Reflections on Surface Culture in ‘The Mission’ (1999)
This article was written by Sudipto Basu on August 30, 2017 and originally posted on VCinema for the VCinema and DCCFF’s collaboration series on Chinese Cinema of the 1980s & 1990s.
One of Johnnie To’s breakout films, The Mission plays like an insider’s view on Hong Kong gangster cinema. If John Woo — the filmmaker who was globally synonymous with the genre before To’s arrival — specialized in infusing epic melodrama into choreographed gunplay, with Christian values thrown into the mix for good measure, To’s cinema takes place in the seemingly godless world of mafia money fueling transnational capitalism. The Mission is in fact situated at a historical precipice. Coming just a couple of years after Hong Kong’s ‘handover’ to China, amidst a widespread search for new subjectivities befitting the ‘nation’, it partakes in what Ackbar Abbas has called a ‘culture of disappearance’. If melodrama (in Woo) is an expressive mode, in To’s cinema, things go under, disappear beneath the surface. The drama is here not so much existential — as in Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989) for example — as externalized, projected on to the very material of the contemporary inhabited world. In The Mission, To strips down genre codes of HK action to the very essentials in a cool drama of surface interactivity a la Jean-Pierre Melville’s take on the classic American gangster film. A cinema of new surfaces: compare the caressing attention to the look and feel of architecture, urban planning, industrial design and sartorial styles in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) with its antecedents in, say, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Explication in the traditional sense is minimal, the basic plot can be boiled down to a couple of sentences.
The lowlifes from HK’s pleasure district who are contracted to protect Boss Lung (Eddie Ko), the head of a big Triad syndicate, know the rules of the game beforehand: very few words pass between them through the whole film, hardly any reveal character psychology, an interiority. In a sense, the exchange of looks, the settling of mutually understood ‘debts’ and the exact co-ordination of gunfire suffice to seal this brotherhood of hitmen. While the tacit acceptance of yi, the moral code of the underworld, is central to the negotiation of finance capital in East Asia — a historical transition into (post-)modernity in which the mafia Triads have a major role to play through their ‘maturation’ into corporations — this is a social contract that is left unspoken in the film, befitting its off-the-record status in official histories. More is therefore said in the film by the interaction of metal with metal, metal with concrete, metal with glass, and metal with flesh than by one character speaking to another. Frank (Simon Yam), the second-in-command to Boss Lung, talks the most, but his garrulous speech swings sharply from casual banter, addressed to nobody at all, to a command that knows it cannot be defied: speech tightens like a recoil spring swiftly pressed down. Much in the film echoes the swiftness of this repeated action of firing-reloading, acting as the ultimate mark of a Protestant professionalism. On being handed guns for their mission, the five hitmen all test their worktools out with a rapid series of blank shoot-and-reload trials: feeling for the exact force required to pull the lever, the smoothness of the trigger and the sound made by the firing mechanism.
The Mission is then of surfaces and materials culled from the flows of transnational mafia-finance capital. Shiny steel, chrome and glass give the film its characteristic cold, lean and hard tactile quality — one can, for example, almost feel the metallic claustrophobia a timid bodyguard experiences as he is tortured in the steel hold of a truck. The film’s two standout assassination sequences play with these possibilities offered by post-modern architecture and its various ‘cool’ surfaces. A certain realism of experience is followed in these sequences by To. When, in the first attempt on his life after the group’s appointment, Boss Lung takes a hit in his bullet-proof vest, he visibly recoils from the impact, the bullet getting stuck in the armour. A detail that most action films would not single out has felt material impact in To’s world. When it takes the group of contracted bodyguards precious time to locate where the bullets — ricocheting between car bodies, tarmac, wall and steel fence — come from, we, as viewers, are equally party to their confusion: To does not cut to the sniper or his accomplice before the group has them spotted.
This barebones ‘material drama’ is heightened even more in the shopping mall shoot-out, which follows later. The mall is, notably, a sign of changing times and power equations. While the mafia has always congregated around and invested in pleasure spots like restaurants — there is a felt shift in the built space of the city as global finance starts to flow through it. The stark contrast here is between the eatery owned by Fat Cheung (Tian Win-Lang) — the man who gets left behind in the onward march of Triads towards corporation-status and legitimacy — with its dark, moody and slightly seedy lighting invoking a cavern, and the shine on every possible surface of the mall in which Boss Lung’s new restaurant is located. Concluding a meeting there with his Triad confederates, Boss leaves with his posse of bodyguards as the mall lights go out. As the gang moves with the Boss in a defensive formation, innocent-looking strangers seemingly loitering around at closing time begin to attack them. The team of five hitmen — whose internal tensions have been meanwhile smoothened out through a shared expenditure of energy (in the first shootout) and a settling of debts — whips into action.
The mall with its shiny surfaces, its huge columned architecture, its escalators suddenly becomes an open field of possible action, poise and reflection (the last, in both its mental and physical senses, in order to cognitively map the space of action). To seems to be drawing upon a certain lineage of the ‘videogame mission’ gameplay as the music pulsates with suspense, threatening to boil over. The slightest movement within eyeshot — the automatic opening of elevator doors, the crossing of a reflection on shiny metal or glass, the suspicious strolling of a janitor — calls for retaliatory fire. Drawing upon a wuxia aesthetic of rhythmic suppression and release of action, To places the gunmen’s bodies such that they are tantalizingly close to bursting forth as a ‘crouching tiger’, commanding a near-total grasp of the space they move through, trying to pre-empt attacks from all directions.
Their task is both facilitated and complicated however by the mall’s architecture. Its metal-glass reflective surfaces potentially render everything (in)/visible in a kaleidoscopic maze of collapsed-distended space. If architecture is, among other things, an ordering of ways of seeing and moving within a built space, then the shootout bears out the re-organization of and the confusion between inside and outside, object and image, heralded by finance capital/ postmodernity. This is a theme that is given its apotheosis in To’s later masterpiece, Mad Detective (2007), whose climactic shootout dramatizes this complete collapse of cognitive mapping through the near-infinite multiplication of virtual selves and reflective surfaces. In a sense, To mobilizes the very critical strategy Ackbar Abbas calls for — the “developing [of] techniques of disappearance that respond to, without being absorbed by, a space of disappearance” — to negotiate Hong Kong’s peculiar encounter with modernity. A certain loss in physical dimensions under the barrage of speeds, flows and movements witnessed by HK produces a phantom landscape where one is always wresting with the lack of solidity and permanence on all levels: perceptual, bodily, and ethical.
Ultimately, it is the code of yi that proves to be a guide through this maze for the brotherhood of bodyguards. And it is Curtis (Anthony Wong), nicknamed “the Ice” for his heartless adherence to the code, who shows the most cunning in the subtle management of rights and wrongs, excesses and debts required by it. To’s genius is not to halt the film when the mission ends, but to extend it onto a scenario when the brotherhood turns upon itself. (Repeats of this theme are to be found later in, for example, 2005’s Election and 2006’s Exiled.) When Shin, the youngest in the group, is suspected of a transgression, Frank asks Curtis to take care of him. Without giving away too much, it can be said that it is Curtis’ precise calibration, his almost unnoticed modulation, of certain material components in the agreed-upon plan to take care of Shin (e.g. the swapping of a gun, the sound of a bullet hitting a body and the body hitting the floor) that allows for a ‘hacking’ of the situation. Curtis, in short, understands that the code of yi is co-extensive with the material world, is connected to it in certain specific ways. And it is a rewiring of these connections that, to him, allows for the ultimate ethical act transcending the code: a forgiving, a forgetting of debts. Perhaps, a cautious conclusion would be that for Johnnie To’s relentless vision of modern capitalism — see Election or Drug War (2012) — this is the only outside, the only escape, which is possible.
About the Author: Sudipto Basu is currently pursuing an M.phil in Cinema Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India and has a whimsical interest in Asian cinemas. He is also an avid instagrammer at @sudibasu90.
‘Ride the Waves’ — A special DC Chinese Film Festival celebration of classic Chinese-language movies from the 1980s & 1990s runs from September 21–24.