down (as when the plot is temporarily suspended so the three main characters can collaborate to free a red balloon from a tree) or the whole of Sparrow or the Running Out of Time films, which take what are ostensibly dark and violent gangster movie settings and turn them into spaces for play and possibility. Given the film’s convoluted production history, it’s impossible for me to say whether or not To was actually involved in the shooting of these scenes. But they’re nonetheless evocative of his later work, as is the characterization of the film’s hero.

Waise Lee, the heel from A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head, plays the lead, a cop with nerve damage in his hand who is on the verge of retirement, but who must solve one last case, the murder of his old partner (shades of Beverly Hills Cop). Lee is yet another To hero with a disability, see also: Throw Down, Mad Detective, Running on Karma, Running Out of Time, Vengeance, Yesterday Once More, Love on a Diet, Wu Yen, and if being dead counts as a handicap, A Hero Never Dies and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts. But where most of those other films use the disability as a launching point for the character’s transcendence of physical limitations, either spiritually or through an existential stand in the name of honor, loyalty, friendship, and/or love, The Big Heat remains thoroughly materialist, grounded in the world of Hong Kong’s cops and gangsters before the fall. The sense of vague dread, of millennial fatalism that hangs over much of To’s later work is present here, but it’s given a more explicit and specific, and (therefore) rather less interesting, name: the gangsters openly discuss their plans to cash in while they can before the ’97 handover of Hong Kong to China. The end is a plot motivation, rather than a mood. The result of these compromises is a very solid action movie that at times seems like its going to burst free of its genre, but is missing that last little twist that would become the hallmark of To’s Milkway Image films beginning a decade later.

Watch for Philip Kwok playing one of Lee’s partners. Kwok has done just about everything you can do in movies: direct, star, write (he was one of the writers on Once Upon a Time in China and America, the sixth(!) in the series started by Jet Li (who took the fourth and fifth films off) and Tsui Hark and the one which was ripped off by Jackie Chan for the big international hit Shanghai Noon (AKA, the kung fu movie that my mom likes)), choreograph, produce, he even has an art direction credit (for Wilson Yip’s 2004 film Leaving Me, Loving You, starring Leon Lai and Faye Wong and which I now desperately want to see). He was one of Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms (he was the lizard), but is probably most recognizable as the bad guy with the eye patch in Hard-Boiled. He gets a fun, meaty part here as part of the team of cops (which also includes a callow rookie and an aviator-shades-wearing Malaysian detective).

One thought on “On Johnnie To’s The Big Heat

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