In My Head: Johnnie To’s Three film review
Johnnie To’s latest joint Three just dropped on a day-and-date release in North America and China and it should please most of his followers, from genre film aficionados to cinema scholars. Although at first glance it seems like a straightforward action movie, in fact it’s a smart and nuanced film that shows To’s mastery of the cinematic language as well as displaying the continued development and refinement of his singular filmmaking style.
The setup is simple—a cop (Louis Koo) brings in a smirking criminal (Wallace Chung) to a busy Hong Kong hospital in order to ready the perp for surgery for a bullet lodged in his head. The criminal, however, has a different idea and refuses to consent to the operation. Meanwhile, the driven neurosurgeon who hopes to oversee the surgery (Zhao Wei) deals with the fallout from her inability to stop killing or disabling her patients. This seeming simplicity is deceptive, however. Three is in fact a complex and cerebral film that dispenses with direct character development, relationships, or other narrative conventions and instead relies on inference and suggestion to explicate its story.
Johnnie To set an earlier film, Help!, in a Hong Kong hospital but while that film was absurdist in an over-the-top way, Three is more of an understated absurdist movie. The film is almost parodic in its uses of stock crime film characters—the defiant criminal, the upstanding cop, the haughty surgeon, and so forth. To uses these conventions to accentuate the artificiality of the situation while adding refinements that add his particular filmmaking stamp to the proceedings.
To strips the film down to significant actions that imply rather than explain their relevance to the story, employing an elliptical storytelling style and spare, minimalist plotting that recall his 1999 film The Mission. As in that masterpiece To manages to convey vast swaths of meaning through simple, subtle gestures. In addition, like some of his more baroque films such as Mad Detective and Too Many Ways To Be Number One, To includes several quirky elements that juice up the proceedings. There are several oddball secondary characters include a long-time in-patient constantly searching for a power source for his devices, a suicidal paraplegic recovering from one of Zhao’s botched brain surgeries, and Lam Suet in yet another memorable turn as a clumsy cop who ends up oblivious to a knife half-buried in his ample rump.
Three also recalls The Mission’s minimalist approach to a hyper-violent situation. In that film, by stripping down the action To accentuated its violence. In Three, the gore is mostly found on the operating table, with the sound of cracking skullbones, the whirring of the surgeon’s electric bone saw, and closeups of the surgical needle stitching through skin and sinew creating a visceral revulsion. So when the real shooting starts it seems all the more intense and cathartic.
The film is full of repressed tensions, with each of the three lead characters a bundle of barely contained anxieties. To uses Louis Koo’s stolid stoicism to good effect here as Koo expresses his pent-up tension through the slightest clenching of his jaw or flicking of his gaze. Zhao Wei also effectively expresses the tensions of her neurosurgeon character, a PRC immigrant now working a high-stress job in Hong Kong, and her interactions with thesociapathic criminal are fraught with tension. These and other barely restrained tensions permeate the narrative and capture the hospital milieu’s underlying anxiety.
The film explodes into violence in the third act, and To’s cinematic mastery is evident in the climatic shootout, where the story is told with small visual cues that lead up to a shoot ‘em up melee. A powdering of dust from a shaking ceiling, the subtle shifting of glances from character to character, and a single smear of blood on small, blunt nail clipper presages an explosive melee that consumes the hospital ward.
The staging of the shootout is itself a self-referential meta-comment by To, recalling the bullet ballets of classic Hong Kong gangster films exemplified by John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films The Killer, Hard Boiled, and A Better Tomorrow. In an incredible three-minute long single take that mimics speed ramping, the slo-mo in this sequence is all mimed in real time by the actors and achieves a beautiful kinesthesia. Ironically, this sequence has all the choreography and grace that To’s last film, the musical Office, lacked. But it shares with that movie To’s gliding camerawork that is almost constantly in motion throughout the film and which is magnificently orchestrated in this long-take faux slo-mo sequence. Three also shares Office’s sense of theatricality (also found in Exiled, which was all about re-presenting the Wild West), with the film’s action taking place in a confined space, the hospital interior, which heightens both the narrative tension as well as the unreality of the mis en scene.
One thing I love about Johnnie To’s movies is that they can be enjoyed as commercial genre films and nothing more. But if you’re paying attention and are looking for more, they’re also layered and nuanced well beyond that, and Three is no exception. It’s another intriguing and intelligent film from To, who continues to make fresh and vital, significant movies even after decades in the business.
For locations of North America screenings go here.
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