Running on Karma (2003) Movie Review

I was anxious to see “Running on Karma”. No, it’s not the idea of seeing yet another Johnnie To movie in 2003, since this is Johnnie To Lite we’re dealing with, not Johnnie To Heavy. The latter is the man behind “The Mission” and “PTU”, and the former is responsible for “Full-Time Killer” and “Wu Yen”. It’s simply the return of Cecilia Cheung that draws me. Not that the talented Ms. Cheung hasn’t been around since the South Korean film “Failan” (possibly her best work to date), but this is the first film I’ve run across where she is not wearing a period costume and a man name Wong Jing is nowhere in sight. And although Jing has made steps out of my doghouse with the surprisingly entertaining “Colour of the Truth”, he still has a long way to go.

“Running on Karma” is a strange little movie, let’s get that out of the way first. Andy Lau (“Running Out of Time”) stars as an unnamed man who used to be a Shaolin monk before a tragic event drove him into the cities. Lau’s “Big Guy” is a muscle-bound man of Arnold Schwarzenegger proportions, which means Lau gets to wear a “muscle suit” for the entire film. In the city, Big Guy runs across police Detective Li (Cecilia Cheung), who is actually not very good at the whole cop thing. Through a couple of strange cases involving strange criminals, the two form a strange bond that surpasses trivial romance.

For the Big Guy, it’s Li’s life that is important. The Big Guy shows up whenever Li is in trouble, determined to save her the way he was unable to save a female friend from his Shaolin days. Li herself is an erratic creature, and once the Big Guy informs her that she’s destined to die, Li starts acting even more erratic. The whole thing resolves itself with a Third Act that turns “Karma” into a strange variation of “The Blair Witch Project”, complete with camcorder and a missing hiker.

I am personally at odds with “Karma”. It’s definitely not your usual Hong Kong film, as it seems to move to its own off-kilter beats. The film travels the path of destiny and fate and even dives into existentialism and all that other New Age mumble jumbo. Then again, it’s a well-acted movie, and Lau gives a somber and affable performance, as his Big Guy attempts to do the right things for reasons he himself can’t quite comprehend. And yet, by film’s end there just doesn’t seem to be a unifying coherence to “Karma”, and perhaps that is its charm. Or not.

The above is a bit of a surprise because the film opens strong, with a police investigation into a brutal murder committed by an Indian master of martial arts. Li’s investigation into the killing is what brings her into contact with the Big Guy, who is himself a master of martial arts. The film’s first 40 minutes are its strongest, as the film combines romance with mystery and wild action. (There’s even a scene where a woman gets her arm blown off by a shotgun blast!) And oh yes, there’s even a burglar who can climb walls like Spiderman and is covered in grease so the cops can’t hold onto him.

Unfortunately all the cop stuff and action gets tossed out the window in favor of sequences that would be more comfortable in a Tom Tykwer movie. In fact, much of “Karma’s” Third Act feels heavily inspired by Tykwer’s “The Princess and the Warrior”; and there’s even some of the dreamy vibe of his “Heaven” thrown in. Also, the film has a disjointed feel throughout, and its habit of jumping from two vastly differently locations without explanation, and its use of non-linear narrative, further exacerbates the confusion. It’s not that the film’s structure is so difficult one can’t figure it out. But as a film, “Karma” could have been edited better, and displayed a better understanding of time and space.

Of course none of the above takes away from the movie’s winning first half. It’s a pleasure to watch an unpredictable Cecilia Cheung work opposite an assured Andy Lau. Even Lau’s fake “muscles” don’t get in the way, even if the reasons for those muscles — other than for comical effect — still eludes me. It’s no surprise that the film’s notion of karma and cause and effect works much better in the first half; actually, everything works much better in the first half. With a tighter script and more focus, the second half might have been able to sustain the first half. As it stands, “Karma” starts strong, but seems to lose its way at around the 50-minute mark.

Johnnie To, Ka-Fai Wai (director) / Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin Yee, Yip Tin Shing (screenplay)
CAST: Cecilia Cheung … Li Fengyi
Andy Lau … Big Guy

Buy Running on Karma on DVD