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Breaking News
cast: Richie Ren, Kelly Chen, Nick Cheung, Siu-Fai Cheung, and Suet Lam

director: Johnnie To

86 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
SPOILER ALERT!
Johnnie To is garnering a reputation as the next John Woo, and readers might have noticed several of his movies premiered in UK cinemas over the last year. John Woo, eh, then that's one future career to skip. The review disc of Breaking News (aka: Daai si gin) came by way of lucky dip, and to begin with, I think, lucky I have been. Director To opens his film with the long tracking shot, the kind of sequence that film aficionados excite over. The opening shots of Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil and Robert Altman's The Player, Hitchcock's Rope in six shots, Mike Figgis' Timecode (2000) feature-length four digital cameras crossing paths over a feature-length, and Matías Bize's Sabado, un pelicula en el tiempo real (2003) captured digitally in a single take, one camera also traversing town, through traffic for timed encounters, no fluffed lines please... all quite remarkable.

The trick is never to hide the shot outright. What would be the point of trying to get away with it unnoticed? Well, there can be economic reasons. The actors wouldn't turn up late for a stage production, it presents a challenge, it can make for a shorter shooting period, and psychologically for the director it can get precious minutes in the can, a head start per se. The skill is for it, the tracking shot, to go noticed without interfering with the on screen events. Not even that is true. The objective is to eventually entrust the sequence not to cheat, that you can be conscious of the trick but then become involved enough to forget the technique. No, that isn't true either. Oh, so much is expected of it. Though others using digital cameras have completed entire films in one shot, the long opening sequence is still a prized kicker and To genuinely ups the ante on this one. It is perhaps best summed up in covering what the sequence entails.

The camera angled high at Hong Kong city tower blocks pans down until in a street where it tracks a hood, Chung (Li Hai Tao) in the middle of the road approaching and entering a building. The camera rises to the first floor and enters the room to meet him, pull out of the windowpane and pan to the street, finding cops on a stakeout in an unmarked car. A newspaper lands on their bonnet and they discuss it. The gang, from mainland China, exit and uniformed officers appear unexpectedly to pin the driver down for illegal parking. The camera turns onto the dispute and then moves in on two of the hoods standing with their backs to the scene, one in front of a mirror, which picks up the cop and the beseeching driver.

A voiceover requests for someone to remove the uniforms, and the camera swings around to pick up an undercover cop picking a fight with a fellow undercover which draws one of the uniforms away but not the second, who, all the same, is observing the fracas while listening to the driver. He is about to let the driver off but then notes a bag in the back of the car and enquires about it. The driver switches from gesticulating, grateful citizen to a deadly 'you had to ask!' stance. The other hoods turn and the uniform interprets the trouble he is in. A bullet takes him down and the second uniform re-enters the frame briefly to show us that he is the next officer down. The camera continues to turn as the undercover cops leave their vehicles for a shootout, and another car screeches in to a halt, a steady wave of bullets tearing into both vehicles.

The camera continues to the opposite side of the street as the hail of bullets continues to chink barriers and explode glass. The camera then begins to rise and is in line with the second floor window where another of the mainlanders fires down on the cops. It continues to pan forward until it is before the window then follows the mainlander as he drops to a roof then the boxes below, the actor never leaving the centre of the screen. The camera now moves back and high again as a police wagon screeches to a halt centre screen and is peppered with bullet hits. The bandits casually approach the vehicle and a we can make out the squib explode in the back of the leg of one, who goes down, picks himself up and continues. They turn a rocket launcher on the cops and then... The first cut takes place.

This is a superbly set up one-take deal, certainly in any single day as for a second take three vehicles have to be replaced, various other items destroyed, panes, props, etc have to be replaced and the explosives big and small have to be set up again. A large number of actors have to hit invisible marks, the camera never reveals any of the crew nor never loses sight of the action, the fates of all are registered, the pattern of the bullet hits followed and the vehicles too hit their marks with burning-rubber professionalism. Let's not forget that newspaper which is wafted in on a wire.

The technicians are to be applauded on their own timing within the frame. It is a remarkable sequence to which you have to return immediately with the freedom that DVD grants you to do so. From here, sadly, the film re-enters a familiar universe that is the stupid Hong Kong cop and gangster thriller, a trend that was reached as a compromise to glorify criminals yet distance the Hong Kong cinematic version from the unpleasant reality, particularly as triads have an literal investment in film just as they do in anything in the city.

At least when Jackie Chan makes idiot HK cops and robber flicks there are few pretensions to it being intelligent, satirical or realistic but this really is planet moron in an abysmal attempt to masquerade as clever. The retreating gang embarrass the police when a television news crew catches on camera a patrol officer with his hands up in surrender. The case is turned over to the Organised Crime Bureau and Commissioner Rebecca Fong (Kelly Chan) sells her superiors on the reciprocal exploitation of the media to amend their poor image. When the gang are tracked down to an apartment building, the original investigative police squad, led by Inspector Cheung (Nick Cheung) notify headquarters but then immediately move in themselves to settle unfinished business.

The PTU descend on the building with pinhole cameras to record the villains brought to book and we can predict that rather than capture any arrest, they are instead going to get the POV of the end of a gun. I am pained to discuss the rest of this film at length as my interest ebbs. The siege reveals that there are more fugitives hiding out in the building, Chun (You Yong) and a henchman, who will team up with the four-strong gang presumably toughening the mission for the law and aiding an escape. Much of the middle section of the film occupies itself with a hostage family and four of the villains. Alerted to the abuse of the media by the police in television coverage they retaliate with the Internet, uploading images of PTU officers caught in a fireball, contradicting official statements that none of their own had been injured.

Technology enters into every stage of the plot be it digital cameras, the Internet, mobile phones... but they are simply so incorporated. Tricks of the media industry are explained unnecessarily, and you'll have difficulty deciding who is the most pin-brained, the police or the public. When the sextet of villains regroups to escape, their deaths are so swift that the scenes are unexceptional. Not only is it a siege scenario but the story is trapped too, loitering inexorably in between that masterful opening six and a half minutes and a Hollywood chase ending. The story is never quite understandable and facts are never straight (at one point they are holding up in 8E and in another scene it is jotted down as 8F).

Breaking News is emotionally derelict, a cast of caricatures and automatons respectively. Taking technology as its god while not truly believing in it the film might yet fall victim to the Internet. I related the impressive opening scene and how bad the rest of the film was to two acquaintances and both suggested You Tube as a possible home for the best part of the film, and where they might look out for it. Something would be lost of it left to that small You Tube window, but you couldn't blame anyone for taking the alternative route. Hong Kong cinema has long lost its credibility having taken no evolutionary cinematic step forward and surprises are all too rare.

John Woo made nonsense films and dumb old Hollywood was ready and waiting for him. If Johnnie To is continue to pursue making the same kind of nonsense he might not have quite the rosy future, as in Hollywood film crime these days, at least, if unimaginative, has moved to something resembling gritty realism and the complicated neo-fantastical in an attempt to keep up with television's cleverer crime output. Johnnie To must try harder. The DVD additionally features a weak trailer and a shambolic collection of behind-the-scenes footage that shies away completely from the opening shot, when what we really want to know above all else in this film is how it was achieved.
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