Review: Running on Karma

Written and directed by Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai, co-written by Nai-Hoi Yau and Kin-Yee Au, a monk turned body-builder, with the gift to see into people’s lives, befriends a female cop, and uses his gift to change the force of Karma and her destiny. Starring: Andy Lau, Cecilia Cheung, Eddie Cheung, Wong Chun, Karen Tong, Wen Zhong Yu, Lian Sheng Hou, Sheng Wei He and Meng Zhang.

Running on Karma is likely the type of film that someone could look at a few stills or posters for and dismiss as something silly or over the top, but in fact what Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai have created is a melting pot of the different elements Hong Kong cinema has to offer. It plays with action and theatrics, crime and police, martial arts, philosophy and religion. While that sounds like a lot to throw at someone in a film that’s around ninety-minutes long, it works surprisingly well. Firstly, due to the fact that it doesn’t try to do everything at once, there’s a gradual evolution to its story. It also hits a home-run where so many others fall foul, it creates something bonkers but holds onto a tangible and entertaining plot.

One of the most impressive things that To and Wai achieve here is creating a balance of not taking itself too seriously but then bringing through a more sincere and thoughtful tone as time goes on. On top of that it manages to be lovingly silly and cheesy at times while still being unexpected, which is a difficult combination to pull off. The same can be said of their direction, it changes as the story does, starting off more high-octane and slowing to something dramatic and reflective. There’s a big shift in the second half, focusing strongly on the themes of Buddhism and Karma, and you would imagine it to be a jarring transition but these filmmakers handle it well. Quite possibly due to the clear self-awareness of the bizarre nature of what they’re trying to pull off here. They feel well aware of the more ridiculous aspects, and instead of trying to disguise or compensate, throw them into the fore with confidence.

Another part of that success is the performance from Andy Lau, it’s quite the feat that he could even just keep a straight face wearing that muscle suit but his charm balances out its outlandish presence. Given that his character is not a man of too many words, he does manage to build a very individual and endearing personality, he’s far from your typical body-builder but he does still have the classic confidence and energy. Lau is well paired with Cecilia Cheung, the two have a great chemistry, it’s not inherently romantic, instead they build a mutual respect and caring friendship which is always a refreshing change of pace. They create the heart to this film, alongside its exploration of Karma, and give you plentiful reasons to invest in their story, ultimately boiling down to striving to be a better person and consider the long lasting consequences of your actions.

Running on Karma starts out the gate as something completely nuts and fun, then takes you down a road of past lives, consequences and Karma. It’s simultaneously over the top and thoughtful, it creates sweet and charming characters to lead its unusual adventure. There’s an impressive variety to its themes and styles, embracing typical martial arts, crime and action at the same time as drama and religion. What all of that comes down to is that this film shouldn’t work and yet at the hands of Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai it impressively does.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

Showing as part of The Heroic Mission: Johnnie To Retrospective at The Prince Charles Cinema on 12 July 2022 from UK-China Film Collab

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