Johnnie To’s Chasing Dream is a return in more ways than one. An earnest romance between an MMA fighter, Tiger (Jacky Heung), and an aspiring singer, Cuckoo (Keru Wang), as their lives and careers become inextricably intertwined, it is the Hong Kong director’s first feature in three years, arriving amid rumors surrounding his as-yet-unproduced Election 3. But the film also harkens, perhaps unexpectedly, to the director’s work from over a decade prior — specifically 2004’s Throw Down. A film about two judo fighters and an aspiring singer, it remains one of the purest expressions of To’s worldview, though depending on one’s general position on the director, it’s probably either a riveting masterpiece or an alienating bore. Chasing Dream is without a doubt the less controlled work: it’s frenetic and overstuffed, mixing and matching styles, tones, and genres with aplomb. If it has an emblematic scene, it’s probably not the grand musical number towards the end — a scene that like Office (2015), teases the viewer with the prospect of a full-blown To musical — but an earlier sequence where Tiger has Cuckoo cycle through a series of recognizable styles (Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Madonna, etc.) while performing her signature song.
But what the film lacks in sophistication it makes up for with sheer exuberance, nonetheless tempered by a certain respect for those that have come before. Throw Down was dedicated to Akira Kurosawa (“the greatest filmmaker”), and Chasing Dream is likewise cognizant of the debt that one owes to one’s forebears and their respective legacies: Cuckoo’s main antagonist is a scheming ex-boyfriend who plagiarized her work on the way to popular success, while Tiger, though faced with the prospect of permanent injury, returns to the MMA ring to avenge his former boxing master. Lit by an array of swinging light bulbs, Tiger’s pre-climax training scene, which gives literal expression to the term shadowboxing, is undoubtedly Chasing Dream’s most visually dazzling sequence. But it also crystallizes the film’s abiding ethos: Watching him move about the remnants of his former life, one gets the sense that there is perhaps no such thing as a “former” teacher, that in boxing or cinema or otherwise, no matter how far one goes in chasing a dream, one cannot escape the shadows of the old masters.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2020 — Dispatch 1.