The Enigmatic Case (1980)
Who knew that Johnnie To's directorial debut, way way back in 1980, was a martial arts movie? And a pretty damn good one at that! Why is this fact never mentioned, this movie never discussed? Is this a Bona Fide "Lost Gem"?
Damian Lau stars as a swordsman who sets out to clear his name, after being accused of stealing a bunch of gold and killing his 3 colleague bandits to take their share. He's a quiet, grim, haunted looking individual who looks like he probably feels most comfortable in exactly that situation. Lau's task is made more difficult by the fact he's got a particularly dogged police chief on his tail, along with a bunch more bandits that want to find out where he's hidden the gold. It's made somewhat more pleasant by Cherie Chung, whom he becomes entangled with along the way, and who looks absolutely mesmerising in her first movie role.
The movie is played totally straight, and balances its scenes of swordplay with slowly unravelled layers of intrigue, deception, mystery and illusion. To keeps a tight grip on the direction and lets everything unfold at a careful pace. This, coupled with some absolutely excellent cinematography, makes it rather reminiscent of a King Hu movie. It's even more reminiscent of another directorial debut that appeared a year before though, Tsui Hark's The Butterfly Murders.
Damian Lau makes a great hero/anti-hero. Quiet, brooding, but with anger at the injustice that has put him in the situation smouldering just below the surface. He also acquits himself well in the sword fighting scenes, which are not all that well choreographed but are still exciting to watch.
The cinematography and art direction are top notch, so the movie looks great throughout. The Mei Ah DVD probably isn't the best proof of this, as it's very soft and low on shadow detail - there are no blacks at all, it never gets below a pleasant shade of blue. This kind of suits the movie though, giving it an aged feeling like a vintage wine.
I don't know why To didn't direct another movie for so long after his debut, which should really have got his name mentioned in the same context as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam and the other "New Wave" directors of the early 80's. Perhaps he just didn't make the right friends.
Now that he's arguably Hong Kong's top director, perhaps it's a good time for people to re-evaluate THE ENIGMATIC CASE and it's place in Hong Kong's cinema history. Certainly it should be on everybody's "to watch" lists - I'm amazed I didn't even know it existed until I found it in for $20 HK in the "old stuff nobody wants to buy shop" in HK.