| Realizing that he will be defeated in no time during a police showdown, a thug shoots himself to force the cops to cease fire and take him to the hospital. In the hospital, he claims human rights to refuse immediate treatment in order to bide time for his underlings to rescue him. The detective in charge sees through his scheme but decides to play along so as to capture his whole gang once and for all.
The final film I will review for Shoton35’s Asian Cinema Week and today we go to China. Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To is both extremely prolific and extremely versatile; he’s directed everything from romantic comedies and musicals to superhero and martial arts movies in his nearly 40-year career. In the U.S., he’s best known for stylish thrillers like Election, Exiled and 2013’s excellent Drug War which is my favourite of his. But I always find his films, while action packed, often poorly written and filled with melodrama (except for Drug War). This film unfortunately fails hard on that reason.
There’s a good reason that Lau Ho-leung, Mark Tin Shu, and Yau Nai-hoi’s screenplay begins and stays at the hospital. There’s no way to square the circle of the film’s back story, so the screenwriters simply skip it, offering only the bare minimum of information and leaving the rest of it a mystery. It’s the right choice, not only because it’s impossible to make any sense of the plan but also because that uncertainty serves as the foundation of the film’s tension. But the execution was extremely awfully done, it felt like a different movie from that point on.
Shot by Cheng Siu-keung and edited by David Richardson, Three follows wildly divergent angles that somehow meet during a big set-piece that doesn’t tie up storylines so much as blast them to pieces. Three is also the most explicit expression of To’s take on Buddhism since his hit-man thriller Exiled. The injuries and deaths in Three can all be traced back to flaws in the leads’ characters. Karma has rarely looked so painful. Chung is entertaining as the sadistic criminal, but Zhao and Koo can’t bring much depth to their characters’ respective moral dilemmas (Chen is a dirty cop who bends the rules in the name of doing the right thing).
Just as the movie is starting to feel like a tiresome journey to nowhere, To pulls out a bravura climax, as the hospital explodes in a massive shoot-out between the criminal gang and the various cops stationed around the building. It’s a stunning piece of action choreography, but it feels off from the entire movie. Scenes in Three evoke the crazed, hysterical films from Hong Kong’s heyday two decades ago. To pushes some moments over the top, then casually goes further, adding on worse violence and more elaborate action. On the other hand, a scene in which Tong and Fok explain to a wife what happened to her husband during surgery is a jewel-like miniature.
Three will not be to everyone’s tastes, especially when To draws connections to terrorism. I got turned off by it’s awful execution, where the fault doesn’t lie on To’s head, but on the writers. The dialogue is so swift that it’s hard to catch any details. Still, few directors working today have his skill and authority. While he is widely imitated, no one can match his distinctive style.