After a few rough years at the start of his Milkyway Image studio, producing great movies that never really caught on at the box office, and constantly at odds with his subordinate directors, in 1999 Johnnie To just decided to give up the pretense and begin directing most of his company’s movies himself. The result was an unprecedented string of productivity, directing 24 films over the next ten years and producing several more, many of them among the most popular and critically acclaimed Hong Kong films of the era (with, by my count, at least ten unimpeachable masterpieces: The Mission, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Fat Choi Spirit, PTU, Running on Karma, Throw Down, Election and Election 2, Exiled, and Sparrow).
The caper/heist film Running Out of Time kicked off this new Milkway era in September of 1999, an amiable star vehicle for Andy Lau, who would also star in the company’s first major hit, released in June of 2000, Needing You…. The latter was the first of several highly successful romantic comedies pairing Lau with singer/actress Sammi Cheng that would provide enough financial leeway for the more esoteric experiments in genre filmmaking by To and his team (writer and frequent co-director Wai Ka-fai, writers Yau Nai-hoi, Au Kin-yee, Yip Tin-shing, and Szeto Kam-yuen, often collectively credited as “the Milkyway Creative Team”). Running Out of Time snuck into the top ten of the Hong Kong box office in 1999, while Needing You… topped the charts in 2000. The Mission, released in-between the two in November of 1999, didn’t do so well, but it did rack up a bunch of award nominations (three different actors, Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, and Francis Ng were nominated by various organizations), and Best Director wins at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards (To’s first wins in that category from either organization).
The Mission is a Triad film, part of the heroic bloodshed genre pioneered in the mid-1980s, a fusion of the Hong Kong New Wave’s gritty explorations of the colony’s criminal underworld with the tragic-romantic ideals of brotherhood and heroism inherited from the martial arts films of Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh. To had worked in the genre before: his 1988 The Big Heat is very much in the vein of films like A Better Tomorrow, while his early Milkyway films all deal with brotherhood and honor among men of action. In Lifeline the team are firefighters; in Expect the Unexpected, they’re cops; in A Hero Never Dies, they’re hired gunmen. The Mission is about five such gunmen, hired to work as bodyguards for a Triad boss named Mr. Lung. The film begins, after the infectious 8-bit synthesizer theme song, with images of the men in their day-to-day (well, night-to-night) lives: a sweaty Lam Suet playing video games in an arcade; Roy Cheung working as a high class pimp; Anthony Wong as a hairdresser; Francis Ng as a nite club owner. The plot itself doesn’t kick in until after these introductions, when a failed hit on Mr. Lung leads his brother Frank (Simon Yam), to gather the men together for the job. In starting the film with the 'getting the gang together' montage, To highlights his priorities in the film: it isn’t about the ins and outs of Triad warfare, but rather about the nature of this particular group of men. The plot is exceedingly simple and large sections of the film are completely without dialogue (the opening montage, for instance, is mostly driven by music, the characters cut together with wipes and split screens). Scenes of the group bonding are alternated with gunfights, and silence and stillness are the dominant modes. A single-take shot of the bodyguards hanging outside an office, kicking a balled-up piece of paper around is as precise and ritualized as a shoot-out in an empty mall, To’s laterally tracking camera revealing men alert but relaxed as they pose behind cover, guns at the ready. The crystalline precision of staging and movement, the focused purity of the plot, shearing away all that is extraneous, combine to make The Mission the most perfect Triad film there’s ever been.
The exposition is so submerged, in fact, that what will prove the key turn in the film’s final third can pass almost unnoticed. Mr. Lung’s wife is the problem, as she appears set on seducing her guards, a clear violation of the warrior code, punishable by death. She never says a word (as far as I can recall), but To privileges her with some ominous single shots. A femme fatale as idea rather than an actual character, she is the feminine intrusion into the manly world of blood and honor. As the youngest, least experienced member of the crew is unable to resist her charms (off-screen, of course) and the bodyguards turn on themselves, the demands of loyalty to one’s superior (who insists the man be killed) in conflict with the demands of brotherhood (which calls for protecting your protégé with your life). The solution to the crisis is a unique one, a theory which To will explore at length in his Election films: the heroic bloodshed code demands adherence to the form of the ritual; but as long as that form is respected, deviations from it are allowed. It’s the kind of double-think that lies behind the “One China Policy”, for example, where Taiwan is allowed its independence as long as everyone agrees that Taiwan is not independent at all but instead a part of the People’s Republic. Everyone in The Mission ends happily (except for poor Mrs. Lung, barely a character at all, she is easily erased), the contradictory demands of the code satisfied by a clever ruse. But in the next installments in To’s informal Hitman Trilogy (2006’s Exiled and 2009’s Vengeance), even that will no longer be an option. His heroes will instead be forced by chance and fate to sacrifice themselves, for increasingly meaningless causes.
Of the pre-’99 Milkyway films he was credited as director on only Lifeline, Where a Good Man Goes, and A Hero Never Dies, but probably ghost-directed most of the others. ↩︎
Contrast with Lifeline and Expect the Unexpected, with their lengthy digressive detours into their heroes’ private lives. The Mission, relentlessly focused on forward moving action, anticipates instead 2012’s Drug War. ↩︎
Like many Hong Kong series, the three films are united only thematically and by milieu (although the latter two shift from Hong Kong to Macau), and by the presence of stars Yam, Lam, and Wong. All three as well have different primary screenwriters: Yau Nai-hoi, Szeto Kam-yuen and Yip Tin-shing, and Wai Ka-fai, respectively. ↩︎