At a Hong Kong strip club policewoman Lee Fung Yee (Cecilia Cheung) poses as part of a pack of excitable women cheering the gyrating male strippers led by the absurdly muscular Big (Andy Lau in a latex muscle suit). Upstairs her cop colleagues happen across a mangled corpse. In a shocking discovery, the killer hiding inside a tiny cinder block is an Indian contortionist freak who in a burst of martial arts violence makes his escape. At the same time, Big flees the scene stark bollock naked with Fung Yee in pursuit. All three collide in a chaotic confrontation where Fung Yee accidentally shoots dead an innocent police dog before being rescued by Big who not only has superhuman kung fu skills but psychic powers. Looking at Fung Yee he suddenly sees the image of a Japanese soldier responsible for numerous war crimes. Big stuns the young policewoman claiming unless something is done, a cop on her squad will be dead in the next few days.
Torn between the desire to lay low and a compulsion to save lives, Big secretly helps the cops solve the murder mystery. In the process Lee Fung Yee discovers Big was once a Buddhist monk until he renounced his faith following the murder of close friend by a brutal serial killer at large to this day. Intense martial arts mediation endowed him with superhuman strength and an uncanny ability to 'see karma.' More than anyone Big has a cosmic understanding of how "for every event that occurs another will follow as a direct result." Which is why, as he finds himself falling in love with Lee Fung Yee, it pains him to admit she is the cop who will soon be dead.
Only in Hong Kong could a film where the star wears an inflatable muscle suit not only win critical accolades but sweep the board at their equivalent of the Oscars. A true original, Running on Karma is a film only the HK film industry could conceive let alone fashion into masterpiece: an insane yet affecting genre mash-up of crime thriller, romantic comedy, borderline superhero action and heartfelt philosophical drama. At heart the film is a Buddhist parable that ponders whether or not karma predetermines our fate or whether we can change the course of seemingly unalterable events through doing good. Co-directors Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, proving once again why they are the current kings of HK cinema, really run with the concept of karma, reincarnation and unresolved emotional issues spawning an endless cycle of violence and hate that can only be redeemed by a truly selfless act.
Initially the plot almost plays like a more outlandish variation on Unbreakable (2000) juxtaposing a 'realistic' urban milieu with surreal superheroic action as Big takes down not just the contortionist killer but a mutant cat-burglar able to crawl on walls. However, the film masterfully skips from farce to suspense before a surprise swerve into The Hills Have Eyes (1977)/The Blair Witch Project (1999) territory throws in a jungle-dwelling cannibalistic killer. The abrupt shift of locales enables To and Ka-Fai to make as much evocative and thematically resonant use of the meditative mountain wilderness as they do of the urban jungle. They then spring a mind-bending metaphysical twist that sidesteps a conventional ending for a more humanistic finale true to the film's Buddhist beliefs. Given the filmmakers' philosophical aspirations some may question why they felt the need to include so much cracked comedy and crazy kung fu but that is precisely the point. Whereas other filmmakers from other countries envision spiritual odysseys as solemn and serious realistic dramas (e.g. South Korea's undeniably lyrical Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring (2003)) here To and Ka-Fai serve up the sort of fable one would expect to hear from a wise old monk: using humour, pathos, action, romance and, yes, Andy Lau in a remarkably convincing latex muscle suit to convey a thought-provoking spiritual lesson.
A compelling plot moves at a furious clip with stylish visuals and breakneck action choreographed by Shaw Brothers veteran Yuen Bun. It is also worth singling out the superb, award-winning performances from Cecilia Cheung, then the biggest star in Hong Kong cinema, and of course Andy Lau. On the strength of their fantastic chemistry it is no surprise they re-teamed in movies several times.