Tuesday, 14 December 2010

PTU; Garden State


Johnny To’s PTU has a man streak.
After a run-in with a street gang at a restaurant, sergeant Lo is left unconscious in a back alley, minus his police issue side-arm. Back at the restaurant, gang head Ponytail is stabbed and dies just before reaching hospital.
After being found by a patrol unit he realises that his gun is missing and calls in a favour from patrolman Mike (To favourite Simon Yam) to give him until dawn to locate the weapon before calling it in. mike heads Police Tactical Unit B2 and agrees to help, leading to a long night of chance encounters and twists of fate that will change things on Hong Kong’s streets.

The set-up could have been any number of Hong Kong crime thrillers but To’s version of police procedure involves a lot of torture, Mike beating people for information as the PTU officers look on, stony faced; the CID, called in to investigate Ponytail’s murder, seem just as bad despite the sharp black suits they wear in contrast to the military uniforms of the PTU. Amidst all this Lo stumbles through his search with a bloody face and bandaged head, accosted by both sides of Hong Kong’s criminal underworld as Ponytail’s murder sends ripples through the city.
The misconduct of Mike’s PTU is clearly meant to be disturbing rather than crims “getting what they deserve” and in this sense PTU is similar in theme to To’s later Election films, highlighting the nastier side of Triad gangs without being overly gratuitous. His art style is similar to later work too, set exclusively at night To gets to explore the palette of neon and shadow in the deserted streets of Tsim Shat Tsui that he favours. The soundtrack, however, doesn’t reach the heights of Exiled’s guitar-based score, instead awash with the whiney guitar solos of some horrific 80s soft rock, consistently working against the muted tones of the film and pulling the audience out of it.
The cast are all good, Lam Suet and Simon Yam now To regulars, as well as Eddy Ko as mob boss Eyeball; Yam in particular is used well as his quiet, measured performance here is somewhat removed from the Category 3 films like Naked Killer (Hong Kong’s extreme certificate) he seemed destined to languish in, and you can see what inspired To to begin using him as a lead from then on.
PTU doesn’t match the brilliance of To’s later works Election, Exiled and Mad Detective, or even the lighter Sparrow, but it alludes to enough of To’s talents to show that this isn’t just your average Hong Kong genre director.

Garden State

Films on the unconventional end of the romcom spectrum tend to have kooky girls and dysfunctional boys as leads, and Garden State is no different. Natalie Portman plays a character more hyperactive and enthusiastic than a dozen toddlers, seemingly without social inhibition, and cute as a button to boot. Zach Braff’s lead Largeman by contrast is numb from a decade and a half of medication and therapy instigated by family tragedy. It’s the death of his mother which lead to his return from LA and his unsuccessful career as an actor/writer, back home to New Jersey where he catches up with old faces, has odd experiences and finds out just who he is.
For a plot this laden with genre conviction and with two leads pushed comically beyond either end of a realistic personality scale it’s hard not to watch without trepidation. I last saw the film on release in 2003, and though I remembered enjoying it I was sure that my memories had a rose tint to them. However, Braff’s directorial debut ends up being charming and infectious, Largeman’s wide-eyed numbness including the right levels of vulnerability and sarcastic commentary on the small-town mentality back home with a number of deadpan scenes (see the funeral song) demonstrating that the comedy isn’t trying to hit you over the head. Portman’s charm manages to overcome any tweeness that her character would suffer in the hands of others, and Peter Sarsgaard as Largeman’s hometown best friend is excellent support, grounding the film as a character believable in his acceptance of his lot as a grave digger who likes to party, his face perfect to convey the sorrow without regret tat seems to define him.
With its cool indie soundtrack Garden State threatens to be a movie packaged to hit a certain slightly off-mainstream teen/twenties demographic, but Braff’s direction and writing injects the movie with personality, along with some able performances resulting in a romcom that’s not hard to stomach.


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