After getting his start working in television at Hong Kong’s TVB studio in the mid-1970s, Johnnie To made his feature debut in 1980 with a dark, stylish martial arts film made on the cheap for a small, leftist studio. Though quite similar in tone and style to the debut films of other Hong Kong New Wave directors made around this time, especially Tsui Hark’s The Butterfly Murders and Patrick Tam’s The Sword, The Enigmatic Case failed to find an audience and To retreated to television for another six years. To was a mere 25 years old when he made it (in 1980 Tsui was 29, Tam 32, Sammo Hung 28, Yuen Woo-ping 35, Jackie Chan 26, John Woo 34 , Ching Siu-tung 27, and Ann Hui 33. To is the same age as Ringo Lam, two years older than Stanley Kwan and three years older than Wong-Kar-wai) and it does seem like the film of an inexperienced director. Like a child learning to crawl, To in his debut demonstrates all the individual technical skills necessary to make an excellent film, but can’t quite coordinate them enough to send the film off in the proper direction.
Like The Butterfly Murders, The Enigmatic Case is a genre mashup of noir mystery tropes with the traditional Chinese wuxia film. Wuxia films typically revolve around “knight-errant” figures, wandering swordsmen who don’t quite fit into the societies they defend and whose values they uphold. The genre traces its roots to classical Chinese literature, but in film form, at least, was heavily influenced by international action cinema, in particular the Hollywood Western (and its Italian variations) and the Japanese samurai film (particularly the work of Akira Kurosawa, with Yojimbo as the launch point for next fifty-plus years of action film). To’s film follows an adventures of a wandering swordsman named Lu Tien-chun, who becomes caught up in the theft of government gold and the murder of its thieves. Framed for the murders, he must find the real villain in order to clear his name. Told with a convoluted flashback structure, the narrative always seems less intelligible than it really is, as characters routinely appear before their backstory is made clear and occasionally are never really explained (after seeing it twice I’m still unsure of the nature of the man who helps Lu escape from prison, then returns near the end only to disappear again — just another wandering swordsman?)
Cherie Chung, in the first screen credit for one of the brighter Hong Kong stars of the 80s (Sammo Hung’s Winners & Sinners, Patrick Tam’s Cherie, and To’s own The Eighth Happiness), plays a young woman Lu meets on his quest. They have a falling out when she discovers he’s the man wanted for killing her father, whom she is out to avenge. Lu protests his innocence and the two oscillate a few times: she likes him, she suspects him, and back again, with little rhyme or reason. Unlike most subsequent To heroines, Chung’s character lacks much of an internal life. She mostly just functions as a plot device, something for Lu to agonize over as he stares blankly into space (To really doesn’t get much out of star Damian Lau, who I recall as unremarkable in John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Tsui’s Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain). While the film begins with an extensive credit sequence music video, of a scarred Lu wandering the countryside looking mournful, getting into spectacular sword fights and seeing images of Cherie, the film itself never again captures that kind of romanticism. Aside from their meet cute, a cunningly staged sequence in a rainstorm that ends with them realizing they’ve been sheltering under the same tree (a visual trope To will revisit much later in his career: it’s the foundation of Turn Left, Turn Right, for example), their relationship remains almost entirely unexplored.
In To’s later films, the plots often have an air of inevitability, a clockwork precision founded in the nature of his characters and the whims of the universe. An intriguing nesting of chance with predestination, with the heroes in constant struggle against their fate, often to the point of rewriting the rules of reality itself. That’s not the case here, as Lu the protagonist is essentially a passive figure: he more or less wanders around aimlessly until the plot is revealed to him. (Compare to The Butterfly Murders, whose scholar-investigator hero is often on the sidelines of the action, but is always pushing forward to solve the mystery. When he solves it, he leaves and takes us with him, letting the resolution of the climactic fight scene play out entirely off-screen). When Lu does take action, he is always ineffective: the people he tries to protect tend to end up dead. This is what happens in the film’s final fight, and what I’d bet was the biggest reason for the film’s box office failure. The (final) villain holds Cherie with a sword to her throat, telling Lu to stand down or she’ll get it. Lu doesn’t believe him (“You ain’t that mean, “ he says) and the bad guy kills her. This darkness is very much in line with other New Wave wuxias (Tam’s The Sword is similarly nihilistic, as are some of Sammo Hung’s darker moments), and also To’s later films, especially the first series of gangster movies he produced at his Milkyway Image studio (Expect the Unexpected, The Longest Night, The Odd One Dies). But To at this point doesn’t have the visual artistry on display in Tam’s film (sub-Tarkovskian modernism melded with spectacular Ching Siu-tung co-ordinated stuntwork) or the charismatic and athletic superstars of Hung’s films. And those dark late-90s films very nearly bankrupted Milkyway anyway.
What The Enigmatic Case does show is that Johnnie To always had a keen eye for composition, as the most consistent thing about the film is that it’s almost always lovely to look at. He also shows a flair for innovation in the film’s finale, which features an extended, probably too-extended, experiment with step-printed slow motion, as Cherie attempts to get in-between Lu and her father as they duel. There are similarly choreographed fight scenes in earlier Hong Kong films (one in Lau Kar-leung’s Dirty Ho comes immediately to mind), but To’s slow-motion has an unusual abstracting effect on the action, an aesthetic approach that Wong Kar-wai would fully realize in Ashes of Time 15 years later. As well it shows a filmmaker very much in line with the sensibilities of his contemporaries. As the Hong Kong New Wave would mutate throughout the 1980s, with Tsui Hark softening his punkier edges for special effects and moguldom, John Woo moving from Shaw Brothers swordplay films to reinvent the gangster genre with his cycle of so-called “heroic bloodshed” films, and Tam and Hui pursuing more traditionally high-class fare like Nomad or Boat People, Johnnie To would spend the first half of the 1980s working in television. When he returned to features, it would be as a director for hire, working for the Cinema City studio helming the Maggie Cheung/Raymond Wong vehicle Happy Ghost III, a film which has almost nothing in common with The Enigmatic Case. But pairing these first two films together gives us a glimpse of the two Tos to come: the director of dark, edgy, violent thrillers and the maker of bright, warm and wild romantic comedies. They’re the same guy.