With his latest film, PTU, which co-opened this year's Hong Kong Film Festival, To redefines his signature style. It's another game of cops and triads, set over the course of a single night in Tsimshatsui. But this time around, To has forsaken any easy moral high ground. PTU stands for Police Tactical Unit, a team of elite blue-bereted Hong Kong cops led by the flinty Simon Yam. Yam and his jackbooted troops spend most of the film terrorizing helpless criminal punks, who are only too eager to sell each other out. They're on the lookout for a gun lost by Detective Lo (Suet Lam), an obese bumbler who makes Inspector Clouseau look like Gil Grissom from CSI.
In To's world, cops, criminals and civilians alike are incompetent, brutal or both. There are no bullet ballets, no climactic face-offs in dove-filled churches or exploding fireworks factories. Even if To's comedic ear occasionally goes tone-deaf (I have a hard time laughing at a cop stomping a teenage triad to the brink of death, which To plays for slapstick), PTU is a refreshing subversion of an entire Hong Kong genre of films that seek easy heroism in rogue cops out for justice and sharply dressed gangsters who live by the code. In PTU there is no code—and less justice. A bit like real life.