Kowloon has never been so dark, nor Hong Kong film so noir, as in PTU, director-producer Johnnie To Kei-fung's nocturnal ode in 2003 to both a city and a state of mind. A prolific auteur adept at many genres, To has rarely achieved the level of stylistic and thematic unity on display in this tightly woven underworld saga unfolding between the dusk and dawn of one grim night. A high point of post-1997 Hong Kong cinema, the saga is so finely etched it attains a universality that transcends its narrow geographical domain.
The action is confined within the boundaries of Tsim Sha Tsui, more precisely the area hemmed in by Canton and Kimberley roads. It is the heart of the peninsula's downtown, terrain perceptively utilised by To in relating PTU's tale of competing factions of law enforcers, law breakers, and more than a few who straddle the line ostensibly separating the two.
The narrative's spare 88 minutes are punctuated with humour and even some political allusions as the cast of pros goes about its business, with stand-out performances by Simon Yam Tat-wah as a member of the PTU (Police Tactical Unit) and Lam Suet as the bumbling vice squad sergeant whose lost gun reverberates throughout that eventful night and whose seriocomic demeanour steals every scene in which he is involved.
The real star, though, is the metropolis, an alienating mass of roads and alleys coordinated by To into an orchestral symphony. It is this aspect that is to be highlighted at the Hong Kong and Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in its miniseries of films - of which PTU is part - whose fabric is spun from interrelated aspects of the metropolitan landscape.
In these respects, PTU's cinematic cloth is better woven than most. Its subtext of a region in the throes of a spiritual crisis was prescient in 2003, when the movie was ironically released during the Sars panic. And it's still relevant in 2012 when the modern catchphrase, 'Hong Kong is dying, you know?' too aptly describes the fate of purely local projects trying to find financial backing in an industry consumed by homogenous cross-border co-productions averse to PTU-type specificity.
PTU, Feb 23, 8.30pm, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Agnes b. Cinema, free