Hong Kong Digital is a recurring series of movie reviews by John Charles -- associate editor / film reviewer for Video Watchdog magazine and the author of The Hong Kong Filmography.
Running Out Of Time
During the past few years, the Milkyway Image production company has revitalized HK cinema with a series of films that proffered fresh, intelligent takes on familiar genres, presented with maximum attention to performance and direction. Unfortunately, while they have their admirers, movies like TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1, THE ODD ONE DIES, INTRUDER (all 1997), and A HERO NEVER DIES (1998) were either too dark, violent, outlandish, or all of the above to score with mainstream HK moviegoers. Johnny To Kei-fung's RUNNING OUT OF TIME was a transition picture for Milkyway, in that it tried to retain the company's trademarks while opting for a lighter, less nihilistic tone, and humor that did not always arise from the darker side of human nature. The casting of superstar Andy Lau Tak-wah, in a change-of-pace role (for which he went on to win the Best Actor prize at the HK Film Awards), and the use of two Western screenwriters also promised something different and local audiences responded, making the film a box office success.
Lau Ching-Wan (left) and Andy Lau (right).
Image courtesy Tai Seng.
Told that he will expire in four weeks from inoperable cancer, an affluent, unnamed man (Lau) loads up on pain killers and sets to work on a criminal plan that largely involves playing cat and mouse for 72 hours with police negotiator Ho Sheung-sang (Milkyway regular Lau Ching-wan, who has recently adopted the English name Sean Lau). The man executes a meticulously planned robbery of a finance company, making fools of both the police and the Special Duty Unit squad, while seemingly accomplishing nothing. The fast thinking Ho (who lives only for his job and is oblivious to the conspicuous romantic intentions of his beautiful Interpol associate, played by Ruby Wong Cheuk-ling) realizes that this particular crime was nothing but a ruse to start the ball rolling and make him a pawn in an elaborate and dangerous deal involving a priceless diamond and a vicious hoodlum (Waise Lee Chi-hung).
In contrast to earlier Milkyway Image films, there is less in the way of flashy cinematography, a more conventional (but by no means rudimentary) storyline, minimal violence, and action that is there solely to advance the plot. Playing a master of disguise, who can make himself up as an old caucasian man and even a woman, Andy Lau does well in a role of unusual substance for him and Lau Ching-wan gives another of his wonderfully idiosyncratic and very human performances. Talented newcomer Yoyo Mung Kar-wai has a memorable supporting role as a woman Lau's character encounters on a minibus, and busy character actor Lam Suet is highly amusing as one of the thickest criminals in recent memory. The tradition of male bonding and respect for one's opponent figures into many HK films, from period swordplay fantasies to contemporary crime thrillers. One key element that the best of these share is the ability to make the viewer care equally about both their protagonist and antagonist. RUNNING OUT OF TIME succeeds in doing this, while also serving up some invigorating suspense and inventive twists. On a less positive note, it can be argued that this film's success started Johnny To and company on what is proving to be a rather steep decline. Settling more and more on safe, mass audience formula fare like the romantic comedies NEEDING YOU and LOVE ON A DIET, the team seem to have lost the edge and creative daring that made their early productions stand out so far from the pack. Even worse, when To now does attempt to relive those earlier endeavours, we end up with the disastrously ill-conceived FULLTIME KILLER (reviewed in issue 84) and the even more embarrassing RUNNING OUT OF TIME 2 (both 2001).