By Noel Vera
(Mou mei san taam)
Directed by Johnnie To
Available on Netflix
BACK in the mid-1990s I found myself hooked on a particularly intense habit: Johnnie To movies. I’d seen A Hero Never Dies and The Barefoot Kid (his one period martial-arts film) and had been digging through various DVDs ever since, hoping to find more.
Found this: Loving You (Mou mei san taam, 1995), what To considers his first real directing job (he’d made his first feature in 1980; by the time he did this he had some 16 films under his belt). A crime flick with an inordinate focus on a failing marriage, a marriage melodrama with a terrifically tense confrontation 30 minutes in — I mean how would you handle the situation where you’re pinned in an alleyway by a villain on a fire escape, gun pointed down at you? He’d already fired a shot at your head and in the confusion the bullet had somehow missed its mark. Then your nose starts bleeding.
To takes two genres (the crime thriller, the troubled marriage) and deftly caroms between to keep the viewer off-guard or at least interested. His cop Inspector Lau (Lau Ching Wan) is not just flawed but a downright bastard, picking up a woman while his wife waits at her mother’s. Lau takes his job more seriously — he turns down a request to look the other way at an arrest — but you sense a life just this side of out of control. James McNulty might take one look at this guy and give an involuntary nod — not out of admiration (by the end of The Wire he’s presumably learned his lesson) but out of reluctant recognition.
Two things strike you watching the rest of the film: To has done research on the effects of a bullet passing through the corpus callosum into the sinus passages (hence the horrific nosebleed) — or at least put enough imaginative thought into the possible effects of such a wound that you’re persuaded. And To, taking a screenplay by Yau Nai-Hoi (he’d done The Barefoot Kid for To, and would go on to write everything from A Hero Never Dies to To’s latest Three), fashions a remarkably nuanced portrait of a relationship suddenly rent apart, slowly healing. The head wound takes on metaphorical significance: the corpus callosum links the right and left hemispheres of the brain together, communicates between them; by partially severing contact, the two halves operate as two separate minds, almost. The injury to Lau’s brain isn’t so immediately grave (only some of the nerves have been damaged, leading to a loss of smell and taste), but the injury to his marriage is. Lau’s brain slowly recuperates with physical therapy and considerable outside help; his marriage is a different matter.
This was Lau Ching Wan’s first collaboration with To, and through the years the actor would prove as valuable to the filmmaker as Chow Yun Fat to John Woo, or Robert De Niro to Martin Scorsese. Lau’s large expressive eyes, plump cheeks, and small sullen mouth (that can stretch unexpectedly into an ear-to-ear grin) suggest an overgrown boy with shallow enthusiasms and at times something more dangerous, the thick brows gathering above his eyes like storm clouds. He’s the volatile mix that fuels much of the film’s plot.
As Lau’s wife Carman Lee operates under a handicap; she’s relentlessly sidelined, is given little to do at the film’s climax other than scream, and, as far as I can tell, doesn’t even have a proper name (A subtitling omission? HKDB lists her as “Carman”). She looks as if her main purpose is as plot function, but the actor is a quietly intelligent presence, no emotional bag of hormones but a tactful thoughtful woman feeling her way through the intricately knotted problem of her life — if she manages to puncture her husband’s swollen ego (her act of defiance seems to cause more pain to Lau than the bullet ever did) it’s not out of revenge but as an act of survival, a desperate bid for love in a desert of a relationship. Male braggadocio and emotional outbursts don’t sway her; when Lau showers her with extravagant attention, cooking her a full meal of fried fish and roast chicken, she’s skeptical: “Why are you being so nice to me? I know you’re angry.” She’s apparently more susceptible to a steady presence and soft-spoken appeal — but only susceptible; it’s her will that decides, not her heart.
As drug dealer Gwan, To Tsung Hua is sleek and impassive. Doesn’t do much, but with an economy of gesture sketches a ruthless villain with speed, ingenuity, imagination. Yes, he’s a plot function — the inevitable Other that inflicts wrenching stress on Lau’s marriage (ironic considering Lau inflicts plenty of stress on his own) — but for what he is, Gwan is elegantly done, and not a little memorable.
The ending is standard issue with thousands of gallons of igniting gasoline, but hopefully, by this time the viewer appreciates what To managed to pull off — a lovely little character study that cracks open an essentially self-centered, terminally macho soul, then builds him up into something more open, more vulnerable, ultimately more adaptable that you can actually care for, even perhaps root for. To will go on to more impressive displays of visual virtuosity (The Mission), broader explorations of politics and society (the Election films), but this, I submit, is an early masterpiece, gritty noir thriller and intimate human drama poised in delicate balance. Arguably my favorite To, till something better comes along.