The Mission (Cheung foh)

Hong Kong (1999) Dir. Johnnie To

Over the past decade plus Hong Kong’s Johnnie To has established himself at the top of the table when it comes to crime/triad thrillers. He may not be alone with the likes of Ringo Lam and Herman Yau nipping at his heels but with such master works as Election I & II and Exiled to his credit, the title is arguably To’s to lose. However before his hit his stride within this genre, To had spent over a decade was a jack-of-all-trades, dabbling in comedy, drama and horror until he and partner Wai Ka-Fai formed their own company Milkyway Image and took their future into their own hands.

It was with The Mission in 1999 that the Johnnie To established his magic touch with the Triad flick. A simple story as ever, Triad boss Lung (Ko Hung) barely survives an assassination attempt by an unknown assailant, so his brother-in-law Frank (Simon Yam) arranges for five skilled Triad members to act as full time bodyguards until the culprit has been revealed and dealt with. Making up this disparate quintet are Curtis (Anthony Wong), James (Lam Suet), Mike (Roy Cheung), Roy (Francis Ng) and Shin (Jackie Lui) and this story is as much about their gradual bonding as it is their mission to protect Lung.

The five men have their own personalities and with only Roy and Shin knowing each other previously the early going is a tad frosty, with the trust level yet to be established. while all handy with a firearm, Mike is a crack shot while Curtis is a cold-blooded assassin in his own right. After a first attempt on Lung’s life from a rooftop sniper during which Roy is separated from the others, he takes it out on Curtis and a divide is immediately created, with Mike in the middle.

Unusually for a To movie this one moves at an unhurried pace and is rather uneventful for the first half, which is a little disconcerting for a film with a meagre 83 minute run time, but the second half is chock full of wonderfully inventive and tightly constructed shoot out scenes which serve as an evocative portent for things to come in To’s later films. The imagination displayed here may have been topped in films like Exiled but it still marvels with its freshness.

There are three key set pieces to illustrate this. The first is set in an empty shopping mall where an attempt to kill Lung is made, forcing the fearsome five to adopt unique positions where they are both hidden from view yet able to protect Lung; with the attackers also large in number and with plenty of room at their disposal this is not an easy task. The set up is a visually minimalist tableaux with the team all frozen in anticipation of the next move but the mood created is nail-bitingly tense.

Another is not related to any gunplay, showing the group as they kick around a ball of paper in the tight corridor outside Lung’s office. Again it is so simple and despite being dialogue free, it is one of the most pivotal scenes in the film in terms of marking the progress of their growing bond and tightening camaraderie. Finally this group resolve is put to the test in a final act development when one of them has been a bit naughty and another has been instructed to deal with it.

Much like the scenarios outlined above dialogue is at a premium throughout the whole film, as is exposition for the characters or the reason behind Lung’s predicament. When the group communicate it is through terse sentences, sometimes almost monosyllabic which is partly through being guarded although they appear to share a telepathic connection when it comes to doing their job.

To seems to have an innate skill of throwing his characters onto the screen with the barest of back-stories yet both he and his cast are able to create fully credible and engaging figures. It arguably is a positive boon for the director to have such a loyal cadre of fine actors upon whom he can rely to interpret the roles as he desires them to be. Among the faces which will be familiar from To’s later films, are the ever dependable Anthony Wong, who looks quite astounding with his spiv pencil moustache; Lam Suet, much slimmer and clean shaven, and in a smaller role for To’s go to leading man, Simon Yam.

One area however that doesn’t do the film any favours is how badly dated it looks. Even by 1999 standards it looks just like an 80’s film with a slightly muggy picture quality, dodgy fashions and a god awful electro-pop soundtrack. Hong Kong has never really been in tune with current music trends but the music here would be outdated in 1986 let alone 1999. If it weren’t for the use of mobile phones this would appear to untrained eyes as an archaic curiosity rather than the paradigm shifting film it is.

Putting the grumbles of the aesthetics aside, The Mission is unmistakably a Johnnie To film, even with his trademark touch still in its nascent stages. Having seen this after his more accomplished and superior works it is hard to rate this as one of his greatest films. However this one set the template for those later global success thus there is no question it is a film that fans of To or the Hong Kong crime thriller need to see.

The appreciation and recognition of the importance of this film to Johnnie To and the Triad Movie genre may be in retrospect, but it is a pleasure to finally see The Mission, having first discovered To over a decade ago.