|The Mission, 1998. Directed by Johnny To. Anthony
Wong, Suet Lam, Roy Cheung, Francis Ng, Jackie Lui Chung-yin, Simon Yam,
Synopsis: Mr. Lung is a triad boss with a problem. Someone has put out a contract on his life. After a failed assassination attempt at his favorite restaurant, he puts together a team of bodyguards. The bodyguards are tasked with the dual responsibilities of keeping Mr. Lung alive and finding out who put out the hit. For the most part things go as planned. Mr. Lung survives the subsequent assassination attempts, and the bodyguards, having formed a close-knit friendship, are efficient in flushing out the rival boss behind it all. But after the job is done, there's a problem: one of the bodyguards has had an affair with Mr. Lung's faithless wife, and the penalty for the betrayal is death...
Negative Space: After the takeover of Hong Kong by mainland China, the Hong Kong action boom came to an abrupt end. Oh, the studios in Hong Kong were still churning out action programmers right and left, but the thrill was gone. Part of this stems from the exodus of many of the signature talents just prior to the takeover. Both John Woo and Ringo Lam landed in Hollywood, for example, though neither of them has been the same filmmaker ever since. Of the filmmakers who remained in Hong Kong, the prolific Johnny To has had the most successful career. And in The Mission, To singlehandedly made the Hong Kong actioner relevant again.
The most interesting thing about Johnny To's work isn't that it's outrageous or gonzo or any of the other adjectives one might associate with Hong Kong cinema, it's that it is polished, restrained, and very, very droll. A viewer unfamiliar with the Hong Kong action new wave might miss the fact that some of To's work is a sly parody of the conventions of the form. In The Mission, the put-on is in the negative space. In art, negative space is the space around an object that defines its form. In The Mission, the negative space is occupied by John Woo. Woo permeates what is left out of the film. You'll have to bear with me for a minute here:
The visual signature of The Mission--the dead giveaway, if you will--is To's choice to frame most of his shots with prowling cameras with very short lenses. Very short lenses lend the film a slightly distorted fish-eye view. This is also one of the visual signatures of John Woo's Hong Kong films. Also drawn from Woo is the gun-fetish that plays a large part of the film's action. The scene where our merry band of gunmen test out the wares of James, the gunsmith, bears a striking resemblance to some of the publicity shots of John Woo on the sets of his gun epics. To is a savvy filmmaker, and none of this is accidental. But what To and his collaborators haven't provided is what REALLY marks a John Woo film: a bloodbath of a shoot-out. The film is consipicuous in the way it actually avoids the hyper-kinesis of Woo's films. The film's most flamboyant set-piece is willfully antithetical to the way things were done in the bad old days. Consider the climactic gun battles in films like Woo's A Better Tomorrow II or Ringo Lam's Full Contact: these films are so-called ballistic ballets, in which the thrill is provided by bodies and bullets and cameras in constant motion (Lam's film even provides a shootout from the point of view of the bullets). Now consider the shootout in the mall in The Mission. The camera never moves. The aspect of the scene is changed by cuts between relatively long takes. And nobody moves. The figures in the frame are static. The gunshots in this scene are deliberately spaced, timed like music (like a John Zorn piece in which the silence is as important as the notes, actually). Each individual gunshot is like an exclamation mark. Taken in the context of the idiom itself, The Mission seems to be saying: "it's time to move past those films and do something else."
The Biggest Train Set in the World: Orson Welles once said that movies were the biggest toy train set in the world. You would be hard pressed to find another director anywhere in the world right now who relishes the opportunity to play with those trains than Johnny To. To is a director who has fun with what he is given. The Mission, for all the grim tone of betrayal and honor that characterizes the mood of the film, shows this to full advantage. For instance, what other reason is there for having the coldest of the bodyguards--the ubiquitous Anthony Wong--moonlight as a hairdresser? What other reason could there be for the long single take of the bodyguards sitting around and kicking around a wadded-up piece of paper? And what of the scene in which a man who has been fatally shot finishes his last meal? All of this is the work of a filmmaker who is doing these things just for the hell of it. And within the negative space provided by Woo, it is here that we see To staking out his own territory.