Running On Karma (2003)
Produced & directed by: Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai
Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2004:
Awards at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society
at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2004:
It's a funny thing this pre-release buzz. When the first production stills from Running On Karma went public, showing Andy Lau in a muscle suit alongside his skinny leading lady Cecilia Cheung, those fans who appreciate To's style in films like The Mission and PTU immediately dismissed the film as another commercial money making effort (which is the working way for Johnnie To in order get his ''real'' projects off the ground sadly). Seeing as To and Wai Ka-Fai had put Andy Lau and Sammi Cheung into fatsuits for Love In A Diet 2 year earlier, one wondered if this would be something akin to Love On Steroids instead. People eventually saw the film and reported back that Running On Karma was far from what the preconceived notions were...
Big (Andy Lau) leaves the life as a monk behind him when he receives the ability to see into people's karma, revealing their past life sins and therefore he knows who's soon to die. Meeting up with Yee (Cecilia Cheung), a rookie CID officer, at the strip club he works in, he decides to assist her in tracking down an Indian killer. At the same time, unknown to her, Big sees visions around Yee of Japanese soldiers slaughtering innocent civilians. After saving her from death twice and thinking her destiny may be changed, the visions around her turn up again...
Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai are quite brave in them somewhat knowing what the audiences are thinking beforehand and making them see Running On Karma instead. To just release a few promotional stills with Lau all beefed up and make sure they know Cecilia Cheung is in there as well, you might have yourself a chunk of box-office already. However not all viewers may be receptive for what the directing duo actually delivers. I have to admit that I never liked Wai Ka-Fai directing together with Johnnie To. Oh no, I think he's a good director on his own but the movies he's directed with To have been lesser efforts. Primarily because those were the works more leaning towards commercialism but Running On Karma in the end is far from that. With that in mind, it's certainly their best collaboration as dual directors so far.
Be ready for quite the content in terms of mood and genres with Running On Karma. What starts in the strip club scene is very lighthearted but quickly the piece turns into a thriller with burst of gory violence, mixed in with comedy, a decent romance, wire enhanced kung fu and a philosophical nature to the narrative involving karma, or rather the the laws of karma. It's no surprise that you got all that in a Hong Kong movie seeing as they've never been afraid to include everything (except knowledge, to quote Anthony Wong). Rarely have I seen it merged so well though and it really shouldn't have worked, especially the comedy. I smiled in the beginning because this preconceived notion of mine, after watching the production stills, really seemed to go out of the window, fast. Maybe Johnnie To can be part of a worthwhile project nowadays that isn't in the style of films like The Mission? Personally I enjoy To's work the most when that style is on display and while Running On Karma shares some of the quirkiness, it's actually very far from it but with one positive point. It isn't a breezy, easily digested romantic comedy. Thank god.
To and Wai injects Running On Karma with a lighting-fast pace that still remains very accessible even for the viewer expecting something else. The 4 man strong writing team also makes sure that an interest is sparked right from the beginning, even if the true intentions for this story takes a little bit longer to reveal itself. One of the issues regarding this film was Andy Lau's muscle suit and while it doesn't feel totally convincing in all its glory, it doesn't draw that much attention to itself believe it or not. The viewers are instead asked to listen in and through some nifty karma visuals if you will, they should be locked in for this very different ride. The storyline will takes us much farther than the 93 minutes suggest and by the end I feel the directors may have lost a few viewers in a bit of a muddled 20 minute finale to the film. It's almost purely on the philosophical side and I'm sure ain't no scholar on the subject of karma but I think I understood it. There's enough exposition thrown in but you are left alone in your interpretation of the end. This will make or break Running On Karma for some but I found it refreshing, thoughtful and, for once, original Hong Kong cinema.
It's obvious that Johnnie To likes to do his slow, quirky style on his own so him teaming with Wai Ka-Fai for this movie produces stylish filmmaking but a lot more straightforward than anything seen in the recent PTU for example. It's a choice for Running On Karma and that works very well. It's in tune with the hard boiled nature of the film, the romance and of course the comedy. Andy Lau who is the main focus of the latter manages to sell it, in particular during in the motorcycle scene where he's such a goofball you really should've been taken out of the movie. At other times, that goofiness is actually playing to character as he acts rather silly to hide his true self. To's regular action director Yuen Bun also choreographs a fair bit of action that is quick cut but quite creative. The wire work has been done better in the past but the execution of the different concepts are pretty neat.
Some of the regular troupe of Milkyway crew are present including the writer Yau Nai-Hoi and cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung but very few of the regular acting troupe. No Lam Suet, Lau Ching Wan, Raymond Wong or Ruby Wong, ''only'' Andy Lau and Cecilia Cheung. Lau actually logs a pretty good performance as the once monk with his, what you can call, a curse of seeing karma. It calls upon performing stuff Lau is pretty confident at doing, using his superb on screen charisma, but the deeper parts of the character are pulled off well above average by Lau. Someone said to me that Lau will probably never be a great actor but he's a bonafide moviestar and bringing that gets you a long way. In Running On Karma he does bring good traits to the actual acting bit as well, which won me over. Cecilia Cheung has never struck me as a great actress on a regular basis but have made most parts she's taken work to a decent extent through her presence. Her performance here also works but without impressing as such. I'd turn to the Korean movie Failan, Stephen Chow's King Of Comedy or Lost In Time for a real taste of what Cheung is capable of.
I'll mention it again, I think Johnnie To himself does better films when concentrating on the style we've been blessed to see through movies like The Mission. However, with Running On Karma he finally makes a standout collaboration with Wai Ka-Fai while at the same time not catering to the general moviegoing audience. The final section of the film will be a tester for many but I felt little disorientation and in the end, Running On Karma surprises despite packing more genres than normally one movie can handle.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer by Mei Ah is pleasing. Colours are strong as well as detail and the print is free from damage. Slight grain can be seen at the beginning but that's it as far as my eyes could see.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track at times is strong at using the entire soundstage, mainly for certain effects and music. Dialogue is presented well but at other times the track sounded a little thin. In intent perhaps? Cantonese DTS 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included.
The English subtitles featured no apparent errors, as is expected with a high profile and new release. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
A slim extras package is provided starting with the unsubtitled making of (8 minutes, 2 seconds). Featuring cast & crew interviews and brief behind the scenes footage, only the latter ranks as mildly interesting. Among other things we see the American team working on Andy Lau's muscle suit.
Next up are trailers for Running On Karma, The Crazy Companies II and All For The Winner. There's also a selected filmography for co-director/co-producer and Johnnie To as well as a synopsis screen and cast & crew listing (only the VERY essential is listed making this so called extra even more worthless).
4 postcards are included in the dvd case and the reverse cover shows you a selection of titles Mei Ah have available and some that are planned for re-issue (including All For The Winner and Where A Good Man Goes).
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson