Sunday, March 07, 2010


Cast: Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Simon Yam, Ka Tung Lam, Suet Lam
Director: Johnnie To
Runtime: 108 min.
Country: Hong Kong
Language: English, Cantonese, French
Verdict: Johnnie To is a drug. And I am an addict.
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Action

        I have been terribly sick the last couple of days. I don’t fancy antibiotics because I tend to throw up right after. I just like to let the illness and cold and cough live, and let me live. The way I deal with them is to do things I love. Like driving. Like fulfilling the insatiable desires of the taste buds. Like just walk around in the open, in the night, and let the breeze and the city lights just surround me. Or like watching a Johnnie To picture. I believe I don’t need to explain any further the nature of my bias towards one of cinema’s great artists. I love a Johnnie To, just I like I instantly love a Michael Mann, or a Sergio Leone. Their universe is full of good people, you see, good men, and here even cynicism is merely a virtue. Honor drives these men, and they don’t even flinch at the prospect. These are not troubled men, for their honor is their life. That these filmmakers frame and move around this universe of theirs with such beauty is just the reason why, well, I feel better right now. It is four in the morning, and though I sneeze every couple of minutes, fluid drips right down my nose and onto my lap, and my cough is sounding worse than that of a dog’s, I feel better. God bless Johnnie To.
        Fuk Sau has a ridiculous plot. The script, if it really did exist, is even worse. I suspect somebody out there is even proud of it, and intends to shove that pride in our face. The opening sequence, quite explicitly, quite methodically, establishes one of those healthy lovely warm households worthy enough to accompany a Life Insurance advertisement. The woman is French and she is cooking, the husband is Chinese and comes home with the kids, he closes the door, the doorbell rings, he peeps through the keyhole, a bullet rips through and blasts his eye, and one of those massacres occur. The city is Macau. The woman has a father, and he is called Frank Costello (Mr. Hallyday), and he looks like as if he walked straight out of the fantasy ultra macho ultra suave western movie factory, and walked right into the Johnnie To universe. When you think of them, they are not that different. And this man shall take revenge, and justify the title. You should see the rest, and the band of assassins who help him out.
        So I say, the movie is not bothered about the whats of the plot. As I see dear reader, Mr. To intends us to forget the intricacies of it all (I invoke Memento for a reason). What else should I make of these frames? Look at the eyeline here, and look at the angle, and tell me if somebody out there isn’t drawing attention to themselves. Look at the woman who is a cop, and who seems to be speaking directly into the camera. Look how her eyeline is contradicting the one in the conventional two-shot. When you watch the film, you shall know the film is basically announcing itself. (These frames are in order in which they appear, and hence you get the feel of how they were put together.) Is she news-reading to us? I felt like it, and I felt the movie want me to sign a pact where I know the movie shall dutifully and conveniently chart its way to its destination, and make all the necessary stops in the process. And being a Johnnie To addict, I signed on without a blink.

        And in return, Mr. To, the great illusionist he is, asks of us to sit back and appreciate the beauty of the shots, the gorgeousness of the stand-offs and the classic Johnnie To masculine honor. You got to see how precise and how effective and how poetic and how enchanting Mr. To is with his visual narration. His aesthetics, and the way he conceives his films, is essentially derived from silent movies. Mr. To only barely needs dialogs, and when they come, they usually serve the purpose of explanation, not exposition. The dialogs, always, always, serve to confirm what has already been stated before. One ought to remember the opening of Exiled (2006), or the way the detective cognitive abilities in Mad Detective (2008) are first established purely visually. Against this, compare the present filmmaking coming out of Hollywood, as seen in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, an elegant film itself, and how the protagonist’s disability is telegraphed straightaway via dialogs. Mr. To is one of the great silent filmmakers of our times, much like Aki Kaurismäki, and much like Wes Anderson. In many ways, he might be the urban Sergio Leone, inspired by a western genre, and influencing it in his own inimitable way.
        Let me say this real straight. Vengeance is good-mediocre-bad Johnnie To, which means it is way better than most of the supposed awesome stuff out there. So I shall indulge in some visual frame-by-frame analysis, and if I seem to high, so be it. This is to show how Mr. To so sublimely choreographs his films, and conveys (evokes) information and emotion.
        Here is a key sequence early in the film, entirely without a word spoken, which establishes the team of assassins. It doesn’t just establish them, it establishes their craft. It doesn’t just establish the craft, it establishes how their craft shall be put to use by the film’s protagonist. Let me pull you through a frame by frame commentary and leave you to discover the rest of the film. It is as I say, a drug, for me. I keep reminding myself that this is mediocre Johnnie To, yet I have managed to watch it three times for no particular reason or attachment. I just, you know, love it. I shall explain later why a Johnnie To always makes you feel good and warm.

        Here is a look at the setting. The woman, who is cheating on the assassin’s boss, and is sleeping with one of the boss’ henchmen, is walking to the room to indulge in some good old-fashioned in-out. She is walking through a hallway, and is being tailed by the assassins.

        Mr. To here, working in an internal setting, creates a superb perception of depth. It is simple age-old geometric frame-construction. He doesn’t rely on POV shots to convey who is following whom (as is the norm in Hollywood these days, and which leads to significantly more cutting), but instead keeps an objective eye. We immediately are clear in our minds about (a) the geography of the setting (b) the relative spatial equation. Why we need these details, we shall come to know later. Consider this an establishing shot. And while we are at that, remember all the hallway shots we remember from all the movies. Like Barton Fink. Like Road to Perdition, when Michael Sullivan walks into kill Conrad and avenge his family’s massacre. Like every other thriller that tries to use the hallway. As you will agree, dear reader, a hallway is different from the lounge. Is different from the entrance. A hallway, if we bring to the table our own memories of charting those numerous hallways, in our hostels, in hotels, in our buildings, is a secluded little place. Stuff can happen there which the rest of the world (hotel, hostel) wouldn’t necessarily be witness to. It is a different kind of private space. It is that special feeling inside of us that we harbor for hallways that I believe is the cause of most filmmakers choosing a shot of a hallway. A hallway, framing wise, is a fantastic natural setting to provide depth perception. For many reasons, it works better than alleys and streets. But I don’t see many movies where the hallway is the setting. Of the top of my head, I can pull out Barton Fink. I can pull out The Shining. And I can pull the harrowing rape scene from Irreversible. What else? Think about it.
        Now, that the details have been established, Mr. To goes for the meat. Vengeance, really speaking, is a set of short films linked together. The linking is the script and the plot. Kwai (Mr. Anthony), the head of the team, who is till now wandering in the lounge gets the information that the hunted are in the room. A sublime single shot actually reveals to us what the sequence is actually about. As Kwai walks across the frame, we concentrate on the deep end, where Frank walks into the hotel. We now know what the hell it is all about. Sergio Leone and Alfred Hitchcock both come to mind.

        Look at the frame below. You will immediately know where Frank Costello walked out of.

        Here is where begins the in and out of the scene. First up: In.
        Kwai gets out of the elevator, from the right of the frame and walks towards us.

Fat Lok (Mr. Lam), one of the assassins, emerges from the left of the screen and walks into the hallway.

        Both these above motions have been intercut. The below shot merges the two men into one single frame, and quite effortlessly displays the suavity of the operation. Care be taken that the film doesn’t shout it out loud, we just sense it within the back of our mind, because of the inter-cutting. The professionalism at hand is quite subtly conveyed to us.

        One look around, by Chu (Mr. Ka Tung), the third member of the team, and in they walk to pull their triggers.

Action happens inside swiftly and silently. Meanwhile, Frank walks into the hallway.

        And when we see Frank’s figure set within the now familiar hallway, we are very much there. The film has, without no extra frames, has smoothly transported us to that place. We know the surroundings. That is the mark of a craftsman.

And now         Frank stops in his tracks and listens to the thud of the bullet being shot through a silencer.

        And now the out. Mr. To amusingly places his camera at the same location, as Chu walks out, and he turns his head the same way. Then there was no one. Now there is.

        And now just enjoy the classic Johnnie To macho posturing. Few pleasures at the movies rival it. Here is where the soundtrack grows silent, except for a little rustle (of the camera?), and boy, it is gorgeous.

        Frank Costello walks away. The assassins too. The scene is over. You turn to your friend and extend your hand and give a hi-five. This is a Johnnie To shot.
        There is an action sequence later in the picture, where our team of Frank and the assassins escape through the staircase. You should see how Mr. To brings imagination to this otherwise obligatory element. Modern movies just show bang-bang. Mr. To brings strategy and role-assignment.
        I said Vengeance or any Johnnie To is a feel good film like no other. I don’t know, dear reader, but honorable men leading honorable lives with no remorse or second thoughts is one of the great pleasures of the fantasy world. It is romantic. You should see the moment where our men square off against the assassins who killed Frank Costello’s daughter’s family. I include a little bit of the sequence here, a teasing bit. Men have families, and everybody here respects everybody.

        Later in the scene, the rival assassins enjoying the dinner send some food for our men. It is a nice touch, a Johnnie To touch. The little kids bring food. Fat Lok has been hungry all this while, and he jumps upon the offering. But he jumps not as an animal. There is a tradition always. He lays the plate for everyone, and serves every plate, and then starts for himself. Frank says he wouldn’t taste this food, and Kwai, after considering for a moment drops his steak too. Fat Lok has been munching his all this while, and when Kwai drops his steak, he spits out his. The key here is that Mr. To immediately cuts to later in the night. Even a moment’s lingering and we would have felt that Fat Lok is just obliging the honor. But since Mr. To immediately cuts, we know that is how Fat Lok instinctively and nonchalantly is. No second thoughts whatsoever. Not with food. Not with life. Honor is what they are.
        I say, more than the prolific Woody Van Dyke, Johnnie To is the modern Sergio Leone. A scene where the men arrive and inspect the scene of crime reminds one of the family-massacre from Once Upon a Time in the West. Men in black, coats and overcoats, walk to the house, and the breeze blows. It is a brilliant sequence, again a reminder of how Mr. To doesn’t favor dialogs to convey stuff to the audience. I shall let you discover the sequence for yourself.
        Or discover one of the most awesomely conceived and shot gunfight sequences, where hordes of bad guys surround our good guys. You should see that scene, and discover the specialty of it. The men shoot and die. For each other. For honor. When you watch a Johnnie To you discover all that is good within us. Those ideals we so thoroughly looked up to in our western heroes and our superheroes. The macho buddy camaraderie. You know, as kids, we would be a gang, and would always walk together as brothers. Within the gang we felt that brotherhood. That was a mighty good feeling. So is a Johnnie To. I wish one day Mr. To makes a movie with Amitabh Bachchan. Let me tell you it would be something. Beauty would be exchanged both ways.