Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (1997)

Reviewed by: Masterofoneinchpunch
Date: 08/08/2014
Summary: "A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order." - Godard

This is Milkyway’s first official production.* For fans of Hong Kong movies this is an auspicious start. For Johnnie To’s co-production company has brought henceforth sagacious cinema that is one of the most unique and personal in cinema today. This movie still remains one of the most experimental and different in Milkyway’s oeuvre while still retaining personal tropes that are seen in the later films.

A time-repeating narrative (forking path – though in this film it feels somewhat like a cinematic “choose your own adventure”) that predates Run Lola Run but is after Groundhog’s Day. It starts off with the ticking of a Tudor timepiece** – an expensive watch owned by Wong Ah Kau (Lau Ching-wan) that has three close-ups in the film each signifying a restart in the story. It was probably bought in a previous time of prosperity for this rascal as he is now relegated to selling funeral wreaths for money and he is seeing a fortune-teller as the film starts. You do not get to hear what the seer has to say until the end of the film. Wong is 32, the same age as Bruce Lee when he died, and has not made anything of himself. He is approached by Bo (Cheung Tat-ming) of the rather incompetent Hung Lok Gang to join him in a meeting to discuss a future job. His acceptance of this job will lead him to the Mainland in the first story. If he does not it will lead him to Taiwan in the second story.

This is the type of film that so much is intertwined that I am not sure what would be considered a spoiler. With everything written below you might hesitate on reading further if you are sensitive to spoilers or want to watch the film with not too much information. But I also noticed that while writing about this it behooves to not do a straight recap of the film. It is too serpentine and too filled with clever allegories and references.

Going over the third segment it seems that there will be a different result than the previous two (given the dialogue is different.) It is obvious that the handover metaphor deals with a potential future with either Mainland or Taiwan as a dead-end or crippling event. I do wonder what the third option would have been. The fortune teller states that it isn’t either Taiwan or the Mainland but “It is your heart” in how he makes his choice. Of course by the end of the second story he has both fame and money, but at a price I do not think he was willing to pay. Is his character in a cyclical hell? Or can he progressively improve his position? Can Hong Kong improve its position given these two choices?

A negative aspect to this movie is the overuse of the hand-held wide-angle lens (9.8mm same size used in Fallen Angels (1995)) much to To’s chagrin. Sometimes it works well and gives the film an off-kilter otherworldly feel and is adaptive and playful. Sometimes it does not like when he does a whole fight scene upside down which was certainly discombobulating and not all the effective as aesthetics or allegory (its use is to demarcate the choice where Wong Ah Kau’s life can go in very different directions.) It is telling that Wai did not do another solo directorial effort until 2004’s Fantasia. To’s past criticism about the film is correct from a formal standpoint, but there is an anarchy here that works well.

The more I go over this, the more I am impressed with the complexity of the plot, the sardonic and often dark humor and how much this does fit into the Milkway portfolio. The comedic lopping off of fingers reminds me of the similar use in The Odd One Dies. But it is not unique to see similarities between Milkyway films. Carmen Lee plays a redemptive female in both this and The Odd One Dies (Stephen Teo notes this and the film Loving You which I have not seen.) *** The use of duality is here with an exact Doppleganger with the Taiwan Triad bosses (since they are brothers) and is especially present as there are many similarities between the two paths: yet some subtle and important differences that are eked out on rewatches. Some characters cannot outrun their destiny (like Lee Fung Yee in Running on Empty): the boss, the drowning of the triad’s brother and the inability to drive. Some like Wong seem destined to improve among the Multiverse. Maybe Wai was reading upon String Theory before he wrote this.

It is a shame that this is not easily available. I would easily buy a remastered version. I have pretty much given up on Criterion releasing Hong Kong cinema (or even Taiwan or Mainland), but would Shout! possibly be interested in releasing a triad set? Kino?

* While Beyond Hypothermia would have Milkyway’s logo on it To states in Stephen Teo’s monograph on To “That was shot before the company was set up. It was released after the company was established.”

** While the watch has three close-ups it shows two different times. In the second path it starts off as broken but at a later time with the tussle with Bo. It is telling that Bo is apologetic about it because Bo recognizes valuable items. But it is also important because Carmen Lee’s character buys him a cheaper watch which he tosses aside – possibly because it is a cheaper watch and also wanting to remain seen as a tough guy. The breaking of watch allegory (trying to stop time) in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury – though Faulkner’s narrative approach is much more difficult than this one which may be hard to believe unless you have read Faulkner.

*** Stephen Teo makes a crucial mistake in his book when he writes the film as Too Many Ways To Be Number 1. The English title is purposefully spelled to use the contraction “No.” (No. 1 = no one) You might think of “Too” as two since there are two main life choices this individual has.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: Beat TG
Date: 09/07/2008
Summary: Unique & fresh film-making

Somewhat similar to THE ODD ONE DIES in terms of style and visual (cinematography and camerawork) but still different in theme (fate, that is, making decisions that either keeps you safe and secure or puts your life at stake/kills you) and execution (dark and comical in combination). Direction is flawless and take its time to build up the characters and the simple (yet effective) story, the actors are very well used fulfilling demands for story/character; Sean Lau, Francig Ng, Elvis Tsui and crew acting it out rightfully and economically in accordance, and everyone behind the camera doing their jobs equally well to bring out quality to perfection, including Wai Ka Fai (director), Johnnie To (producer), Szeto Kam Yuen (writer) and Cacine Wong (composer). Perfect effort by Johnnie To and crew/Milkyway Image.

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: Anticlimacus
Date: 06/02/2008
Summary: A Waste of Two Great Actors

I have no idea why everyone loves this movie so much. It’s just bad. Really bad.

And I’m not just talking about the camerawork either. That’s the least of this movie’s problems. Everything is just way too schizophrenic. Characters (and references to characters) just pop out of absolutely nowhere, only to then be dropped like a bad habit only minutes later. As such, the viewer is given nothing to work with in terms of understanding character motivation for anything that they do. Who the heck was that? Why the heck did they do that? The scriptwriter apparently didn’t care, so why should I? The script can be summarized as follows: a bunch of stuff happens. Hardly compelling filmmaking.

Lau and Francis will just start talking about events and people out of the blue as if those references have already been fully developed. Who are you talking about? When did that happen? Again, the scriptwriter apparently didn’t care, so why should I? The comedy always feels forced because there’s no setup time for any of the scenarios; they do this, then they immediately do something completely different, then they instantly do something else, etc. ad infinitum.

This movie is the posterchild for underdeveloped concepts. Virtually everything here is wafer thin, as expected when you throw in dozens of superficial elements that are given a few minutes of screentime each. The structure and light-speed cadence is so irritating that it grates on the nerves within the opening 5 minutes. Someone should have given the director some depressents and taken away the cameraman’s Red Bull.

This was a huge disappointment. I feel like I just witnessed a trainwreck. A truly terrible film, and a waste of two great actors.

Reviewer Score: 4

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/27/2005

This is a hard film to describe. At its core, it tells the story of a small-time hood (Lau). The twist here (similar to the excellent German film Run Lola Run) is that Too Many Ways explores the same situation (a car heist in the Mainland) under different conditions. Without giving too much away, there are times where Lau both "wins" and "loses," though this film blurs the line between many accepted elements in the genre, so it is still unclear at the end wether anyone has truly won.

Director Wai does for HK gangster films what Tarantino's Pulp Fiction did for US gangster movies -- he gives it a much-needed shot in the arm. Like Pulp, which stood out in a sea of Goodfellas wannabes, Too Many Ways take the rules set forth by the popular "heroic bloodshed" movies (such as A Better Tomorrow) of the late '80's-early '90's and turns them upside down -- literally. One fight sequence is filmed completely upside down. One might look at camera tricks such as this and dismiss them as self-indulgent film-making. If you've seen any of Andy Warhol or Gregg Araki's "films," then I think you know what I mean -- but here the cinematography (gimmicky as it may be) actually adds to the development of the characters. And in a film like this (where characters, not gun fights propel the plot forward), that makes all the difference in the world.

But what really makes Too Many Ways work is the actors. At first, their performances may come off as amateurish, but when you compare the performances to the overacting present in many gangster films (both from the US and HK), they seem be closer to reality than the "superheroes" present in many other films and thus more believable as characters. Lau Ching-Wan, in particular, is excellent. He often gets overlooked when people discuss HK actors, but he definitely has a lot of talent. This is clearly evident in Too Many Ways, as he literally has to run the gamut from loser to hero. Francis Ng gives a good supporting performance as a fellow hood, bringing in both comedy and drama through his performance.

Too Many Ways to Be Number One is well worth checking out, especially if you're growing tired of all the John Woo/Ringo Lam ripoffs out there.

[review from www.hkfilm.net]

Reviewed by: ButterflyMurders
Date: 06/09/2002
Summary: Going against the grain til the end

Here's a way:

I'm all for artistic camerawork. It adds a lot of interest to scenes. This film however takes it just a *little* extreme-for God's sake, is it REALLY that necessary to have a camera dangling upside down from the ceiling? C'mon. I found the wild, unrestrained camerawork just too distracting. Maybe I'm just a boring, conservative movie viewer, but when I'm viewing something, I want to WATCH THE GODDAMNIT THING, not feeling like I've been tossed in the tumbler washer for a couple of hours. Amazing concept, isn't it?

There's a way:

Apart from the camerawork, the film itself is quite interesting. I always like films where you are able to watch, God-mode, two variant fates of a character. Nice story and amusing characters-for instance, the wannabe hitman desperate to call his ancient grandmother.

Which way is the way?:

If the camerawork wasn't so crazed, I would have held this film in higher regard. But hey, if you like being tumbled around, wheee! 7/10

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 05/31/2001
Summary: Strange and amusing

TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1 - Definitely one of the strangest Hong Kong films I've seen. Quite different too. Francis Ng and Lau Ching Wan are the main characters of note in a gang that decide to take on a job in Mainland China to seek fame and fortune. But then they don't. I haven't seen Run Lola Run so I didn't get the signifance of comparisons to it... basically the film finishes in the middle and then starts again, but a different decision early on leads to wholly different events in the end.

There's a lot of comedy in the film, some of it rather brutal. The action scenes are amusing, probably much more like a real fight. People falling over each other in heaps and hitting each other with whatever is nearest. The camerawork throughout is straaange! Some really odd techniques.

Overall it was a very fresh and enjoyable experience. The DVD is lousy, sadly.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: grimes
Date: 04/08/2000

This is one of the funniest, sharpest films I've seen in quite a while, a merciless skewering of several trends in recent Hong
Kong films. One trend is the artistic camera work that has recently been creeping into mainstream HK films, perhaps as a
result of Wong Kar Wai's influence (though I really couldn't say). An example that leaps to mind is Tsui Hark's The Blade
(which I liked quite a bit). The other trend that is mocked is the recent slew of Triad Boyz films, such as the Young and
Dangerous films and their innumerable spinoffs and imitators.

As I said, this film is merciless. While it is hilarious in general, it is even funnier if you've seen some of the Triad Boyz films,
especially the Young and Dangerous films. However, even those who have not seen these films will probably enjoy Too Many

Too Many Ways revolves around Lau Ching-Wan, in a brilliant comic performance, as a more or less incompetent, aging triad
member. The story is told in an unusual narrative style. This works well with the tone of the film as a whole, which is
fairly absurdist. Even most of the really violent scenes are played for laughs, and it's amazing how well this works, though
some of the violence is rather gory.

The humor in the movie goes all over the place, from physical and situational humor all the way to absurdist. Even the
camera is used for it's humorous value, poking fun at other directors through some bizarre cinematography. Interestingly,
he often makes a point of drawing attention to the camera, which gives the movie some great gags.

There is also some subtle social commentary in this movie, though whether or not it was intentional I don't know. The Triad
Boyz films definitely glamorize triad members and their lives. The 'good guys' in those films are loyal to each other, don't
harass non-triad members, and all that. Too Many Ways to Be Number One shows a more realistic depiction of criminals as
people who are looking for a quick way to make money and who don't often care who gets in the way. Of course, our hero,
Lau Ching-Wan, is slightly better than the others, but not by much.

I more or less did not stop laughing throughout the whole film, nor did anyone else in the audience I saw it with. I can't
think of a better recommendation for a parody than that.

Reviewed by: SUPERCOP
Date: 12/25/1999
Summary: Inventive and Imaginative Masterpiece.....

Milky Way Image partner Wai Ka-fai embarks on his next directorial product with this superbly written, brilliantly filmed black comedy that is unquestionably another in a long line of masterpieces from the Milky Way Film Group. Here, Lau Ching-wan and Francis Ng Chun-yu lead a cast of characters that can't seem to avoid unfortunate obstacles and mindnumbing situations in their quest for success among the triad ranks. Despite the exemplary performances from a diverse cast (including underrated performer Tsui Kam-kong), the real star of this film is the camera, which is experiment personified. From filming an action sequence completely upside down to shooting a gunfight in complete darkness (with the gunfire providing the only illumination), there are no boundaries set to where the camera can go. It's dizzying in a way, but in the end, the film ultimately benefits from this display of rich, exciting, avant garde-ish brand of movie-making, a trend which has become increasingly rare in today's age of filmmaking. The bottom line, a must see masterpiece that becomes increasingly entertaining upon multiple viewings.

Rating: 10/10

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: allan
Date: 12/21/1999

Best picture of 1997.

Reviewed by: shelly
Date: 12/09/1999

A gangster film, brilliantly written and photographed. The narrative line starts up, swoops back, possibly replays certain scenes; it's provocative and amusing at the same time (and manages to make the 'experimentation' of PULP FICTION look like child's play). Amazing camera work (hyper-actively circling, inverted and distorted, with a daringly warped colour scheme). The category III rating might come from the male bathhouse scene, which is actually pretty tame. The tone flips constantly: expect something hilariously violent/satirical/absurdist. Otherwise, it's an exhilarating ride through HK and mainland gangster-land, which puts into play the sort of choices that might be available to Hong Kongers on the eve of the 1997 hand over. I can't recommend it highly enough: take a chance and see it, if you want something both entertaining and a bit challenging.

Reviewed by: spinali
Date: 12/08/1999
Summary: NULL

Wai Ka Fai directed this stylistically ambitious study oftriads, with a propensity for ceiling shots, jerk-motion photography, 360 degree pans, distorted lenses, two sequences that are upside down, and another in total blackness! For that matter, a lot of it happens in the dark, with even darker humor. When Lau Ching-Wan's gang accidentally runs over their boss, twice, they have to complete a transaction for black market automobiles without him. Since they're fuck-ups, they mess up one job after another. Things start off badly: once they grout their dead boss behind some bathroom tiling; the guy's beeper goes off, and they can't finish the job without the pager information. Their next assignment is inspired by a triad moll privy to a bank job; but she dies of an orgasm, and once they eventually figure out where the robbers are, the cops already gunning them down piecemeal. As Lau Ching-Wan doesn't know how to drive, he barely escapes with his pals. In the carnage, blood even gets on the camera lens! The action comes to a climax in Taiwan, where through another screw-up he's commissioned to kill two opposing triad bosses -- at the same meeting, with all their gunmen in attendance. Several thousand rounds of ammo are spent in the resulting fight; three people get minor injuries. Great quote: "Brother. See the fish shitting." I'm not quite sure what he was referring to. You get the sense that the director doesn't know what he's doing, but is having a great time at it, and maybe that's the main appeal of this ironic pastiche.


[Reviewed by Steve Spinali]

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

I'd have to admit that I'll watch anything with Lau Ching-Wan, but I couldn't believe that someone had topped "Big Bullet". The person I was watching it with thought that maybe the director had watched too many Wong Kar-Wai films and then drunk too much coffee, but if he had that was part of the charm of this film. Full marks to Lau for another great performance and also to Francis Ng who really surprised me in "A Queer Story" and who was hilarious in this one. Is HK filmmaking taking a new direction or is it just my imagination.

[Reviewed by Janet Greason]