There was a time when the transition away from physical media to digital seemed like a gift as largely hard-to-find media became accessible. Without getting into the larger economic issues within their respective areas, the shift toward digital acquisition with film meant that (a) you could increase your collection without sacrificing real estate in your home and (b) you could have near-instant access to popular and rare films at the click of a button. The recent changes by Warner Brothers Discovery, however, is shining a bright light on the downside of digital consumption, a bit like a canary in a coal mine for early and current adopters to start backing up or securing physical copies of their beloved entertainment. As a physical media proponent, physical media will always trump digital due several factors like uncompressed audio and video, more likely to have bonus features, and greater on-demand access. Plus, unless some tragedy occurs and my discs are damaged, no corporation can suddenly come into my home and take my discs. This is why cinema boutiques like Arrow Video with their latest restoration, a 2-disc collection of director Johnnie To’s Running Out of Time films, are treasured by cinema enthusiasts like me. They provide consistent restorative quality of films, include informative bonus features, and typically use titles that have yet to been given a solid archive edition.
In 1999, To introduced audiences to Inspector Ho (Lau Ching Wan), a Hong Kong-based negotiator who goes head-to-head with a thief (Andy Lau) in an elaborate game across 72-hours. A few years later, in 2001, Ho returns, this time challenged by a magician (Ekin Cheng), whose mission is somehow more convoluted than that of the previous challenger, requiring Ho to think faster than ever if he’s going to catch up.
According to author David West in his essay included in this collection release, To tended to rely on outlines to make his films rather than scripts. This meant a lot of improvisation on set from cast and crew in order to create his films. A major change for Running Out of Time is that not only did To run off of a script, but that script was written by two former critics, Laurent Cortiaud and Julien Carbon of France. West credits the writers for the reason that Running 1 is a much tighter film than Running 2 (a film made via outline) and, learning this post-watch, it makes a great deal of sense. The first film is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster as the protagonist is the thief, not Ho, who is terminally ill and spending his last days on a very specific mission that he requires Ho to complete. The beats in the film shift between drama, action, and comedy with incredible ease, the choices made by both the thief and Ho speaking a great deal about who they are as people. It’s this frequent reliance on inference that makes Running 1 a film you lean into, trying to see if you’re as clever as the thief or if you’re merely playing catch-up like the not necessarily daft nor terribly clever Ho. The script also makes clear, without telling us via exposition, who Ho is (and was before the start of the film), which makes him a great foil for the thief’s mission. Of course, Lau’s performance is particularly soulful, weighing the outrageousness and reality equally, making it so that the audience wants to see him get away with it all. Evidentially, it was such a strong performance that Lau was awarded Best Actor at the 19th Hong Kong Film Awards. Wan isn’t a slouch either, conveying the isolation that Ho feels as someone who only lives for his job, likely the very reason the talented negotiator heads up the police warehouse in charge of maintenance, no longer a member of HK police force’s tactical squad. When compared against Ho and the magician in Running 2, there’s very little that feels fresh or exciting, with most of Running 2 being a rehash of scenes or motifs that were successful in the first film. It’s not that Cheng isn’t fun as the devious nameless magician, it’s just that his whole scheme offers none of the tension of the first film and its payoff is equally nonsensical. Wan doesn’t phone it in which is primarily why watching Ho go toe-to-toe with the magician is as fun as it is.
So let’s talk restoration.
Both discs are 2K restorations from the masters by/from Fortune Star. Each one is presented in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1) with original Cantonese and Mandarin 5.1 audio, as well as English mono for Running out of Time and English 5.1 for Running 2. This is an instance where the 2K restoration looks and sound incredible. Especially in Running 1, the images are crisp and clear, the colors are well balanced, and there’s very little noticeable grain. Both films largely take place within the city of Hong Kong, so it’s not like there’s a need for the kind of vibrancy one might hope for in a film taking place in nature; rather, the dark suits worn by the central characters, the cold gray of the concrete, and the blue of the sky (especially in the opening shot of our thief on top of the building in Running 1) are nicely disparate from each other, conveying the distance warmth of humanity against the often cold cruelty of city life. For this review, both films were watched in their native language and those audio tracks are similarly well-balanced for advanced setups. The dialogue comes through clearly in the center speaker and, though there is action in the films, these mostly small set piece character-driven films don’t have a need for surround sound, but all the ambient noise is equally clear. Once started, there was no need to adjust the volume at any point to account for the usual difference in dialogue versus ambient or action sounds. For this reviewer, the hallmark of any sound design is the ability to press play, set the volume, and leave it alone for the rest of the film.
What may be considered a downside for those who already own either of the Running films from prior releases is the lack of brand-new bonus materials. With the exception of feature-length commentary tracks from Hong Kong film expert Frank Djeng of the NY Asian Film Festival for each film, everything included in this collection was either part of the U.K. or French home release in 2003/2005. These aren’t total retreads as several of them were retranslated by Arrow to provide more accurate representation of what the individuals speaking say. This does mean that the original subtitles are blurred out with the new ones underneath, but it’s not enough of a distraction to diminish what you learn. If, however, you’ve never owned the Running films, you’re still looking at roughly 187 minutes of informative information in the form of interviews with the screenwriters of the original film, cast members, To, and others instrumental in making one or both films. This is the kind of stuff that makes a restoration worth picking up as a means of archiving the filmmaking process. What’s particularly fascinating, whether you’re new to To’s work or not, is the included essay by West that explores the emotional and sexual subtext of the Running Out of Time films while providing some context for the creation of both films. The liner notes don’t include much beyond the expected cast list and restoration info beyond the essay, which is atypical of Arrow, but it’s still very much worth the read.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Running 1 is the superior of the two films as it’s more tightly presented, more emotionally investing, and stronger in its internal subtext. This doesn’t mean that Running 2 isn’t worth the watch; it’s certainly fun, but it retreads so much familiar material without the same emotional pressure within the narrative that the audience feels more distant from it than the first. That said, if you haven’t seen either film, this collection is still worth picking up because of the strength of the first film, the quality restoration, and the bonus materials included.
Running Out of Time Collection Special Features:
- High Definition Blu-Ray (1080p) presentations of both films, scanned and restored in 2K
- Original lossless Cantonese and Mandarin 5.1 audio options, plus lossless English mono (Running Out of Time) and lossless English 5.1 (Running Out of Time 2)
- Optional English subtitles, newly revised for this release
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Lucas Peverill
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing on the films by David West
Disc 1 – Running Out Of Time
- Brand new audio commentary by Hong Kong film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) (1:33:38)
- Audio commentary by writers Laurent Cortiaud and Julien Carbon, moderated by Hong Kong film expert Stefan Hammond (1:33:38)
- Archival interview with screenwriters Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud from 2003 (21:57)
- Archival interview with screenwriters Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud from 2005 (37:09)
- Archival interview with director Johnnie To (11:44)
- Archival interview with star Lau Ching-wan (25:20)
- Archival interview with composer Raymond Wong (27:25)
- The Directors’ Overview of Carbon and Courtiaud, an archive featurette (8:24)
- Theatrical trailer (2:29)
- Image gallery
Disc 2 – Running Out Of Time 2
- Brand new audio commentary by Hong Kong film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) (1:36:08)
- The Making of Running Out of Time 2, an archive featurette (5:46)
- Hong Kong Stories, a documentary from 2003 by director Yves Montmayeur about Hong Kong cinema mythology via Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud’s experience as writers in the HK film industry, working for Wong Kar-wai, Tsui Hark and Johnnie To (49:46)
- Theatrical trailer (2:41)
- Image gallery
Available on Blu-ray August 30th, 2022.
For more information, head to Arrow Video.
To purchase, head to MVD Entertainment Group.