By Éireann Mannino | 13 November 2020
With unmistakable kinship to his 2004 Judo film Throw Down (Yau doh lung fu bong) and more than a pinch of Fulltime Killer’s (2001) hyperactive swagger, Hong Kong cinema royalty Johnnie To returns from a three year hiatus with Chasing Dream (Chihuo Quan Wang), ending the longest stall in a career averaging two films annually since 1980 and constituting one of the brightest spotlights on the emergent world of Chinese MMA which stands at odds with heritage Martial Arts.
As unkempt as it is polished, as uncouth as it is endearing, as sincere as it is absurd, Chasing Dream reveals To at his most playful.
Though known internationally for his bard-boiled but methodical films like The Mission, Mad Detective, Election, and Vengeance, which make regular appearances at top festivals, “on-brand” for Johnnie To is clearly less a matter of genre and more a matter of his artful approach.
It also has a lot to do with the particular ways he asks the viewer to suspend disbelief. In the span of 40 years, To has tried a little bit of everything, from crime drama, capers, rom-coms, martial arts action and even musicals, but Chasing Dream looks and feels like a kaleidoscope of that “everything” all packed into a 118 minute runtime.
The Set Up
Rising MMA sensation Tiger (Jacky Heung) “The Gluttonous Fighter” who eats fried chicken with zeal on his walk up to the octagon and simply cannot stop smiling, puts all his irrepressible mania to work inside the cage.
The rounds are snappily intercut with Tiger’s alma mater, a rural mainland gym where he trained as a boxer only to crush his master Ma Qing’s (Shao Bing) purist dreams by entering the world of MMA, expressed as Ma Qing smashes the gym’s TV. The young hopefuls at the gym then rally to the one smartphone possessed among them as the crazed drama of the match unfolds.
The crowd froths at the mouth when Tiger ends the bout with his “Spinning Revolver” move, which starts as a near balletic leaping scissor around the neck and ends with him riding his opponents shoulders for a spinning takedown.
It is a move that would scarcely work outside of the pro-wrestling circuit, but the choreography itself is one of the remarkable pieces of a film abundant of such visual mechanics, setting the highly animated tone of Chasing Dream overall.
The Plot Thickens
Entering stage left is Cuckoo (Keru Wang), one of the ring girls at the match, who is incidentally massively indebted to Tiger’s trainer and loanshark Gao (Bin Zi). She does not go unseen, and hasn’t the good fortune to escape his clutches after the match. As Gao’s debt collector, Tiger spares Cuckoo being sold into prostitution, getting her odd jobs as a pole dancer and car wash girl to work off her debt while she stays at his warehouse apartment, which feels more like a storage unit for a stage production.
Cuckoo however, has a different idea, with eyes on the prize of Perfect Diva, a China Idol-style musical competition hosted by her smarmy and performative ex, Qu Fengfeng (Ma Xiachui) who dumped her and stole her songs in order to build his own fame.
If Tiger’s journey is the more classic pastiche of a fighter who came from nothing, Cuckoo’s journey is the more satyrical of the bunch, and To has a field day making a caricature-esque circus of the Perfect Diva world, and indeed the fleeting hollowness of celebrity.
Tiger has his own ideas too. In keeping with his nick-namesake, the gluttonous fighter wants to quit the octagon to open a hot pot restaurant chain featuring regional Chinese dishes, and does as much, even though he gets manipulated back into the ring to avenge the deliberate paralysis of his master during an ill-advised fight against the animalistic newcomer Joe Weah (Heavyweight Alain Ngalani).
As much as we want Tiger to live his restaurateur dream, seeming even more joyful as he entertains guests than he did smashing faces, the catharsis of a final match feels both inevitable and necessary, and it provides handsomely as Tiger and Cuckoo reach the apex of their personal vengeances, and realize of the power of their bond forged in the chase.
To’s greatest skill as a filmmaker is the arrangement and movement of bodies in space, having as much to do with aesthetics as it does the stakes, mood and energy of each moment. This is why he is so damn good at shootouts, but also why even quiet scenes and subtle movements are filmed with gusto.
This is why he is so damn good at shootouts, but also why even quiet scenes and subtle movements are filmed with gusto.
The conundrum of To’s cinema however is that it plays a constant tug of war between the weight of the world and the weightlessness of his characters, between the continuity of his ideas and the splintering of his stylistics.
When one thinks back on a Johnnie To film, Chasing Dream included, it is largely in terms of those fragments and not necessarily the line drawn through them. The thing is, those shards are so enjoyable unto themselves, it is easy to forgive any dislocation.
On the subject of bodies in space, something made apparent as one watches Chasing Dream is the peculiar challenge of cinematizing an MMA match, which as a sport has everything to do with its pauses and volatility.
MMA does not have the luxury of Kung Fu’s elegance. It does not have the compactness or intimacy of fully upright and forward fighting forms like Boxing or Muay Thai either.
Thus the pragmatism and spontaneity of MMA presents a problem for the filmmaker who cannot use conventional choreography to create a clean rhythm and cover up the seams.
To posits a brand of MMA with a certain kind of lawlessness, full of fighters who eat rage for breakfast, and matches that go from bell to bell in a veritable blitzkrieg.
While executing a reasonable blend of striking and grappling germane to the sport, To exaggerates only to a modest degree in physics but to a larger degree in pacing and tone.
The Future is "Here"
Replicating the breathless flow of traditional martial arts choreography, To doesn’t seem to capitalize on the more cerebral aspects of hunting, testing and adapting which characterizes so much of MMA, much less its sportsmanship.
Though the borderline barbaric characterization of MMA athletes, something we are all used to at this point, comes fairly close to a disservice to the sport, To’s peppering of satire, whimsy, selflessness and wild ambitions brings balance and heart to all the dislocations, eye gauges and pile drives of Chasing Dream.
With Hong Kong cinema’s eye turning to the Octagon in a high profile way, and a thirst for MMA growing in the region, it seems safe to say that more and more cinema will be reflecting that exciting reality.
Main image courtesy of April Dai via Variety.com