Fate. Karma. Destiny. If you don't believe in any of those, then that's cool and good for you. Kau (Ching Wan Lau) is getting a palm reading, while he's staring at his faux Rolex, and by the look on his face, he's either confused or didn't like what was said. Kau's a crime boss of a little crew, definitely of the t-shirts and jeans variety, and he sells flowers and funeral wreaths to get by. Little weasel Bo meets him on the street and how to you get to be No.1? How do you get yourself some Rolex, Armani, Cartier, and some Calvin Klein underwear? Pull a heist and land in the big times. Ka-Fai Wai shows that there are Too Many Ways to be No. 1 (1997), which becomes two stories about one man who gets into a lot of No. 2.Kau sits with a makeshift crew, including Matt (Francis Ng), while weasel Bo relates the gig: steal five Mercedes Benz with delivery to a crime syndicate in mainland China for a big payout. Not only will it put some cash in their pockets, the score will up their rep in Hong Kong. Kau gets stuck with the bill, and since they're all going to be big men, they go to the local massage parlor for some primping. When the hefty bill comes his way, Kau refuses to pay it and he and his crew begin a brawl within, ending with Kau grabbing the loot from the parlor and Matt inadvertently running over little weasel Bo. Back at their hideout, in a very nasty and silly sequence, the crew tries to revive little Bo with disastrous results. The money from the parlor heist is lost in a ball of flames. Bo's death means that their contact in mainland China is cut off, and then there's the messy problem with his corpse.
The rest of the first story plays out unexpectedly yet predictably in Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, primarily because of Kau's fortune. Dejected and angry, his journey to mainland China plays out like a punishment for his actions in an escalating series of bad choices with disastrous results. Along the way, Kau becomes angrier and impulsive, really angry at himself. Kau eventually loses control over his crew, and the crew eventually loses control of itself to an outsider and eventually, to outside forces.Cut to the second story, and Kau's faux Rolex is broken on the street. Little weasel Bo is taking a beating by Kau and there's a heist to be had. Over dinner, with Matt again in company, Bo relates the gig, and Kau gets stuck again with the bill. Off to the massage parlor, and the boys run up quite the bill, again. The manager comes over and Kau gets stuck with the bill: calm and collected, with integrity and honor, Kau pays what he can and gives up his watch as payment. Kau calmly walks out of the parlor alone, while one of the local parlor girls follows him home. She's off to Taiwan tomorrow and wants a man to see her off at the airport. She's leaving Hong Kong, because she has no one there who cares about her. Kau goes with her and sees her off. Matt shows up at the airport and begs for his help. Matt's got a hit to perform in Taiwan and wants Kau to help him. Both stories are meditations on fate, karma, destiny, and the like. The only thing that separates the two stories is Kau's attitudes and outlook on life. Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 shows that one cannot control his/her feelings but only his/her actions. The consequences of those actions are also not within control. Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 ain't a poetic mediation either: often violent and bloody, nonsensical and silly, harsh and unforgiving, and seriously kinetic. Wai's camera flies all over the place and shows some especially bold compositions. He completely turns the camera one hundred and eighty degrees during the initial massage parlor brawl. Few filmmakers would go there: it's nearly unwatchable, because the action is not discernible. Just chaos. A interesting stylistic approach which is also a big risk that pays off big. Wai's imagery within the frames is really a balance of nastiness and silliness. A jarring blend. Ka-Fai Wai is Johnnie To's creative partner at Milkway Productions (who produced here). Wai often shares a directorial credit on To's films, and you can see where his creative talent resides with Too Many Ways to Be No. 1. Wai, also co-writer here, is very adept at creating multi-faceted characters in films with very rich themes. Wai never goes for the safe move in his films: his characters will take action with serious consequences. Wai also directed one of my favorites from HK and one of Yun-fat Chow's last HK films before he went to Hollywood, Peace Hotel (1995), a fun riff on Django (1966) that is also unexpected and stylish. Written By (2009) is one of my most-anticipated films from Hong Kong this year, and if anything, I can rely on Wai delivering something offbeat and unexpected. It also stars Milkyway's main man and currently one of the best actors working period, Ching Wan Lau.Lau's fantastic. His heartfelt appearance in Derek Yee's C'est la vie, mon chéri (1994) seriously raised some eyebrows and gained the actor quite a following. Lau, like Jack Nicholson, has an amazingly expressionistic face and convey a wide range of emotions, seemingly effortlessly just with glances and looks. He's quite magnetic, and I'll see anything that he's in. Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 is Kau's story, and Lau owns this role. Lau's performance is up to the energy level of Wai's creative input: Lau has to play the same character who evolves with two different character arcs. Taxing for most actors, Lau executes brilliantly. It's really hard not to fall in love with Lau's Kau in Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, and it's one of my favorite performances by him.Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 was made at a time when eyes were off Hong Kong cinema. Most of its stars and big-time directors moved away, and the majority of the films were lacking in excitement. However, the flame never died, and Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 shines brightly.