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"If you can take me to the Police Station, you win."

Back in 1999 Johnny To attempted to break the mould of the usual Hong Kong movies, steering away from the Triads and focusing instead on a game of cat and mouse between a cop and the son of a notorious gangster. Bringing in one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars—Andy Lau—To’s Aau Chin (known here as Running Out of Time) won awards for Best Actor and Best Screenplay, but how does it stand up today?

Running Out of Time
Film
Inspector Ho (Lau Ching Wan) has had plenty of jobs on the force. He is a skilled negotiator and officer, but now spends a lot of his time on clerical work. He does, however, find time to take care of the odd crime when he’s not measuring people up for uniforms.

Called in to negotiate with armed robbers during a bank heist, he has to put up with the ineptitude of Chief Inspector Wong (Shiu Hung Hui) but still manages to get the hostages to safety. Watching from a distance, an old man takes photos and acknowledges Ho’s success with a wry smile before disappearing into the crowd.

Some time later, Ho is called into action again when an attempt is made to rip off a diamond merchant. Another failure to calm the situation down by Wong—and a somewhat green negotiator—has left the perpetrator a little less than calm, but it isn’t long before Ho discovers that his adversary has wanted him there all along. Challenged to a game of ‘catch me if you can’ for the next seventy-two hours, Ho must discover the identity of the criminal and find a motive for his deeds. But what is the connection to the old man from the other day?

His opponent, Cheung (Andy Lau), is doing his best to play him and uses Ho as a distraction in an unknown quest, but time is running out—Cheung has nothing to lose and not long to live.

Winning a couple of Best Actor gongs for Andy Lau, as well as a Golden Bauhinia for screenwriters Julien Carbon, Laurent Courtiaud & Nai-Hoi Yau, Running Out of Time manages to keep you guessing as to Cheung’s motives throughout most of the eighty-nine minute run-time. The interplay between ‘cop’ and ‘perp’ becomes more like playful banter as time goes on, but Ho remains determined to take Cheung in. He is generally obstructed by the obstinate Wong, who comes across as the usual bumbling superior that gets drafted into this sort of film, but still manages to do the job.

The film mainly concentrates on our two foes, but the supporting cast are used to good effect and the fleeting moments Cheung spends with Leung Yuen-Ting (Yo Yo Mung) after using her as camouflage on a bus help to round out his character and make us much more sympathetic towards him. Ho’s female ‘relationship’ is with his Interpol contact—played by Ruby Wong—and it is used in a similar way, humanising what could have been an empty character. In fact, most of the main characters are fleshed out well given the short run time.

The plot itself reveals what Cheung is up to very slowly, and for most of the film all we know about him is that he is very meticulous and that he is not long for this world. All does not become completely clear until about fifteen minutes before the end, but I’m not going to spoil that here.

Running Out of Time
Originally this was supposed to be a darker film and much changed through the rewrites, but what is left is a tight script that doesn’t hang around. There are some nice comedic touches, such as Cheung and Ho staggering from a car crash—one trying to escape and the other trying to catch him—and the quest to try and roll a car into some goons and get it to blow up is foiled in a surprising way. Also, I don’t know whether all cars in Hong Kong are bullet-proof or not, but that so many windscreens remain intact in the midst of a hail of bullets raises a smile.

The best comedy, unfortunately, can be found in the English subtitles. There are quite a few grammatical and spelling mistakes dotted throughout the film—‘Interpol’ becomes ‘Interlope’, ‘The car is bumbing against us’, etc—although I gave up noting them about half way through. Additionally, there is a bit at the start of the film where Ho is listening to a tape of the demands of the bank robbers—he rewinds the tape a few times to listen again but each time the translation differs to what it was before...

First time through: ’Stop wasting my time! I’m not saying anymore. Half an hour, the clock is ticking.’
Rewind a bit: ’I’m not talking to you anymore. Half an hour.’
And lastly: ’Don’t try to waste time. I’m not going to talk to you. Half an hour. The clock is starting to tick now.’

Still, you can get the gist of what is going on and it is much less painful than watching the film with the English dub. As is sadly the norm, this does come across as fairly amateurish and seems to be an attempt to heighten the lighter moments to cover the whole film. Not that I spent much time listening to this one.

While the story is not exactly original, it is well executed with two good leads. It may be mild compared to some Hong Kong films, but it does show that there doesn’t need to be blood everywhere if it is well written. Awards themselves can be misleading as it always depends on what you are up against at the time, but I can see why Courtiaud, Carbon & Yau were recognised after this came out. It did mark a change in the usual Hong Kong movie trend, and while not a classic, it is still a solid piece of filmmaking.

Video
To my eyes this looks to be a very good PAL transfer, albeit slightly cropped down to a widescreen-friendly 1.78:1 from the original 1.85:1. The opening few minutes don’t leave you expecting a stellar effort, with some jitter on the titles and some unsteady contrast in the first couple of scenes, but this makes way for colour and detail that I wasn’t really expecting from a low budget film.

Skin texture is good, as is the clarity on the little background details such as the writing on signs and reflections on car windscreens. Reds are vivid without blooming, and the rest of the palette is well balanced.

Apart from the problems mentioned earlier, there are some faint vertical lines on the print—but to be honest I only spotted these in a couple of places when capturing stills on my PC—and a minor ‘blob out’ when the picture skips at around 1h15m09s. The latter is no doubt due to print damage, but it is barely noticeable. There is also some minor edge enhancement, and a little shimmering is evident at 18m30s, but none of it really detracts from what is a good job overall.

Running Out of Time
The layer change is at 1h16m37s in chapter ten, and the Chinese and English subtitles are in a clear enough font. Ah yes, the subtitles. This is perhaps where my only real gripe lies as, aside from the grammatical errors on the English track, they have been coded to fade out before the next line comes onto the screen and the timing sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. Under most circumstances you get used to this, but there are occasions where the combination of fading and timing results in missed lines of dialogue that prove difficult to even pause on, never mind read first time. Not bad, as far as the transfer goes, but a couple of niggles that shave a bit from the overall score.

Audio
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track should be the one of choice here. Purists tend not to like remixes of original audio tracks, but here it has been subtly done with not too much in the way of surround trickery.

There is a back-to-front pan during a car chase at 1h21m50s, but otherwise the rears are generally used as an atmospheric aid—not that this is a complaint. There is a fair amount of clarity in all the tracks presented here, but the 5.1 track just takes everything up a level and some depth is also added by the use of the subwoofer. Again, this is not overused or heavy handed, and I have to come back to using the word subtle, typified by the minute thuds caused by the falling ten-pins in the background around the 1h16m mark.

The score—strange as it may be with its synthesized bagpipes—comes across well and the dialogue is clear and locked in the centre channel where necessary.

Like the transfer though, there is one point where the track ‘blobs out’. The audio does drop out for a second at 12m48s - it only happens once but it is noticeable and the other tracks are unaffected.

While I’m on the subject of the other tracks, the Cantonese and Mandarin Stereo tracks are well catered for with 224 kb/s helping deliver a decent front soundstage. The Mandarin and English tracks do suffer from being dubs though, with the latter being the typical, painfully English dub which, notably, bears little resemblance to the English subtitles.

A solid effort on the available tracks, even with the drop-out, and congratulations to Tai Seng for avoiding overplaying the 5.1 card and not falling into the trap of so many other remixes.

Running Out of Time
Extras
This UK release fares a lot better than the now ancient (and apparently unavailable) US release, but then with only a trailer to beat it wouldn’t take much.

We do get an original trailer (1m41s, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Chinese, non-anamorphic 1.70:1, with burnt-in English and Chinese subtitles)—in itself a little disjointed but not of the worst quality I’ve seen—but then this new release comes into its own.

Front and centre is a new commentary track from scriptwriters Laurent Courtiaud and Julien Carbon. Guided by a mystery voice, they are both quite active in discussing the various drafts of the screenplay and its evolution into what is seen on screen.

Accompanying the commentary is a brand new ‘Q & A’ with Messrs. Courtiaud and Carbon (37m07s, 4:3, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo English). Filmed on 21st April 2005 at 14:30 (Hong Kong time—it’s nice when people are precise, isn’t it?) this takes the form of captioned questions with our guests then tackling the subject in hand, from their inspirations to their attraction to Hong Kong cinema. There are random, silent clips of the film throughout the piece which I can only guess is to break the monotony of looking at two blokes sat in a library chatting as they never have any bearing on the current subject, but overall this is a well put together and informative featurette. It does seem that the right and left channels have been swapped though, and this can be off-putting.

‘The Directors’ Overview of Carbon and Courtiaud’ (8m23s, 4:3, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo English) features snippets from Tsui Hark ( Once Upon a Time in China, Seven Swords), Wong Kar-Wai ( Chungking Express, 2046), Daniel Lee ( Black Mask), Michelle Yeoh and Lau Ching-Wan. They all speak quite highly of the two writers, although Lau Ching-Wan talks more about Johnny To.

Rounding out the visual treats is a set of trailers. A slightly different trailer for our main feature is here (1m29s, anamorphic 1.78:1, Dolby Digital 2.0 Chinese, burnt-in English subtitles). We also get Running Out of Time 2 (39s), Cop on a Mission (1m12s), Colour of the Truth (58s), Moving Targets (1m19s) and Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen (35s) with burnt-in English subtitles where required.

Finishing off the extras is a set of Biographies. Andy Lau, Lau Ching-Wan, Waise Lee, Lam Suet and Ruby Wong all get a bit of a blurb as well as a filmography, but Yo Yo Mung has to make do with a list of her work.

A nice collection, and a far superior effort compared to the 2000 US release but like I said that wouldn’t take much.

Running Out of Time
Overall
Tai Seng’s original release of the film in the US would appear to leave a lot to be desired, and given the runtime is the same as this release it may well not have been the full version (with an original run-time of ninety-three minutes, eighty-nine minutes would appear to be ‘PAL friendly’). However, without access to that I can only really comment on the feature list and that is much improved on here.

Picture quality is acceptable—even given the flaws—but it would have been nice to have a remastered subtitle track to go with it. Hopefully the sound glitch will not make it onto the retail releases, but as it occurs on both my player and my PC I can’t put it down to the dodgy review disc (a slightly cloudy disc surface did cause some problems with the extras).

Worth a look for the film alone, and the commentary and Q & A are good additions. The discs region free nature would also make it a good upgrade option for those with the previous effort.


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