TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1 is a crazy, aggressively stylish 1997 Hong Kong crime movie that I watched because it was recommended to me by Adam in a comment on my LADY OF STEEL review. He said it was recommended to him by a guy at Vulcan Video in Austin, Texas. And now I’m recommending it to you. The circle of life.
This one’s produced by Johnnie To, but directed by Wai Ka-Fai (FULLTIME KILLER, RUNNING ON KARMA, MAD DETECTIVE), his second movie as a director, following PEACE HOTEL.
It’s about this guy named Kau (Lau Ching-wan, POLICE STORY 2) who gets talked into joining some kind of criminal gang. I felt great empathy for him because of this scene where they go have a big meal together, like the gang in RESERVOIR DOGS, but then they walk out without paying. He stands there and looks at the check. Jesus christ, you don’t walk out on a check. Also you don’t leave a huge check for just one person who didn’t offer to pay it to pay. Especially the new guy who doesn’t have that kind of money.
He has to think about it. But he’s not gonna just leave. He pays it. That’s my guy.
I mean these are just serial bill-runner-uppers though so they next they go to the massage parlor, strut in naked in slow motion, live it up. Afterwards they refuse to pay their $7,100 bill. It turns into a fight, a robbery and shootout, and this is when it becomes obvious that this movie is not gonna do anything normal, because it’s all shot with an upside down handheld camera. You feel like you’re hanging upside down being swung around.
The escape is shown right side up, but it doesn’t go well for anybody. Their boss Bo (Cheung Tat-ming, BRUCE LEE, MY BROTHER) gets run over and rolls down the street like a log. They pull him into the car and back to the safehouse but he dies. In desperation to dispose of the body they decide to brick him up under the floor. And after they’re all done mopping up and they’re sitting around a table of candles smoking and emotionally discussing their fucked up situation a beeper goes off. It’s Bo’s, of course. 1990s Tell-Tale Heart.
Man, everything goes wrong. They get attacked again, they lose the money, they have trouble disposing of a car, they get chased into some muddy water by Bo’s gun-toting widow (Ruby Wong, INFERNAL MISSION), she buys them new clothes and makes them rob another gang after they rob a bank. But first makes Kau dance with her and have sex with her but not enjoy it.
And suddenly 35 minutes in he’s apparently dead and it loops back to the beginning. My friend Jeff told me he heard this compared to RUN LOLA RUN, and now I know why – Kau gets to start over. This time he makes a more honorable choice. Instead of letting his dickhead friends try to massage and dash he gives all his money and his watch to the massage parlor to cover as much of the bill as he can, thus preventing that whole skirmish that fucked everything up. One of the women at the parlor is impressed, follows him out, they spend the night together. Imagine, he missed out on all this before! He really turned things around. This is such a better life because of that one moral decision of doing the right thing.
But then he drops her off at the airport, where he runs into one of the guys, Matt (Francis Ng, THE MISSION, EXILED), and reluctantly ends up in a scheme with him to kill a Triad member in Central Taiwan. And then everything goes wrong there. He keeps going down these paths.
The crime boss in Taiwan is named Brother White. He’s introduced in a cool, weird shot where a conversation is going on in the distance and you don’t realize for a while that there’s part of a person in the foreground, until he walks over to them.
There’s a funny scene where he repeatedly dozes off while giving them an assignment. They have to keep waving his men back into the conference room to wake him because they’re afraid to do it themselves.
There are many things I definitely didn’t follow. Prime example: when he gets pinned on the sidewalk and there’s a pile of what looks like raw ground beef on the ground and he eats a little bit of it and seems to be powered by it.
Both the plot and the style give the whole thing a dreamy, disorienting feel. There’s a cool scene where the lights go out and people start shooting, so the scene is only lit by muzzle flashes (didn’t EQUILIBRIUM do a thing like that?). And actually when the lights come back on shit is way crazier.
Kau and Matt seem to be ignorant of the local politics, just trying to make a buck, and are kind of freaked out by the giant gang battle they cause. They somehow get out alive, but next thing you know we’re inside a police car while a riot goes on around it. Kau is handcuffed between two members of rival gangs who each start flipping out as they hear people outside crying about each of their leaders being dead.
There’s some incredibly heightened shit going down. Case in point, the scene where Kau is in the hospital and hears the story from gang boss Brother Saint about his dying wife who was randomly beaten up. And he realizes that was a woman who his buddy hit in the head. So he confesses and offers to cut off his finger. But during this commotion suddenly they realize there’s a big brawl going on outside the window, where someone else is being beaten for allegedly having done it.
The climax is a big standoff where Kau gets to rage about the insanity of this gang life and retribution. He’s arguing about cutting off fingers to repay cut off fingers, killing somebody to repay killing somebody else, trying to point out how ridiculous it is to keep killing more people as payback. When he mentions his friend Chicken Head having been killed and rhetorically asks “Are you going to repay that?,” Brother Saint looks around in frustration, grabs one of his guys and is ready to shoot him in the head as payment. Not really getting the point.
There’s a great kind of satirical ending. Kau ends that showdown bleeding from the back of his head and mouth and falls down like he’s dead. But somehow he survives and we see him later in a wheelchair and neckbrace, talking in a monotone, like a zombie. He is awarded the territory by the other gang bosses and all his friends surround him and congratulate his great success. He does not look happy, in my opinion.
The V.I.P. of this movie is cinematographer (also editor) Wong Wing-Hang. Obviously this guy is a hero because his first movie was A BETTER TOMORROW and he also did A BETTER TOMORROW 2, THE KILLER, A BETTER TOMORROW III, BULLET IN THE HEAD, and HARD BOILED. More recently he’s done CHINESE ZODIAC, KUNG FU KILLER and OPERATION RED SEA. In this one he really goes crazy with the cool camera angles. Let us celebrate by ending with a few screen grabs showing off some of his show-offy angles and compositions: