dir: Johnnie To
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I have to admit, I find this flick pretty… strange. Much as I love Johnnie To’s flicks, and as much as I consider him one of the last Hong Kong directors making movies of any worth, style or significance, that doesn’t always mean I get where he’s coming from.
See, it’s a Hong Kong flick that mostly transpires in Macau, with an aged French actor as the lead, who doesn’t speak Cantonese, who wants revenge. Revenge! Or vengeance, as the case may be, on those who brutally attacked his daughter and murdered his grand children.
Why Costello (Johnny Halliday) wants revenge is almost irrelevant, because the sad fact is as well that, mixing in an element from Memento, Costello has short term memory problems, making his stated intention to seek Vengeance that much harder.
He accidentally stumbles across a team of hitmen, who he enlists in his righteous cause. They haltingly speak English, and he haltingly understands it, but they bond with each other, for reasons not obvious to me.
To’s films always, always, almost always centre around the idea of the brotherhood of man, and the bonds between men that can spring up through mutual criminality or happenstance, and yet prove stronger than love or death. To’s comfort with using the same stable of actors, or the union/triad gangster requirement to use the same actors in every single Hong Kong flick mean there’s a certain degree of shorthand involved.
Anthony Wong isn’t literally playing the same character he’s played in To’s other flicks like The Mission or Exiled, but he might as well be, because they’re virtually indistinguishable: it’s the archetype of the honourable hardcore crim. Same goes for Suet Lam, who always plays the mocked and sweetly put-upon fuckup who never the less can get efficient and brutal at a moment’s notice.
Hallyday as the main character is very strange. There’s no doubting he’s a competent actor (I’m sure he’ll be gratified to hear that), but there’s something so odd and off-putting about his face. I can’t tell if it’s because of reconstructive surgery due to some horrific accident, or vanity rearing its adjustable head in the form of cosmetic surgery, but his face looks like it’s had bits of it cut away until there’s little left. He doesn’t look as hideous and frightening as Mickey Rourke now does after his multiple turns under the knife, but he’s not far off.
His eyes, especially, look as if a lot of spare skin was flayed back, leaving his beady but clear blue eyes glaring out of his ravaged skin. Sure he conveys a quiet kind of menace, but a lot of the time he looks confused as to what he’s doing hanging around with all these triad gangsters.
He promises to the hitmen that his restaurants and such will all become theirs if they help him, but it doesn’t really seem as if money is what motivates them. It’s almost as if, despite the fact that they’re murderous scumbags themselves, they’re so horrified at the injustice of what happens to Costello’s daughter in the first reel that they feel compelled to risk their own lives for little if any prospect of final payment.
They conduct themselves with a degree of expertise and professionalism that seems like they’ve either watched a lot of those police procedurals that are all about the forensics and the like (CSI and variants thereof) or they just know what to look for, being hardcore crims.
In other words, they look at a crime scene, and are able to figure out what happened based on how they would have set about exterminating a family themselves.
Sounds like chilling stuff, but these are our ‘good’ guys, let’s remember. As pointed to earlier, it’s unclear why they grow to like Costello, but I guess there’s enough bonding through bloodshed to justify it, to an extent.
When they track down the shooters to Hong Kong, it leads to a very strange and very tension-filled sequence at a park, where the ‘bad’ hitmen’s families show up unexpectedly. It’s an incredible scene that transpires at night, making it all the more surreal. Costello and his guys wait patiently at the top of a hill as the ‘bad’ guys they’re after, who know they’re there, eat their dinners with their families all together.
Let’s not make too big a deal about families, but the clear distinction is that these other guys are the ‘bad’ guys because they didn’t spare the little ones on their last job. Our ‘good’ guys wait patiently until the ‘bad’ guys’ families have left the scene, showing they operate according to a more honourable code.
Wow, these guys are fucking saints! Someone give them a Nobel Peace Prize already.
When the shooting starts, goddamn is it brutal, interspersed as it is between extreme darkness and the moon’s occasional light, resolving, ultimately, nothing.
Because ultimately the problem is that all of these crims, regardless of who’s side they’re on, have the same boss.
Simon Yam literally phones his performance in, spending most of the film on the phone to the various characters, but since Simon Yam is a wonderful, wonderful man, and a class act as an actor, he makes the most of a tiny role.
The acting is certainly good enough throughout the flick, but Johnny To films depend on mostly understated acting. They’re such keenly put-together constructions that all the acting has to do is fit in.
That’s not to say that Hallyday doesn’t strike a commanding figure. Despite the film’s obvious language difficulties, the ancient French pop singer is remarkably compelling in the role, even when his befuddlement seems to be more in line with an actor confused as to what he’s being asked to do as opposed to an actor playing well the role of someone with memory problems.
The last part of the film, taking place in the peculiar locale of Macau, works only if you suspend belief way, way up high. It’s a satisfying, somewhat, climax to the film, requiring Costello to try and figure out what’s going on and who he’s trying to kill in between moments of devastating memory loss. Earlier scenes where his crew are trying to remind him who he is, who they are, and why he wants to exact vengeance are pretty heartbreaking.
Every Johnnie To flick has at least one defining image or scene in it, and this one has several created intentionally in a manner ‘bigger’ than the flick itself (as in, images that perhaps don’t make any sense in terms of the story, but that look exactly the way To wants them to look). Election had old triads trapped in crates and rolled down a steep hill repeatedly, Sparrow had the speck of blade perched on the end of a tongue, and a multitude of umbrellas where umbrellas shouldn’t have been. Here the craftsman crafts a scene where dozens of triad gangsters tumble huge bales of paper towards our surrounded heroes, as cover but moreso for the visual image. Also, proceeding the bloodshed at the night time picnic area, a child’s multicoloured frisbee flies and floats far longer and far further than you’d think the laws of physics would allow.
But they’re arresting visual images in a film crafted by someone who loves crafting films. I’ll forgive a lot in that instance.
I like the fact that he keeps using Macau as a setting in his flicks, because we then get to see the garish Vegas style extravagances mixed with Hong Kong style neon jumbled together with the curious Portuguese architecture, all of which makes Macau look more fascinating than it probably is.
I loved his last flick Sparrow a whole hell of a lot more, but it was a significantly different flick, and it’s not fair to compare the two. It’s not the best thing by Johnnie To I’ve ever seen, but he’s made so many competent (and generally modest in scale) flicks that comparing well against those means it’s pretty far ahead of the pack.
7 ways in which the word vengeance sounds so much cooler with a heavy French accent out of 10
“What is vengeance?” – there’s nothing like revenge for getting back at someone, Vengeance.