Running on Karma (2003)

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 10/12/2012
Summary: Repeat viewings mandatory

Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai took a break from their string of commercialy successful romantic comedies to do a more personal project, a film with more artistic than commercial ambitions. The film definitely polarised audiences, possibly due to false expectations. My girlfriend watched it before me and said she really liked it a lot, but that her sister and friend didn't like it because they were expecting it to be a comedy. After Andy Lau's appearance in a fat suit for LOVE ON A DIET, promotional pictures of him in a muscle suit for RUNNING ON KARMA led many people (including myself) to expect something similar.

It's definitely NOT a comedy, though it has comedic parts. It's a very strange hybrid of all sorts, and some of the leaps in mood (and time) had me wondering if I was now watching a dream sequence or something. It's a film that almost mandates a second viewing to make sense of it - partly because it's not the film you think it's going to be (and it does wilfully play with genres to encourage that confusion), partly because it's an ambitious attempt to say something serious about Buddhism and the nature of Karma, but mostly because there were a few parts that should have at least been edited differently, and they do hurt the film quite significantly.

However, it's still one of the most unusual and interesting films Milkyway have produced so far, and is definitely one of the best films of 2003 (with some better editing I think it would probably have been the very best!). There's nothing else quite like it, and it's a film that won't easily forgotten even after it's been fully understood.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: Hyomil
Date: 04/07/2011

Reviewer Score: 1

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 09/20/2010

Lee Fung Yee is a detective with a problem. She is promoted from a squad doing small-time morals enforcement--busting male strippers who get completely naked--to the elite CID bureau. On her very first mission with her new colleagues she leaves the camera they were using to record the bloody aftermath of a murder at the crime scene. The head of the CID makes her get out of the car on a freeway ramp to walk back and retrieve the camera. There is good news, though: she has a helper. Unfortunately he is the male stripper she just arrested , a bodybuilder former monk who suffers from horrific, paralyzing visions and who gets deported to Shenzhen whenever he is caught.

His visions are real nightmare stuff--World War II era Japanese soldiers killing with sword, clubbed rifle and bayonet including baby-skewering and beheadings. It seems clear almost immediately that he is looking at the rape of Nanjing. Big, the monk, has these hallucinations whenever he looks at Lee Fung Yee during or after some pulse pounding police action. He realizes he is being told that one of the squad will die and that a woman will die. It is only later, after some meditation and a conference with the blind abbot of his former monastery that he puts the two together.

He is seeing the past and therefore the inescapable future of Lee. Even though she is, as she says, nothing special--an average student at an average school who, despite her academic shortcomings was allowed to apply for the police force, an average officer in a law enforcement backwater who gets a coveted assignment to an elite squad, an ordinary person who has an extraordinary companion who chases and captures criminals, turning them over to her to be arrested. Lee has a charmed life.

But of course she doesn't since she is caught on the wheel of karma and the turn of the wheel that represents this lifetime will be coming to a stop soon. A past life was one of grotesque barbarity and cruelty; she will be paying for it in this one and if she is able to perform some wholesome actions along the way (she does by forgiving the person who murdered her in another past life) she has a chance to move closer to a wholesome state.

My understanding of this Johnny To/Wai Ka Fai chaotic masterpiece is that a couple of weeks of this life of a person whose recent incarnations have been filled with fear, pain and despair and who, with the help of a former monk who must have become a Bodhisattva has a chance in her next incarnation to be back on the path to enlightenment. A Bodhisattva is a being who forgoes Nirvana out of compassion for the struggles of others. Big meditating for seven days in front of the body of a sparrow he accidentally killed and then wordlessly dropping his robes and heading into the city is a tip-off to his near Nirvana status. And that the murdered Jade was Lee in a former life (a blameless life that ended in great suffering) is the case simply because it must be.

This is a very narrow interpretation of "Running on Karma" and, as can be seen from the other reviews here, it is a lot more than a bit of Buddhism among the cops and robbers. Andy Lau is terrific. Some of the stunts are priceless--for example when he hops on a small scooter to follow Lee and runs it straight into a brick wall without turning or even slowing down. While the rest of the scooter chase went on for too long (one of the very few obvious problems with the movie) it started with a hilarious piece of business. Big showing his martial arts prowess by keeping a single Kleenex floating in the air by kicking and punching near it was brilliantly carried off and the way it ended, with him cutting the tissue in half with a kick and having both halves continue to float was perfect.

It is all but a two-hander between Andy Lau and Cecilia Cheung. There are some bumbling cops, some gruff but lovable cops, a few standard issue monks complete with a blind abbot whose affliction allows him to see into the heart of things, a bunch of happy-go-lucky mainland hookers who get deported in the morning and come back to Hong Kong at night. A couple in intriguing villains simply disappear. The chemistry between the leads is all that is really important.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: STSH
Date: 07/27/2007
Summary: Big Karma

A very entertaining movie, as the other reviewers have noted. Some aspects not commented upon include the cinematography and the plot inconsistencies, which I will thus address.

There is some simply gorgeous scenery which is superbly photographed. The lush green fields, mountains and lakes lend a grand and spacious feel to especially the second half, and make this section a sheer joy to watch.

The story chops and changes somewhat. The movie begins with scenes of a brutal murder intercut with a men's strip show. The murderer, a tall and incredibly flexible (courtesy of CGI) Indian is a mysterious presence who dominates much of the first half of the movie. Then he vanishes, without so much as a futher mention. Also, without warning, another very flexible character pops up (Hon Kwok Choi). Initially, it looks as if he has something to do with the rubbery Indian, but 'tis not to be. And he, too, vanishes without trace. This movie could be subtitled "The mystery of the vanishing bad guys".

And there is other odd stuff. The police bust the strip show after Andy/Big rips off the last piece of clothing. As the cops are trying to nab him, he says only that he wants his brief. For a while, it looks like that means he is asking for a lawyer, but when Yee finds his leather jockstrap, it is clear he means his briefs. Also, during the scene where Andy tries to catch Hon Kwok Choi, there is something about one minute taken away from 20 hours together, for which there appeared to be no explanation.

Whether these weirdnesses were deliberate or due to poor script editing is unclear. However, the general tone is towards mysterious, and they by no means get in the way. The time-shifting aspect could have been very jarring, and it is frequently hard to tell if what is being shows is in the present or the past, but this is also not a problem. This film is consistently entertaining and holds interest all the way through.

Andy's muscle suit is a weird combination of the believeable and the fake. The join around the neck is distractingly obvious, and the flesh has the flat feel of plastic, yet the muscles move in a realistic and even entertaining manner. Perhaps if there's a sequel (The Further Adventures of Monk Big, perhaps ?), they can improve upon it.

However, I found myself not dwelling much on the suit, as Andy's characterization works so well (it is his best acting in years), and the teaming yet again with the charming Cec Cheung works a treat.


Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/17/2005

I must admit, at first Running on Karma -- which features Andy Lau in an oversized "muscle suit" -- seemed like just another gimmicky romantic comedy. But leave it up to Johnnie To to take something that could have been quite vapid and make it into an extraordinary, thought-provoking picture. In a year which has produced mostly run-of-the mill films, Running on Karma definitely stands out. Thankfully, it's because the movie is very good, instead of being an excercise in tedium like big-budget flops, such as Jackie Chan's disappointing The Medallion.

The plot has Andy Lau as a former monk (simply named Big or Biggie in the subtitles) who is now making his living at a stripper at an undergroud club. Cecilia Cheung plays a rookie cop called Yee who busts the club Big is working at. Big has the power to see a person's karma, and thus know when and how they are going to die. While being booked, Big sees a vision of Yee's death, and (due to lingering pain over the loss of his one true love) decides to help her crack a case involving a mysterious yoga master who is implicated in a murder. As the two draw closer together, Big realizes his own impact on Yee's karma, and tries to pull away from their relationship, until a tragic event once again brings them back to each other -- though in a way you might not expect.

This is one of the few films that I really don't have much in the way of negative things to say about it. From beginning to end, Running on Karma kept me entertained. It is kind of a schizophrenic movie, but the good Hong Kong directors (such as Johnnie To and his partner Wai Ka-Fai) can pull this type of film out. Matters are helped immensely by the performances of the leads. Though Cecilia Cheung is really not a "great" actor, she does add in a lot of personality into what could have very well been just a generic "cute cop" role. And I must give Andy Lau his due. I was really not a fan of his until a few years ago, but now he seems to realize that he is one of HK film's "old veterans" and seems to be taking his work much more seriously now. Even though Big frankly looks a bit ridiculous at times due to the muscle suit, Andy (similar to what Andy Serkis did with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) always manages to keep the humanity of the character intact, and that is what ultimately makes or breaks a film such as this.

Running on Karma is To's best work in years, and I will go so far as to say that it is without a doubt the best picture of the year, from both the US and Hong Kong. That might not be saying much considering 2003's dismal output -- which gave us heaping piles of dung like Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Lethal Cop, films which get my vote as the worst of the year from their respective countries. But Running on Karma is so good, it stacks up well against most every other movie, even those produced during Hong Kong's much-ballyhooed "golden age". Yes, Hong Kong cinema might very well never again reach the level of output and quality attained by the industry during those years, but Running on Karma proves that the area can still create great movies that would not be produced in any other part of the world, and it's a fine reminder to fans as to why we became enamored with them in the first place.

[review from www.hkfilm.net]

Reviewed by: j.crawford
Date: 06/11/2005
Summary: extremely entertaining and thought provoking

Since the collabaration between Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai as co-directors started in 2000 they made a series of films that started strong (Needing You... and Help!) but 2002's My Left Eye sees Ghosts was one of the most annoying movies ever made. 2003's Running on Karma is the best film of the 10 they made together.

Film stars Andy Lau and Cecila Chung, insuring box office success in the SAR. Lau plays a Shaolin monk/bodybuilder named Big who has the ability to see one's karma. Maybe more of a curse than a blessing, Big leaves the Monastery for the secular life as a male stripper. Chung pays female undercover cop. Top-notch performances from the 2 stars make the movie go. Screenplay is really well crafted, combining action, comedy, drama, bizarre martial arts, and Buddhist philosphy into extremely entertaining and thought provoking motion picture.

Action Direction by Yuen Bun is awesome, filling Running on Karma with lots of bizarre, titilating action sequences. Prosthetic make-up Lau wears as bodybuilder achieves mixed results here; not as good as the fat suits he used in To/Wai's 2001 film, Love On a Diet.

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: rarnom
Date: 03/29/2005
Summary: Thumbs Up!

In 'Running on Karma' Andy Lau plays 'Big', a big and buff former Buddhist monk turned male exotic dancer. He also happens to have superhuman strength and the ability to see karma as well as a peek into how people will meet their death. He crosses paths with young and demure girl cop Cecilia Cheung and once he sees her karma, finds it hard to shake her. Will he be able to save her from the fate he sees in her future?

I found this to be one of the most unique Hong Kong films I have ever seen. It starts out almost like an 'X-Men' type film with Andy Lau's character battling an ultraviolent Indian super contortionist murderer. The violence and mood was gritty, visceral, and immediately interesting. After the action and story dies down the film focuses more on the relationship between Lau and Cheung, even though they do have another 'X-Men' type bad guy show up, but he is nowhere near as cool as the contortionist guy. The transition left me wanting more action to keep things going, but it also feels like an appropriate segue to the end. I found the ending to be confusing at first but it does make some sense if you think about it. The ending is definitely not a happy roses and rainbows one, but I hate those kinds of endings anyway...

I didn't really care much for the 'super angry' police captain, but somehow it fit with the mood of the film so I forgave it. The muscle suit was also forgiven because it had to be there and while it did look fake enough, I was kind of glad I wasn't seeing Andy Lau's real butt, and there are plenty of butt shots in this movie, which are funny.

Overall I thought this was a great film with great performances and an appropriate mix of violence, romance, humor, and wierdness. High recommendation.

Version Reviewed:

Tai Sang VCD

Video: very good for a VCD. Clear picture, no lines or scratches.

Audio: standard VCD audio. Left channel Cantonese, Right channel Mandarin

Subtitles: excellent for a VCD. Very easy to read white subs with black outlines. It seems they were digitally added. Placed towards the bottom of the film picture.

Before the film there are trailers for 'Men Suddenly in Black', 'God of Gamblers', and 'God of Gambler's Return'

overall an excellent VCD

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 09/18/2004
Summary: Ummmm.......

A did have big expectations of this movie after so many positive comments about it

Like the review below me i expected a romantic comedy but the movie is something totally different. Also i felt lost with the direction of the movie, is it because i don't understand buddism? I have a general idea but the movie itself, who wrote it, a shaolin monk? The end was a big suprise.

AFter a second viewing that i appreciated the movie more. Todays actions leads to tommorrows consequences, or something like that. Watch this with a open mind, the movie is in 2 parts so dont be too suprised in the shift of the story. A recommend at least watching the movie twice to really appreciate it

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: zarrsadus
Date: 02/29/2004
Summary: Too deep for me

I have to admit, I am not well versed in Buddhist philosophy, which is probably why I didn't "get" this movie. Seeing those big star names of Andy and Cecilia I figured okay, another cheesey romantic comedy with two super stars, this is going to be very cliche. This couldn't be further from the case. At the beginning I thought I understood the movie but halfway through it went from light Buddhist philosophy to heavy heavy symbolism and I was lost. I guess this is karma for me to not understand this movie? ^_^ Andy gave a good performance, but as in "Love on a Diet," the bodysuit was a little noticeable just because I always picture Andy Lau as a skinny guy not a bodybuilder. I don't know how I would rate this movie, because I honestly feel I missed the point somewhere along the line. My karma is to read more books on Buddhism... ??/10

Reviewed by: magic-8
Date: 12/31/2003
Summary: Good Vibrations

Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai step back from the fluffy comedies and the hard-nosed thrillers to tell a story that exploits the fantastic. More like “Mad Monk” and “Heroic Trio” than “The Mission,” “Running on Karma” takes the hypothetical and makes it literal in the form of Andy Lau as the character Big. Andy once again dons a rubber suit, but this time of raging muscles. He meets up with Cecilia Cheung, playing a police officer, during a botched raid and reads her karma. Andy has the ability to see a person’s fate through that person’s past life’s transgressions. So begins the rudimentary Buddhism lesson for the day.

“Running on Karma” gives us the down and dirty on the Buddhist principle karma: “the effect of a person’s actions during the successive phases of the person’s existence, regarded as determining the person’s destiny” (The American Heritage Dictionary). The filmmakers take a philosophical point of view and present Andy Lau as an ex-monk cursed with the gift of being able to see a person’s fate, but Andy must reconcile his own mortal failings before truly comprehending what lies ahead.

Can we change fate? Are we the masters of our own destiny? Sometimes the choice has already been made for us.

Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai take a risk by introducing some heady Buddhist elements that could have hurt the film. They could have altered their course and made it more pedantic and mainstream, but they forge onward by not painting rosy pictures of Lau and Cheung skipping through the street. To and Ka-Fai turn the tide of romantic sweetness into a bitter pill to swallow.

“Running on Karma” is a film that is hard to classify. It starts off as an action picture, then adds some romantic-comedy, and finally settles down to a layman’s philosophical treatise on Buddhism. The movie contains a bit of each. Some may find the topic too hard or ridiculous to swallow, but To and Ka-Fai do not, thankfully, give in to a happy-go-lucky ending. Even if the material is armchair philosophy, it does joggle the mind enough to make “Running on Karma” the weightier picture over earlier efforts, “PTU” and “Turn Left, Turn Right.” The film offers many surprises, including a top-notch performance by Andy Lau, and a great way to be entertained. “Running on Karma” attempts to alter our perceptions of reality by asking the simple question: “What if?”