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Too Many Ways to be No. 1 (1997)

November 17, 2003 • Film, Reviews

Literally: An Alphabet’s Birth
Director: Wai Ka-Fai
Producer: Johnnie To Kei-Fung

Cast: Lau Ching-Wan, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Carman Lee Yeuk-Tung, Ruby Wong Chuek-Ling, Cheung Tat-Ming, Tsui Kam-Kong, Joe Cheng Cho, Matthew Chow Hoi-Kwong, Sung Boon-Chung, Tai Bo, Wong Yuk-Wan, Wong Man-Man, Wong Ka-Ming, Chai Wai-Ching, Leung Yuen-Man, Lam Chiu-Hung, Wong Lap-Ban, Ha Ha, Mo Cheung, Ko Tin-Fat, Yeung Kam-Pang, Chiu Yan-Tak, Nip Seung-Sing, Pang Hong-Yuk, Lau Yuk-Kin

Writer: Wai Ka-Fai, Szeto Kam-Yuen, Matthew Chow Hoi-Kwong

Running Time: 90 min.

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REVIEWS

Writer/director Wai Ka-Fai beat RUN LOLA RUN by a year with this “alternate fates” slash-and-burn gangster parody that follows Doggie (Lau Ching-Wan) as he takes a lunch that will change his life. Will he be gunned down in China? Kneecapped in Taiwan? Should he even get out of bed? TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1 kicks off when the gang accidentally runs over their boss. Twice. Taking an axe to gangster flicks and experimental cinema it’ll leave you reeling with its throbbing colors and jittering camera as the narrative screeches backwards and forwards in time. Considered to be the best film of 1997, TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1 burns down the crime film and sows the ground with salt.

—Grady Hendrix, Subway Cinema

*Scenes from Too Many Ways To Be No. 1
© Milkyway Image Productions

In 1996 veteran moviemaker Johnny To (responsible for everything from All About Ah-Long to The Heroic Trio to the A Moment of Romance series) became partners with a recently-debuted director/screenwriter named Wa Kai Fai (responsible for Chow Yun-Fat’s comeback film, Peace Hotel) in a unique new venture in Hong Kong cinema called Milkyway Images. The company formed a creative team of ever-changing membership, from John Woo’s assistant director Patrick Leung to actor Lau Ching-Wan, which, under the guidance of To and Wa Kai Fai, began turning out challenging new movies at a surprisingly brisk and steady pace.

These films do not really seem to be part of the New Wave of the 80s and 90s. Rather, they go in a different direction. While the majority of the New Wave films were made without complete scripts, shot quickly, and invested with an anarchic sense of despair (embodied by how heroes like Chow Yun-Fat and Andy Lau always seemed to die at the end of their movies). In contrast, the Milkyway product was generally more carefully thought-out, with fully-developed scripts that challenged notions of genre conventions as well as the despair of the pre-handover New Wave films. The productions were mounted carefully, using competent actors over popstars and (To and company have always preferred accomplished actors, from Wu Chien Lien, who has Johnny To as her agent, to Carmen Lee, Francis Ng, and Lau Ching-Wan. Lau remains the highest-played actor in their movies besides supporting player Lam Suet) filmed by a range of different filmmakers in different styles. It is difficult to find any stylistic similarities between works like Beyond Hypothermia, Expect the Unexpected, The Mission, and This movie. But a common theme links all these productions, evolving as a line of questioning throughout the Milkyway films.

The constant concern is the question of fate. Is such a concept valid, ask the filmmakers. And in each film, the question is dealt with in unique and interesting ways.

This film is probably the beginning of that cycle. Throughout the Milkyway series, this has been the only film that Wa Kai Fai directed by himself. It features Wa Kai Fai’s trademark go-for-broke cinematography, this time finding new visual directions. Also, there is enough material here for two movies, and indeed, it is really two movies sandwiched into the space of one 90-minute production.

The film is hallucinatory in the extreme, in that both narrative lines take place in the space of about half a minute of “story time” and feature the same characters in different places in alternate timelines. Anchoring the confusion is actor Lau Ching-Wan, the “hero” of both stories. Lau brings tremendous flexibility to his part, creating two different characters out of the same person. The stories are his mental speculations, fever dreams on what would happen if he went into a coming ordeal as a passive participant or as an aggressive one. Francis Ng chews scenery as Lau’s nominal “friend” who takes charge of Lau in the passive segment and who is dominated by him in the aggressive segment. Carmen Lee is at her freshest in the second segment. She plays her part with a flexibility to match that of the other actors. And in terms of storytelling, this is the most complex and challenging film in the Milkyway oeuvre.

Wa Kai Fai has produced and co-written most of the films in the Milkyway series, but this is the only one to feature his unique approach to directing. It is a great film, just based on the fascinating structure of the piece and the twitch-perfect acting by a wonderful ensemble cast, but it is also a very funny film, much funnier than any of the later entries in the series. Of all of the Milkyway films, this is the only one that is an out-and-out comedy.

Really, the large part of the Milkyway series is made up of great films. This one especially. It was preceded by Beyond Hypothermia and followed by The Odd One Dies, The Longest Nite, Expect the Unexpected, Where a Good Man Goes, A Hero Never Dies, Running Out of Time, The Mission, Spacked Out, Comeuppance, Fulltime Killer, Running Out of Time 2, and a new SDU action movie starring Simon Yam (yet untitled). In 2001 Johnny To and Wa Kai Fai began cranking out populist comedies like Help!, Wu Yen, and others. These productions bear almost no resemblance to the films they made up until now. They have announced that they plan to continue the Milkyway series even as they plow into bigger box-office territory.
“[Too Many Ways to be No. 1] … is a Pulp Fiction-like black comedy of errors.”

—Paul Fonoroff, author of At The Hong Kong Movies

“There are exquisite moments of absurdity, and unlike other gangster flicks, this plays up the pathos and gives a shaking down on what it means to be a struggling small fry swimming in a sea of sharks.”

—Louise, Hong Kong Movie Database

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