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Running on Karma
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Chinese: 大隻佬  
Year: 2003
Director: Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Wai Ka-Fai  
Producer: Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Wai Ka-Fai  
Writer: Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin-Yee, Yip Tin-Shing
Action: Yuen Bun  
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Karen Tong Bo-Yu, Chun Wong, Yuen Bun
The Skinny: Offbeat and powerful, Running on Karma is an unexpected genre mishmash which disobeys most rules of commercial filmmaking, and yet succeeds spectacularly. Milky Way Productions takes risks with this film, and the results are a bit messy, but gratefully surprising and emotionally complex. Easily one of the best films this year.
by Kozo:

Johnnie To has made no secret of his grand Milky Way Productions plan: do one movie for himself and five more for the investors that bankroll him. By all appearances, Running on Karma is one for the investors, as it stars top-drawing actor Andy Lau and popular (if not controversial) starlet Cecilia Cheung. Furthermore, the film features Lau in a muscle suit, which is the pec-enhanced equivalent of the fat suit he wore in Love on a Diet. The suit makes Lau look convincingly buffed, and that—plus the selling point of Lau in his (muscle) birthday suit—makes Running on Karma look like a potential laffer for the audiences, Johnnie To-style. Well, upon viewing the film, it must be said: THAT IS NOT THE CASE HERE. Running on Karma, while possessing of commercial attributes, goes as far in the opposite direction as you could possibly imagine.

Lau is Biggie, a fallen Buddhist monk who earns his money in the most wretched ways imaginable. When we first meet him, he's plying his trade as a male stripper, until the club is raided and he makes a run for it buck naked. Hot on his latex-sculpted tail is Lee Fung-Yee (Cheung), a rookie CID agent who has bad karma. Literally. Thanks to nifty superimposed visions, we learn early on that Biggie actually has the power to see karma. He sees the previous life of a dog—that of a dog-beating child—and soon after the dog is offed in a freak accident.

Likewise, he sees ghostly visions of a Japanese World War 2 soldier behind Lee Fung-Yee, which can only mean that Yee—despite her youth and potential goodness—is destined for an early demise. This ability is both a blessing and a curse. It allows Biggie the opportunity to make sense of the world, but at the same time it brings the unfairness of the karmic system into sharp focus. Just because Yee's past life was a terrible one (her previous life involved numerous wartime atrocities), does she really deserve a terrible fate in this one?

Against his better judgement, Biggie gets involved in Yee's life. He works to help her catch a ruthless murderer, hoping that will prevent the loss of her life. However, just making Yee do good may not be enough to reverse the karmic circle. Biggie has to protect her day in and day out, a task which may not be the one his religion requires. In fact, Biggie never truly gave up Buddhism; we learn in flashback that he chose to one day leave his life as a monk when a childhood friend was brutally murdered.

That event, and its subsequent fallout, brought about Biggie's ability to see karma, but the price was the loss of his monkhood, and the taking on of a more sordid, unhealthy lifestyle. Still, Biggie is a positive, seemingly jolly fellow, which may not entirely be true. In attempting to change Lee Fung-Yee's fate, Biggie must come to terms with who he is and what he will choose to be. Once Lee Fung-Yee learns of her karmic fate, she has to do the same. And the paths both take are surprising, brutally visceral, and even emotionally powerful.

Running on Karma is not a simple film, and the messages it sends are exceptionally mixed. Johnnie To's direction leans closer to the over-the-top hijinks of Love on a Diet or My Left Eye Sees Ghosts than the stylistic brutality of The Longest Nite or A Hero Never Dies. Seeing Andy Lau run around naked in a muscle suit immediately earns giggles, and his too-jolly attitude and demeanor can create more than its share of laughs.

Likewise, the world the characters inhabit is closer to fantasy than any facsimile of reality. Biggie's martial arts prowess is illustrated in broad kung-fu strokes. Action director Yuen Bun has characters run up walls and engage in ridiculous period-style kung-fu, but the setting is modern day Hong Kong, and a slightly cleaner, cartoony version at that. Reality does not seem to be the world that To wishes to portray—which is why things get disturbing very quickly. There's an abundance of swift and shockingly brutal violence, and though the effect is slightly lessened thanks to the broad kung-fu strokes, it's still a bit more than the average audience is willing to take. When you factor in Andy Lau in a muscle suit, and Cecilia Cheung at her most photogenically charming, the puzzlement increases. One has to wonder where To and company are going with this.

The answer to that: straight to hell. There are no easy answers to the quesitons Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai and the consortium of Milky Way writers pose. Karma is portrayed as inexorable and a force beyond man's will, and the characters' struggle with this truth is where the richest drama occurs. Biggie and even Lee Fung-Yee may want to beat karma at its own game, but the lesson here is not beating karma, but accepting it.

Biggie encounters conflicts, both internal and external, which engender immediate gut reactions, but those reactions MAY NOT be the ones which are necessary to Running on Karma's exactly-constructed world. The film can be excrutiating in that its twists and turns are somewhat predictable, and yet gut-wrenching in their ultimate finality. Once the film's aims become apparent, it's not hard to see where things are going, and watching them get there can be a powerfully wrenching experience.

Not that Johnnie To has crafted an unassailable masterpiece. The cartoony strokes the film takes might earn some derision, and his choices are sometimes questionable. Why present Running on Karma in such an unreal world, and why have Andy Lau run around in a comic-looking muscle suit? It's debatable if the world's unreality makes the film's narrative choices easier to swallow; it might have been possible for To to tell the same story in a more realistic framework. Then again, questioning those choices does not change the fact that the film is unexpectedly effective, and in the best possible way.

Though it may not seem like art, Running on Karma pretty much qualifies thanks to its opaque narrative and challenging emotions. This film does not hand everything to its audience on a silver platter, and even Andy Lau's seemingly simple character is gratefully complex. Lau plays Biggie with a larger-than-life (literally) flamboyance, but he does bring an emotional core to the character which slowly surfaces. The film puts Biggie through some frustrating—and even confusing—paces, but when he gets to his final destination, it all makes sense. It may not be satisfying, commercial, or what the audience really wants, but it's probably what had to happen. And, even with the pretty pair of Andy Lau and Cecilia Cheung, a silly-looking muscle suit, and over-the-top kung-fu, this was probably the movie Johnnie To had to make. (Kozo 2003)

Awards: 23rd Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner - Best Picture
• Winner - Best Actor (Andy Lau Tak-Wah)
• Winner - Best Screenplay (Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin-Yee, Yip Tin-Shing)
• Nomination - Best Director (Johnnie To Kei-Fung)
• Nomination - Best Actress (Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai)
• Nomination - Best Editing (Law Wing-Cheong)
• Nomination - Best Art Direction (Yu Ka-On)
• Nomination - Best Costume Design and Make-Up (Yu Ka-On and Wong Ka-Bo)
• Nomination - Best Action Design (Yuen Bun)
• Nomination - Best Original Song ("Sun Oi Ching", performed by Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming)
• Nomination - Best Sound Effects (Martin Chappell, Mok Mei-Wah, Law Pak-Yu)
• Nomination - Best Visual Effects (Ma Man-Yin)
10th Annual Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards

• Recommended Film
• Best Actor (Andy Lau Tak-Wah)
• Best Actress (Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi)
• Best Screenplay (Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin-Yee, Yip Tin-Shing)
41st Golden Horse Awards
• Nomination - Best Make-up and Costume Design (Stephanie Wong Ka-Bo)
• Nomination - Best Action Design (Yuen Bun)
• Nomination - Best Original Song ("Out of Body Love")
• Nomination - Best Visual Effects (Stephen Ma Man-Yin)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Kam & Ronson
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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image courtesy of Mei Ah Entertainment Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen