Running on Karma ★★★

If Sparrow defined itself through the elegance of the French New Wave’s love of gangster films, Karma is better seen as To’s parody and homage to his own traditions of China’s cinematic narratives, mainly the Shaw Brothers. But there’s even more going on here: In To’s 2001 film, Love on a Diet, Andy Lau wore a fat suit. Now he’s wearing a clearly overblown bodybuilding suit, with overly comic wire kung fu to match it. He’s a walking contradiction: a Buddhist monk who doesn’t eat meat but performs in bodybuilding competitions and strip clubs, never servicing himself but always in the service of others. What makes the film such an oddball is how easily it elides narrative construction familiar to Western viewers. The initial pair-up between Lau’s monk and the female cop Lee is filled with generic tropes we like: mismatched pair, male-female sexual energy, a super villain, and the fact she’s an underdog attempting to gain respect by her peers. But the criminal is caught quickly, another appears, and the romantic narrative seems to take center stage. This again is elided for something truly radical in its third act, forgoing all of its “modern” genre pieces for something seemingly from the past, removing the soul from the body (literally, as is the case with Lau) and finding possibilities in themes that the American cinema could never touch due to its Judeo-Christian centric narrative form. Stephen Tao makes the witty remark that To and collaborator Wai Ka-Fai perhaps attempted to make “an action film starring Arnold Schwazenegger and directed by Robert Bresson.” If my ambivalence prevailed during this curveveball, there is a conviction in the images To and Wai present, a belief in these possibilities in the dualities of selves and redemption. The film can only come so far in its circuitous nature before needing a necessary background in Hong Kong cinema to close the gap.

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