Johnnie To is not only one of the best film directors out of Hong Kong, he’s one of the best — period. Sadly, his work lacks western recognition like John Woo because To’s work is much more technically and thematically subtle; that’s a lot harder to lift wholesale than bullets, doves and brotherhood. Western boutique labels have been slowly waking up to the supremacy of To, but Eureka was ahead of the curve years ago — with To’s classic Mad Detective being one of its first Blu-rays in its Masters of Cinema line.
It was a few years between drinks but recently Eureka has been on a streak with the director, delivering the magnum opus Throw Down, as well as PTU –a personal favourite of To’s. Eureka continues its To renaissance with this dual set of his Running Out of Time films. As some of the biggest films in To’s storied career, they’re excellent choices for both the label and for prospective buyers.
Running Out of Time came along in the third year of Milkyway Image, the production company founded by To and frequent partner Wai Ka-Fai in 1996 to produce the films they wanted to make (opposed to what was often then an overly commercialized Hong Kong cinema landscape). By 1999, though, the company was in financial trouble. Along with 2000’s classic romantic comedy Needing You…, which To also directed, Running Out of Time reversed its box-office fortune. Milkyway found its formula of critically acclaimed crime dramas and box office-winning crowd-pleasers. Running Out of Time represents a neat meeting of those subsets and the starting point of Milkyway’s real Hong Kong success.
Mega-star and frequent To collaborator Andy Lau is Cheung Wah, a man given weeks to live after a late-stage cancer diagnosis. Cheung initiates a game of cat and mouse with unconventional but smart detective Inspector Ho (played by another frequent To collaborator, Lau Ching-wan). The film succeeds because of its effortlessly fun and engaging direction and the charisma of its two stars. Andy Lau is particularly great in a restrained but still charming performance trading on his innate heroic goodness and meta public image as a big Hong Kong star. There’s no way Andy Lau is really a bad guy … right?
Infernal Affairs would use this well a few years later, too, but credit is due to Andy Lau and To for employing it so well here; Andy Lau won Best Actor at that year’s Hong Kong Film Awards. Some of To’s other films tend toward deeper meditations on fate and destiny, and while there are elements of those themes here, Running Out of Time feels more like just a good time at the movies than some of To’s deeper works. (If you want an American analogue, think 1990s throwbacks like The Fugitive.) Sometimes movies just need to be fun, and this engaging, entertaining thriller offers the complete package.
2001’s Running Out of Time 2 is a lot sillier than the first film but appropriately so. A sequel made financial sense, but To seems to know it’s hard to recapture the original film’s fun and thrills. Lau Ching-wan returns as Inspector Ho, which is delightful given how fun he is as a character in the first film. The events of the first film mean Andy Lau does not return, so Ekin Cheng stars this time as Ho’s foil. In any universe, Ekin Cheng is never going to best Andy Lau at any role, and that’s true here. Still, he and To go for an antagonist who is basically the Riddler but more whimsical (still an improvement over The Batman). To and company seem to understand the frivolity of Running Out of Time 2 and treat it as an after-dinner mint to the first film’s substantial meal. Still, it’s great for Eureka to include; Ching-wan again has fun as Inspector Ho, and it also features frequent To collaborator Lam Suet making his first big appearance as a cop with terminally bad luck. Running Out of Time 2 is simply a chase for the joy of the chase, but the chase is so fun its lack of heft doesn’t matter.
Eureka has delivered the two films in a fantastic package, one of Eureka’s best — with a particularly rad slip case and poster-worthy artwork. The 2K restorations and 1080p presentations look wonderful, too, from an aesthetic and preservation perspective; Hong Kong cinema often feels uniquely at risk of movie loss due to the business model of classic years that saw little effort toward preservation. It’s a real treat to watch these films in this condition, particularly when shot in a city like Hong Kong where presence and geography become characters in their own right. There’s also this reviewer’s favourite new thing — revised subtitles. This often engenders new engagement for films not in the English language. Translators are now employed to translate in full, not just transcribe a dictionary, and it can make all the difference for such playful films as Running Out of Time and its sequel.
Typical of Eureka, there are a bevy of other extras, including archival interviews with To and Ching-wan, as well as audio commentaries — including the now ubiquitous Frank Djeng, who has recorded tracks for both films and whose Hong Kong cinema and city insights create a new appreciation of the film, its context and its production. The first film also has a commentary from its French (yes, French) screenwriters, moderated by expert Stefan Hammond, and Hong Kong Stories is a 52-minute documentary about their experience working in the Hong Kong film industry. To top this all off, a collector’s booklet includes further writing on the films.
With this package, Eureka has not released five Johnnie To films in its Masters of Cinema sublabel, and we can only hope for more to come. Criterion has only recently stepped up its game with its own edition of Throw Down, but one hopes Eureka will continue to lead the way by bringing more of To’s work to the west and giving them the treatment they deserve. (Also: Would it also be too much to ask for a Mad Detective reissue?)