The route of foreign movies to U.S. theaters has never been easy. Whether intended for an elite art house crowd or a general audience, the films face viewers with little patience for movies from Somewhere Else. Some of this resistance has to do with language, whether translated through subtitles or dubbing. Even more significant may be the unfamiliarity of cultural references.
Whenever films do manage to penetrate such barriers, their appeal to U.S. viewers is usually short-lived. This has certainly been the case with work from Hong Kong. For short time in the 1990s, this most ingratiating and exhilarating body of material grabbed the attention of audiences hungry for revved up visuals that didn’t insult the intelligence. A handful of the major Hong Kong stars, both in front of and behind the camera, have made the transition to Hollywood. Some have succeeded, like Jackie Chan and John Woo, while others, including Chow Yun Fat or directors Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, failed to achieve the kind of preeminence they had while making films in their homeland.
Amongst the many talented and provocative creators from Hong Kong is director Johnnie To. His career spans more than 20 years and includes so many types of films that he rivals Howard Hawks for his ability to transfer his skills successfully to disparate forms of storytelling. In his astute essay, “The Belated Auteurism of Johnnie To,” posted on the fine Australian website Senses of Cinema, Andrew Grossman writes:
If there ever were a single filmmaker who could hopelessly complicate—if not fundamentally undermine—the premises of the auteur theory, it must be To Kei-fung, better knows to Westerners as Johnnie To (or, occasionally, Johnny To). To’s body of work, overall, is so multifaceted and chameleonic that it does not evince any particular guiding formula or thematic principle. Rather, his work can be divided into various three-to-five year time periods, each of which has its own internal consistencies but which, when lumped together, stubbornly refuse to add up to an overarching directorial project.
For the past year or so, I, like Grossman, have been reveling in the diversity and audacity of To’s career, both the work he has directed and produced through his Milkyway Image Company. As far as I know, Fulltime Killer is his first picture to receive extensive U.S. distribution, though some others have appeared at film festivals and in one-off exhibitions. After a limited theatrical release, it is now available on DVD from
I can happily report that Fulltime Killer displays the director’s technical finesse, wicked sense of humor, and willingness to challenge the usual parameters of genre storytelling. At the same time, I wish that other pictures preceded it in the public consciousness, for Fulltime Killer possesses more power in the ballistic sense than as a cockeyed appraisal of the consciousness of a hired gun. The critical consciousness observable in much of his other material gives way in Fulltime Killer to a gleeful playing about with the rudiments of the action movie genre.
The storyline bears some resemblance to the Sylvester Stallone-Antonio Banderas feature, Assassins (1995). Two professional assassins engage in a battle of wits in an effort to take one another out. Neither cash nor ideology drives the clash, simply a collision of egos. Tok (Andy Lau) is the underdog, an up-and-coming professional given to copying schemes of mass destruction from the movies and possessed of a diabolical wit. His antagonist is the Japanese-speaking O (Takashi Sorimachi), who single-mindedly carries out his lethal tasks and never draws attention to himself.
Tok and O are rivals in love as well as firepower. Each is involved with a young woman, Chin (Kelly Lin), who, while Chinese, speaks fluent Japanese and runs a video store that rents films from Japan. O has hired her to clean his apartment, and watches her voyeuristically from another residence across the street. Tok initially courts her in a bizarre sequence in which he wears a sequence of masks, an homage to Katherine Bigelow’s Point Blank (1991) that culminates with his wearing a mask of President Clinton.
Tok and O perplex Chin about their intentions. Like her, the viewer feels oddly dislocated from the first scene to the last. Both men seem to operate without any external intrusion, even though a representative of Interpol (Simon Yam) pursues the two killers. Onlookers may lose their lives as the killers mow down their quarry, but the world carries on regardless. The multiple languages also keep one off balance. In addition to the oscillation between Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, the Interpol officials conduct business in English.
This linguistic mishmash mirrors the shifts in rhythm and tone between the episodes involving this trio of lovers and the hyperbolic, high velocity murder scenes. The film speeds up and slows down on a regular basis, from the languid exchanges between partners to the rapid-fire execution montages. To’s camera, regardless of the context, rarely sits still, often switching angle or drifting in and out of the action. Whenever the viewer feels like a consistent visual perspective has been taken on the action, it changes.
Having directed or produced any number of films that incorporate lilting romance and overwhelming mayhem, To here toys with the dynamics of a familiar plot: the seemingly innocent woman must choose between a self-conscious loner and a freewheeling sociopath. Unlike his other pictures, this one poses few questions about these stereotypes, but, instead, allows them to collide in colorful and chaotic ways. Fulltime Killer willfully goes over the deep end, almost nihilistically wallowing in excess for excess’s sake. It’s not difficult to enjoy, with a kind of adolescent glee, but it’s hard to take seriously.
I wish that, instead of this picture, a Stateside distributor had released material directed or produced by To that tweaks genre conventions in a more challenging fashion, such as A Hero Never Dies (1998), The Mission (1999), Too Many Ways To Be Number One (1997), and The Longest Night (1998). In Fulltime Killer, To casts an ironic eye on the requirements of the Hong Kong action feature, delivers visual stimulation, and shows commitment to the demands of commercial filmmaking. John Woo’s lyrical episodes of choreographed calamity have made him seem to the U.S. public, the quintessential Hong Kong director. Make room for To.