The first two-thirds play as a fairly typical Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai cop movie. There are some supernatural elements of course, but it’s very much of a piece with the later Mad Detective and Blind Detective, in which superhuman perception is used to solve crimes long-hidden from the understanding of the regular police. Andy Lau plays Big, an ex-monk who, swollen with a comically large muscle suit (To gives us rubbery squeaks on the soundtrack at times when he moves, making clear the artifice), tries to make a living selling his body: as a stripper, as a bodybuilder. Cecilia Cheung plays a young cop named Lee Fung-yee who first busts him and then befriends him. The two first help solve a crime involving a very flexible killer (Wai will return to his kind of cartoonish yoga in Himalaya Singh), with Lau saving her life at one point. It turns out that Big can see people’s karma: at the point they are about to die he can see why, can see what they did in their last life to deserve their fate in this one. Every action has a future consequence. When Big looks at Lee, he sees a horrible vision of a mad Japanese soldier, reveling in murder and decapitation. He knows she’s set to die, but he doesn’t want to see it. After abruptly leaving, he comes back when he senses she’s in danger and again helps her catch a crook, an extremely slippery and rubbery cat burglar. Again he saves her life, an again he leaves, but not before telling her why. They meet for a third time, with no crime to solve, and from that point the movie goes somewhere wholly unexpected. Not a cop film, and certainly not a romantic comedy, but one of the most profound and deeply felt expressions of religious spirituality of any film this century.
The hard cut to the last twenty minutes of the movie is so jarring, so perfect. Big and Lee, sharing a meal (a massive, glorious Johnnie To meal) after a bodybuilding competition (which he wins: his body is literally built, the physical expression of his spiritual turmoil, the pain of loss, his inability to let go and accept the justice of karma swelling his body to match the ego that sees itself as the center of all things). Romance is no longer a possibility: that dream (only ever hers) has been shattered by the revelation of what she’d done in a former life. Instead, both accepting her fate, they’re able to enjoy the little time they have together. And then, it’s gone: we see Big running to the base of a mountain, told that his friend has died, murdered by the same killer that killed his friend five years earlier, starting him on his purgatorial journey.
There may have been more story to tell there, and more lead up to the revelation of where Lee had gone and what she’d done or how Big found out about it would be expected in a Hollywood version of this story (Hollywood would never go anywhere near this story), but none of that is necessary. We know who she is and so her actions make perfect sense, and the pertinent question is how Big will react, not how he found out. The mountain sequences, recalling the finale of his first film, The Enigmatic Case, another movie about the inevitability and futility of revenge, are the most abstract of Johnnie To’s career. He normally finds lyricism and magic in small moments of freedom and whimsy within concrete, physical realities (Big sparring with the floating Kleenex, for example), but here he embraces with utter seriousness the nature and mystery of karmic philosophy.
Big goes into the Cave (which Lee thought may have been the doorway to Hell), and (like Rey, like Luke) finds only himself: his anger, his thirst for revenge, and his desire to blame himself for his friend’s death. Illusory, all of it. The only way out of the wilderness, out of Hell, is to see himself in the killer and to accept them both. Not exactly forgive, that’s a more Christian concept, but something like it. Forgiveness is more ego-driven, even in its best form, like the lovely “how can I not forgive when I’ve been forgiven so much” from a victim in the animated documentary Tower, is dominated by the ego. Christian forgiveness is more personal, transactional. Karma is impersonal, it is whether you like it or not. Seeing himself in the killer, as the killer, Big can accept him and bring him back to the world. Accepting the justice of karma, no longer rebelling against the universe, he can regain his human form and put his robes back on. But he still bums a cigarette: some human attachments are inviolable.