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What I learened from Johnny To last night

I've been a long time fan of action cinema. I became hooked on the martial arts movies of the 1980s, when Sho Kosugi was making a serious of ninja movies. The result of this discovery of movies like Enter the Ninja, Pray for Death, and the hilarious Nine Deaths of the Ninja was finding the martail arts section of my local video store. There I rented dozens of Hong Kong movies that were poorly dubbed, but occasionally contained the most amazing fight sequences I'd ever seen. I felt elated watching these movies and probably contributed to my own enthusiasm for ballet and I even took some tai kwon do at that time.

Sadly American action cinema probably has never been as well crafted as it is in Hong Kong. This isn't due to lack of great fight choreography, since many of the best have been imported from Hong Kong, but simply due to inadequacies in filmmaking. This has never been so apparent as it was last night when watching Breaking News (2004) by Johnny To. The opening sequence is one long, intricately choreographed tracking shot which serves to introduce the characters, set the situation that drives the gripping man hunt, and establish the setting. And it is a stunning 7 minute shot.

the shot: I never watch films in this much detail, as I rarely catch the details, but I had to stop the movie and restart because I was suddenly aware that a complex gun fight was occurring and I hadn't noticed a single cut. I assumed they were just cleverly hidden so I watched again and what hit me was that one never sees a scene like this in American cinema anymore. And I still don't see a single cut, but instead a long, steady cam shot is used to capture the opening action.

First, we focus on the Hong Kong sky line which orients us to the urban setting. This is a shot that is disappearing from so many American films replaced with tight shots of the actors and little information is given to the setting except through dialog. But here, the scene opens on the sky-line then pans to a man walking down the street. The camera follows him into a building, by panning up the wall and through a window (1:13) where we can see he is meeting a group of men. Then we pan back out through the window and follow a newspaper to a car below where we learn that these men are being tailed by undercover police. This was the shot that originally caught my attention and caused the repeat viewings, because I was unable to really pay attention to the smooth camera movements in this well set up shot while reading subtitled. But this quickly establishes all of the players of the film in just 3 minutes. Breathtaking.

But then, the camera watches the men leave the building to gather at the backing car, viewed though the windshield of the police car. Starting at 2:58, another long pan shot moves along the alley focusing on every player in the unfolding scene. This shot is also never included in current American action films. What Johnny To is doing is allowing the viewer to quickly understand the spacial arrangement of the scene. We can easily deduce who these people are; the bad guys leaving the building, the undercover cops, the interfering uniformed officers, and by standers. There arrangement in space is respected and during this one minute pan they are each introduced, before the action erupts at 4:20.

The resulting gun fight is never disorienting as it is in American cinema. The camera remains steady and each action is clearly shown. The result is that as action escalated, so does the cinematic tension because we can easily follow what is going on as well as the body count on each side of the conflict instead of simply feeling dizzy at the fast camera movements to various close-up action shots. The following scene from Batman Begins (2005) is also an introduction shot, but is much less coherent.

Batman Begins: First Appearance

This is actually a pretty good action movie, but it still has the problems that I mentioned. In this much shorter scene (3:46), it is pieced together by numerous tiny shots and filmed primarily in close up. The problem is one loses a sense of setting and it is difficult to discern the orientation of the characters in space. This disorientation benefits Christopher Nolan's attempt to make Batman seem like he can swoop down from anywhere. But the downside is that we never grasp simple facts. How far away is the scene in the car from the action happening in the alley way? And just how many men is batman taking on? As soon as any action erupts (2:42), the camera moves as much as the men who are fighting. Since this is all filmed in closeup, one cannot grasp exactly what is happening and the whole scene becomes confusing. And this really irritates me.

The whole reason I enjoy the genre is because I love the exciting tension of action cinema. I love to watch people do impossible things on screen, but in order to appreciate the excitement of a fight on film, you need to be able to see the fight including the set-up and the outcome. This has been bothering me for quite some time and I haven't been able to pin point why I prefer these films from Hong Kong, Korea, Beijing and Japan over what is made in the US other then the over reliance on quick cuts and too much camera movement, until I watched Breaking News. Now I see the difference. They respect the actual space a scene occupied and effectively document the details of the space before and during an action sequence. For a final example of this, here is my very favorite scene from Oldboy (2003) which occurs in a narrow hallway, but is amazingly filmed through a wall.


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