Like Clockwork: Heartbreak and Economic Collapse in Johnnie To’s Post-Handover Cinema
Reviewed by Glenn Heath Jr.

Sean (Louis Koo) and Chi-Yan (Gao Yunyuan) in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

Despite our best efforts, time always marches on. The high-functioning worker bees of Johnnie To’s glitzy 2015 musical Office are reminded of this fact every day by a massive open-faced clock dominating their wall-less workspace. Seconds glide away as looming deadlines and fluctuating market trends help to create a culture of frantic normalcy. Characters alleviate stress by breaking out into song, the lyrics of which concern everything from accounting practices and corporate hierarchy to individual purchasing power. Within this razzle-dazzle simulacrum of Hong Kong, where greed and ambition are seemingly filtered through the ventilation systems, it’s no longer possible to separate the rigors of work from the joys of expression. This is life without boundaries.

One could imagine similar feelings of unease permeating through the steel corridors of Hong Kong leading up to and immediately after 1997, the year Britain transferred sovereignty of its former colony to the People’s Republic of China. In his 1998 text Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, Ackbar Abbas discusses the contradictions of Hong Kong and China’s brokered relationship after the “Handover”: “When sovereignty reverts to China, we may expect to find a situation that is quasi-colonial, but with an important historical twist: the colonized state, while politically subordinate, is in many other crucial respects not in a dependent sub-altern position but is in fact more advanced—in terms of education, technology, access to international networks, and so forth—than the colonizing state.”

Pervasive complications have always underlined Hong Kong and China’s relationship status, and they can be felt throughout many films released in the last twenty years. To’s diverse string of genre efforts cultivates this tension organically within a specifically sleek and chaotic worldview. Since 2005’s Election and 2006’s Triad Election (see “One Country, Two Visions: An Interview with Johnnie To” by Martha P. Nochimson and Robert Cashill in Cineaste, Spring 2007, Vol. XXXII, No. 2), the director has shifted focus from underworld criminal politics and alliances to the tumultuous emotions of business professionals and public figures—people such as Louis Koo’s disgraced superstar in Romancing in Thin Air (2012), for example, who decides to grapple with tabloid embarrassment through prolonged dramatic distraction and seclusion. He’s just one of many yearning characters whose perspectives are warped by Hong Kong’s newly misshapen identity, caught between the ghosts of British colonial rule and the realities of China’s global expansion.

Michael Lau (Louis Koo) and Sue (Sammi Cheng) in Romancing in Thin Air

Abbas addresses this unsettling overlap and how it concerns the arts in general. “Culture in Hong Kong cannot just be related to ‘colonialism’; it must be related to this changed and changing place, this colonial space of disappearance, which in many respects does not resemble the old colonialisms at all.” To’s films respect this ongoing evolution, the cinematic space between aged and new, revealing China’s thorny influence on Hong Kong by subverting gender dynamics and relishing in subtext. While the movie DNA may resemble archetypes made popular by Classic Hollywood (gangster, musical, screwball comedy) and Seventies and Eighties Hong Kong cinema, each of To’s recent films feels jazzy, sincere, and conceptual in its own unique way. Fueling such an improvisatory spirit is the clash between divergent financial practices and political ideologies, providing a perfect nesting ground for personal stories about unhinged romantic relationships in the postmodern era.

Here, snake-bit characters, their deeply felt emotions, and their manic professions are all interconnected. Stock markets could be crashing in the background and a swooning couple will be falling in love in the foreground. A startling economic rebound might be superseded by a devastating revelation in an ill-fated affair. The illusion of professional and emotional control remains palpable in both situations, as certain as the romantic volatility in the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart films or the institutional coldness that envelops Drug War (2012) like gray smog. Call it the duality of rising and falling—this sometimes happens in the same frame.

Sun Honglei as Police Captain Zhang in Drug War

To views Hong Kong as a singular urban space where human interaction produces frazzled miscommunication. Getting stuck between commitments and codes happens on a daily basis. There are very few villains but more than enough weak men. Women desire both individual success and fairy-tale endings to their romantic pursuits. The LGBTQ experience is criminally underserved. All the while, Chinese economic, cultural, and political influence lingers like a mischievous ghost, helping to promote an invisible havoc in the lives of Hong Kong’s beautiful citizens.

Starting with 2008’s Sparrow, To’s filmography contains markedly similar interests in the inevitability of heartbreak and economic collapse in Hong Kong and China. Despite the prevailing sense of mounting pressure, To ably reminds his characters that happiness is just a fleet-footed camera movement or breezy musical choice away. Narrative twists and turns feel predetermined, yet all roads lead toward an obscured future. Certain recurring themes help confirm this bond between personal and professional, only complicating these matters of the heart further…

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Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 3