Posted: 04/20/2004




by Del Harvey

This DVD is available for purchase at

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As P.T.U. opens, hard-ass cop Lo (Lam Suet—Devil Face/Angel Heart, Goodbye Mr. Cool) visits his favorite noodle shop for his free evening meal. A small gang sits at the table nearby giving him the evil eye, but he shouts and berates them the whole time he’s there. The gang leaves first and the newcomer scratches up Lo’s car. He pursues them and, joke of a cop that he is, takes a wrong turn and slips on a banana peel in front of the thugs. When he comes to, his gun is missing. Since, in Hong Kong, only the police are allowed to carry guns, it is a very big deal when an officer loses his. So, to save his own badge, Lo seeks help from that area’s group of P.T.U. guys led by his buddy Mike (Simon Yam—Expect the Unexpected, Bullet in the Head, Young and Dangerous series), who agrees to devote that one night to track down Lo’s missing weapon.

What follows is a string of events which leads to a near dawn showdown amongst all parties, plus a few others not described here. The route taken by writers Kin Yee Au and Nai-Hoi Yau, as directed by the excellent Johnnie To (Fulltime Killer, Running Out of Time 1 and 2), is what makes all the difference in this gritty and gripping police drama. The juxtaposition of tough cop Mike with bumbling and corrupt detective Lo are the main focus around which all other worlds spin in this first-rate thriller. Added to this are two sets of rival Hong Kong triad leaders pitted against each other through a subplot of one minor boss warring against his rival from the other gang. Plus CID agent Leigh Cheng (Ruby Wong of Hit Team) and her squad are performing an internal affairs investigation of Lo, who is suspected of dealing with a local triad boss.

The title, by the way, is the acronym for Police Tactical Unit, the beret-wearing specialized emergency response force responsible for civil security in Hong Kong. Formed in response to a particularly bloody riot during the Fifties and used for the first time with great success in quelling the Star Ferry riots of 1966, the P.T.U. has become one of the most recognizable law enforcement bodies in Hong Kong.

Simon Yam, typically the muscular-pretty boy-tough guy, plays to restraint and simmering action here, and it works extremely well. He is still all of those things, but he is also a leader his team will follow unquestioningly, and a man of quick decisiveness aimed at the sure result. Lam Suet is just the opposite, prone to portraying the heavy or the fat sidekick, relying purely on his ability as an actor and the subtle nuance of character. In P.T.U., he gets the rare chance to play a starring role, and brings all of his considerable acting ability to full bear with great results.

P.T.U., one of those from-dusk-till-dawn films, is shot in the night streets of Hong Kong, with characters illuminated only by high-contrast spotlights. The effect is nothing short of magical, and creates yet another character as the lighting transforms actual locations into a sort of stage, where characters walk into the spotlight to be seen, then retreat only to disappear into the darkness.

The pacing, the noir style, and the intensely restrained action make P.T.U. a must-watch film for lovers of Hong Kong films, or anyone who enjoys a good thriller.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.

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