Boundless (Mo Ngaai – To Kei Fung Dik Din Ying Sai Gaai): Film Review

Hong Kong Asian Film Festival
The helmer's fascinating anecdotes and views, mixed with kinetic film clips and on-set footage, are undermined by an incoherent structure.

Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To and his associates wax poetic about their work and the fluctuating fortunes of their city's film industry since the late 1990s.

True to its title, Ferris Lin's documentary on Johnnie To touches on an incredibly varied array of topics. Exploring the cineaste's emergence as Hong Kong's most critically acclaimed director of the day – in the international festival circuit, at least – the Taiwanese student-helmer's thesis film manages to contemplate on not just To's career, aesthetics and modus operandi; the helmer's self-proclaimed rags-to-riches story – from not being able to pay the rent for his office in 1998, to his present-day omnipresence on European red-carpets – is also deployed as somewhat an analogy of the sweeping changes in Hong Kong and its Hong Kong film industry in the 2000s.

Granted considerable on-set access (especially for the wintry production days for Romancing in Thin Air II in southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan in 2011) and boasting of interviews spanning across two years, the film boasts of a wealth of material which helps in realizing Lin's ambitions and also showcasing his critical awareness of his subject matter. And unlike Yves Montmayeur's fuzzy 2010 piece Johnnie Got A Gun – which, like Lin's film, also premiered at the annual Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, Boundless veers towards the cerebral and away from being merely a fan's simplistic swoon.

But Boundless' boundlessness could certainly have been given more coherence, as Lin never really dwells on one topic long enough before having his interviewees hatching onto yet another – many a time To's recollections on his predicaments abruptly give way to unrelated discussions on his mise-en-scene, for example, or when the auteur's rant against the Hong Kong industry's disturbing (re)turn towards exploitation and expletive-laden comedy segues into a talk about the representation of the city's rapidly and forcibly altered urban space.

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Still, the enthusiastic response Boundless received for its first three sold-out screenings in Hong Kong reflects the sentiment of a young generation of Hong Kong film-goers about their desire to have their distinct cultural identities realized; To aficionados abroad – in France, especially – would provide the film a life with bookings at the now de rigueur cinephile sidebar in festivals abroad, given how Lin's film could easily serve as a primer for To's work given the inclusion of several seminal moments off his oeuvre (such as the mall stand-off in hitmen drama The Mission, the one-take opening sequence in the cops-and-robbers thriller Breaking News, and allegorical scene in Election II which points to mainland China's way of intervening in Hong Kong politics).

And it's on this last issue that Boundless begins its flight, as behind-the-scenes footage of To toiling, cursing and basically exploding on the set of Romancing in Thin Air is given context through the director's lament about his discomfort about the absurd production conventions on the Chinese mainland – some of which he discussed with THR in a pre-Cannes interview [] in May – and his views about finally venturing across the border to make films in the People's Republic, a move which he claims shouldn't overwhelm the fact that Hong Kong's local culture could only be reinvigorated by having its own distinct cinema.

The distinctness of that is brought to the foreground from that word on, as To and his associates (including his regular screenwriter-partner Wai Ka-fai, his regular acting leads and his prodigies Yau Na-hoi and Soi Cheang) talk not just about one man's career – which began in television stations before his big leap into filmmaking in the late 1980s – but also the fascinating anecdotes which mirrors the many challenges Hong Kong film professionals have had to confront throughout the past two decades.

Revisiting some of To's films, the incredible nature of these tales is given more critical currency: the low budget (US$750,000, the director said) and high hazards of firefighters' drama Fireline (1997) could be gauged through the clips of incredible pyrotechnics shown here, while To's accounts of his Chinese ventures are set amidst footage of him trying things out in Yunnan and Tianjin (for Drug War).

But all these come as if in vignettes. The main narrative here – To extending his reach to the boundless geographical milieu and ringing markets in mainland China – is somehow buried by tactless off-tangent digressions. Meanwhile, To's spell within the establishment as a member of the government-backed Hong Kong Arts Development Council is never really developed beyond mentions of the new-talent Fresh Wave film festival he helped establish.

But Boundless could very well serve as a good jump-off point (and calling card) for Lin, as he embarks on his career on the strength of a film motored by one of the most fascinating personages in Hong Kong today.

Venue: Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts)
Director: Ferris Lin
Executive Producer: Shu Kei
Cinematographers: Xu Ke
Editor: Ferris Lin
Music: Zhao Lijie, Yang Bingyin, Yan Qing, Chow Yiu-cho
Languages: Cantonese and Mandarin
95 min.