The first time I saw Johnny To’s Running on Karma, I liked it. As is often the case with To, the opening sequence is worth the price of admission alone, though for once the payoff is conceptual (and a delayed gratification) more than simply visual theatrics. To cram it into one ridiculaous sentence: Andy Lau’s excessive masculinity is a vehicle for voyeuristically enjoying a certain kind of embodiment that the rest of the film frames and analyzes, but the scene also deftly uses Lau’s vulnerability as embodied to start the film’s romantic drama rolling. A less ridiculous sentence: it’s incredibly well done, so go and see the film.
But the first time I saw it, I was also vaguely irritated by the film’s implicit glorification of police work. Even though the Hong Kong police are portrayed as fairly vindictive and brutal, the female lead attempts to work off her karmic debt by catching criminals, and Andy Lau assists her. There’s even a key moment in the film when the male lead believes she’s given up her calling in the police force (he sees her wearing rave gear in the company of rave-types) and he’s gravely disappointed. We’re gravely disappointed. But, of course, it turns out that she’s been working undercover, busting rave types instead of partying. Whoo! What a relief.
The nadir for me was the ominous tabla music that plays when the creepy scary indian criminals show up and menace Hong Kong, the way a “middle eastern scale” might start playing in the background when islamo-fascists menace the republic in a good clean patriotic American drama. Racializing criminality (or criminalizing race) is subtle that way, teaching you to fear the cultural markers of difference, but there was nothing subtle about this: the murderous criminals they chase down are as unambiguously bad (and as clearly ethnically differentiated) as you could possibly want. They’re even rendered in an almost comic book super-villain idiom, with particular super skills, just to make it totally clear that catching them is utterly within the realm of good clean decent police drama. And like a Spider-man comic, our hero Andy Lau catches them not by using deadly force, but by humanely caging them in elaborate metal traps, and then leaving them there for the police to collect.
There’s several moments in To’s Breaking News where a child refuses to help or serve food to the criminals that are holding him and his family hostage, and I’m not sure how to take such moments. On the one hand, the film (sometimes called a “Hong Kong Dog Day Afternoon“) clearly empathizes with its bad guys, no less than Lumet empathizes with the bank robber that Deniro plays in DDA. But, on the other hand, the film also kills them all off; while it can’t exactly side with the police (like DDA it prefers to show them as deceptive and frighteningly violent) neither does it want to imagine a world in which crime pays, so it insulates itself from all the problems it raises by wiping the slate clean by the end. We might like the criminals, the way we might sympathize with the indians in cowboy movies, but we’re enabled to do so by the inevitability of their doom.
This is characteristic of a broad sweep of American genre tradition, I think, and it’s a way to conceptualize why The Wire can’t stop killing off the criminals and why all of its redemption narratives have to center on the forces of law and order. We toy with perceiving criminals as human, but their narratives are always tragic; only the police narratives can comedically resolve into a re-establishment of hearth and home. There’s a kind of dialectic that you can find in a broad sweep of these American genres, which mediate between tragedy and comedy, between sympathizing with the doomed and being vaguely unsatisfied with the victorious. The bad guys are always at least a little bit good, and the good guys are always at least a little bit bad, but the essential lines of demarcation don’t fundamentally change.
So I was irritated, initially, when Running on Karma didn’t seem to be playing by these rules. It was not merely blandly self-assured in praising the self righteousness of police work, as in Kurasawa’s Stray Dog, for example; it was downright messianic, using the vast heavenly mechinery of Karma to endow catching dirty ethnic criminals with transcendent virtue. This seemed less good to me.
But the second time I saw it, I picked up on a variety of things I’d not noticed before. For one thing, I’d forgotten how much care is taken to quietly establish, early on, that Andy Lau’s character is an illegal alien himself (from mainland China). And I’d forgotten how much police brutality there actually is in the film, how much unnecessary violence the cops end up exerting as they chase their comic book villains (and against Lau, for no reason). Perhaps more importantly, I’d also misunderstood why it was that all the police officers seemed to harbor such an enormous grudge against the female lead: in the opening chase sequence, she accidentally shoots a police dog (because the super ninja she’s chasing wraps a chain around her gun) and the rest of the squad is angry at her.
Events, it turns out, simply and amorally have consequences, something the film takes increasing pains to establish as the real force driving its narrative, like a passenger being plucked out of a speeding car by the rapture. If the police are brutal, there’s a reason; maybe not a good or bad reason, but a reason. And as this theme takes over the film’s final third, I started to get what it was doing in a way I hadn’t the first time. The last part of the film is so suprising, so creepy, and yet so sweet, that the first time I saw it I simply hadn’t processed the radical reconstruction it performs on the film’s first half. And while I was quick to respond to this Hong Kong police and kung fu drama as if it were simply an American genre piece, the thing that makes it work, finally, as a unified artistic work, is the fact that it resolves a conflict that feels very American in origin to me–the stereotypical depression-era loss of faith in good guys and muted sympathy with bad guys thing–by employing a set of resolutions that could not exist in an American film. So as I was biking home, I suddenly noticed, and marvelled at my prior myopia, that the movie’s actual ending hinges on the thing I had been thinking it rejected: the rehabilitation of the criminal as human and a repudiation of the violent function of police work. That was a pretty good film, I though to myself.