Released in 2003, Running on Karma by directors Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai is a delightfully strange action thriller film masking as a parable on the mysteries of karma. At the center of the story is Big, a Buddhist Monk turned body builder and male stripper.
One night, during a raid on his strip club by an undercover cop named Lee Fung-yee, Big is caught up in a chase between the police and another criminal. During this chase, To uses peculiar layered imagery to suggest that Big has a strange kind of vision: he can see the past lives of others, and in some cases their futures. Essentially, he has the ability to see karma, the accumulation of good and bad deeds in a person (including their past lives). He can also use these visions to predict how that karma will affect an individual in the future.
This makes him a fantastic aid to Lee and her various investigations. For example, he looks at a murder victim’s previous life and realizes that his killer was killed by the victim in a past life. Using some clues in his vision, he’s able to describe the killer to Lee, effecting a capture.
There’s a lot to Running on Karma, with many moving parts involving Big’s past, Lee’s desire to repay him for helping her, and various murder plots. To is able to keep everything ethereal but understandable, even when we’re seeing strange visions.
The action displays a similar control. Though the martial arts is fantastic and defies physics at points, everything is easy to comprehend and follow. We’re always aware of who is fighting and how, and the camera has a kind of fluidity to it that feels completely appropriate.
Running on Karma is quite the joyride, but it also has something important to say about vengeance, evil, and how we can let bad deeds accumulate on our souls and destroy our lives. This film was my first exposure to the works of Johnnie to; it will not be my last.
Saturday, December 16, 8:00 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
This film is part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Johnnie To: Expect the Unexpected series running from October 26th to December 28th