Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.
Beginning in the year 2046 (the year Hong Kong finally will be fully incorporated into the People's Republic, and also of course the title of Wong's career-summarizing masterpiece, the editing for which was still in progress when this film was released), we meet Sandra Ng's Kum, the eponymous hooker. Now an old lady (she's had some work done), she meets a despondent young man and tries to talk him out of erasing his memory (as Hong Kongers of the future will do to deal with their romantic traumas). She tells him stories of a very bad year she had, 2003, with the message that as bad as it was, she wouldn't give up the memory for anything. The bulk of the film then is three stories of Kum's year. The first is her comical involvement with a couple of terrible johns: Ronald Cheng plays a man who is weirdly obsessed with her body hair (he has a memory problem: keeps forgetting his wife, Angelica Lee) and Anthony Wong as a client who's apparent goofy kinkiness is actually suicidal. Next is a section devoted to the SARS epidemic and the medical workers who work tirelessly to fight it, epitomized by a masked doctor played by Leon Lai. The third and by far longest story is Kum's lifelong relationship with her cousin (think As Tears Go By) Quincy, played by Jacky Cheung.
This story weaves Quincy into the margins of Kum's life as told in the first film. He's an inveterate schemer, an amoral capitalist who shows up every few years to charm Kum out of some money and break her heart. He's an ideal of a kind of Hong Kong ideology: one Christmas his big romantic gesture is a massive set of Christmas lights covering a skyscraper, drawing a giant $ on the HK skyline. Cheung matches Ng's manic performance, and both wring surprising pathos out of a film where the main character is named "Kum".
As in the first film, the high point comes with an Andy Lau cameo at the end. He leaves us, and Kum, with the promise that when we close our eyes and open them, we'll see our Hong Kong, the one we love most. Kum sees the 1980s skyline at night, blue and red and yellow and black, bright and in constant motion, a shot that could have come from any number of John Woo or Tsui Hark or Ringo Lam classics. I'm going to say it's from A Better Tomorrow.