Running on Karma (大隻佬)

running on karma

They say karma’s a bitch, and never has that been truer than in this provocative Johnnie To/Wai Ka-Fai film. Though the initial draw seems to be Andy Lau in a muscle suit, Running on Karma leaves viewers with a far different feeling than the last time the actor concealed himself in latex. The romantic comedy Love on a Diet also starred Lau and was helmed by To and Wai, but this collaboration departs from the laughs that characterized their earlier production, going instead for a rare Hong Kong action thriller that explores the persistence of violence and ways in which to end it.

Lau plays Big, a former Buddhist monk who turned away from his ascetic life after the brutal murder of his friend. He now slings around dumpy strip joints, and it’s at one of these that he meets Lee Fung-Yee (Cecilia Cheung), an eager police officer initially assigned to work on his indecent exposure case until the irritable and punchy Inspector Chung (Eddie Cheung) drafts her into CID. He needs her help to solve a murder and find the escaped suspect, but his callous personality makes the assignment difficult for the young officer.

Nevertheless, Fung-Yee closes in on some leads, with the help of Big, and that is where the story really begins. During their investigation, Big reveals that he can see karma. Right before someone dies, visions of the person’s former life appear, allowing him to deduce the manner in which he or she will soon expire. So it comes as a shock when haunting images of wartime Japanese soldiers materialize around Fung-Yee, and we know that things will not turn out happily for her.

The movie is fascinating and profoundly touching in the most unexpected ways. It adopts a language and style similar to that of your average Hong Kong cop thriller but diverges markedly in substance. Unlike most shoot-em-ups, the mind game here stretches beyond the immediate action. After the death of a character, Big remarks on the cycles of betrayal and trust that lead to violence and the perpetuation thereof. Not content to reflect only on the source of suffering, however, the film also asks, through the lens of Buddhism, how we stop the hatred that filters down through generations. There is a porous line between individual and societal acts, and both individuals and society share responsibility in stopping the cruelty that scars humanity. Fung-Yee is by all appearances a good person but must nevertheless bear the burden of evils committed, whether or not by her.

It’s a study in retributive justice and its limits but also a brief meditation on death. Cheung’s acting comes through especially when her character is confronted with her fate. She still plays something of an ingénue; Fung-Yee is sublimely eager and even pert on occasion. But she very much grasps that she is running on karma and not from it and thus attempts to use her impending death for good. All this helps to distract from a few bumps in the plot and Lau’s rubbery muscle suit, which serves little practical purpose. The movie picked up the Best Film prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards and definitely earns a spot as one of the better films of the last decade.

“Beyond Love” (身外情) by Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming:

Released: 2001
Prod: Johnnie To 杜琪峰; Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝
Dir: Johnnie To 杜琪峰; Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝
Action Dir: Yuen Bun 元彬
Writer: Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝; Yau Nai-Hoi 游乃海; Au Kin-Yee 歐健兒; Yip Tin-Shing 葉天成
Cast: Andy Lau 劉德華; Cecilia Cheung 張柏芝; Eddie Cheung 張兆輝; Karen Tong 湯寶如; Chun Wong 秦煌; Hon Gwok-Choi 韓國材; Yu Wenzhong 于文仲; Hou Liansheng 侯連升
Time: 93 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

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