SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: Vengeance

Film: Vengeance
Release date: 28th June 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 104 mins
Director: Johnnie To
Starring: Johnny Hallyday, Sylvie Testud, Anthony Wong, Simon Yam
Genre: Crime/Action/Thriller
Studio: Optimum
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: Hong Kong/France

This is an English-Language release.

For many years, director Johnny To was Hong Kong’s best kept secret. Although Hong Kong fans became aware of his stylish direction with the likes of Heroic Trio, Executioners and Barefoot Kid, it wasn’t until 2005’s Election that the international film critics really took notice. Since then, every film baring To’s name has been eagerly anticipated. Last year’s Terracotta Asian Film Festival showcased To’s Sparrow (2008), and this year the festival featured his latest, Vengeance.

Johnny Hallyday is Costello, a retired hitman who now owns a restaurant in Paris. When his daughter’s family is brutally assassinated in Macau, he heads there to take revenge on those responsible. Meanwhile, Kwai (Wong) is ordered by his boss George Fung to kill his lover, who’s having an affair with one of his bodyguards.

Costello’s path crosses with Kwai and a job offer is made – help him find and kill those responsible for his daughter’s death. Two problems arise in their arrangement: Costello is losing his memory due to an old bullet lodged in his brain, and the man behind the assassination is close to Kwai...

There is so much to take in with Vengeance. On the surface, it’s a straightforward tale of revenge, as a father looks for his daughter’s killers. But, typically with Johnny To, there is much more on offer here. Vengeance is the final part of the loose trilogy, which includes The Mission and Exiled, and is another examination of the morals and codes of honour hitmen live by in the world of cinema. On top of that, the way the film is directed, acted, framed, shot, edited and scored puts it on a level of artistry few other films, genre or not, can achieve.

Take, for example, the scene when Costello first crosses paths with Kwai and his crew, who have arrived at the same hotel Costello is staying in to assassinate Fung’s straying lover. The hit itself is cold and methodical – the couple in bed don’t have time to realise what’s happening to them. As they come out into the corridor, Chu (Ka Tung Lam) turns left, his back to the camera. Lok (Lam Suet) turns right, and freezes, looking past our (the camera’s) shoulder. Finally, Kwai exits the room. It takes him a second to register something is amiss, and he and Chu turn to face in Lok’s direction. The camera then gives the reverse shot, showing what they are looking at: Costello, wearing a black raincoat and fedora (the look that Alain Delon made famous in Le Samourai) with oversized sunglasses. Not a word has been spoken. The four men stare at each other for a few heartbeats, then Costello slowly turns and walks away. Kwai, somehow sensing that the stranger is not a threat but a kindred spirit, turns and walks in the other direction, clicking his fingers to signal his gang to follow suit. Vengeance is full of such meticulously staged and framed shots. Even a simple scene showing the gang arriving by boat into Hong Kong ends up being a stylishly shot moment.

If you were to compare Johnny To to any other director, it would have to be Takeshi Kitano. There are moments in Vengeance which reminded me so much of Sonatine and Brother, in that certain scenes would drift off into a moment of complete whimsy. When Costello tells Kwai that he needs a gun, he’s gently ribbed about whether he’s ever used one before, which leads him and Chu into a competition to see who can re-assemble a field-stripped pistol the quickest while blind-folded. When the gang take Costello to get a gun from Kwai’s cousin, they end up using an old bicycle as target practice. The sunset lighting in this scene gives it a nostalgic, halcyon days flavour, and it ends with the four walking off in the distance while the shot-up bike keeps trundling on.

Aside from incredibly stylish shots and moments of whimsy, Vengeance also delivers some great action scenes. From the shocking opening to the exquisite locations and set-up of the finale, the film produces refreshingly new and innovative shoot-outs. Some are so sudden that blink and you might miss them; others, such as the shoot-out at the rubbish dump, are intricate dances of death.

There are a couple of elements which niggle, though. The first is the language barrier. Costello is French, the gang Chinese, so the middle-ground is English, a language they all murder to some degree. Luckily there isn’t a lot of English dialogue – these are men of few words after all – but what there is ends up sounding very stilted.

The second niggle concerns the plot about Costello slowly losing his memory due to the bullet lodged in his brain. In itself, it’s fine, and takes certain scenes in directions you just don’t expect. However, there is one scene where the gang have to remind him why he’s in Hong Kong – to get revenge – and Costello asks, “What is revenge?” Losing your memory is one thing, losing the ability to understand the meaning of revenge is something else. Luckily, the script agrees with me and sticks with the loss of memory angle from then on in. I was still not onside with the loss-of-memory plot until the finale, when it becomes a huge factor in the way Costello targets the guy ultimately responsible for his daughter’s murder. The set-up for the scene brings to mind Brian De Palma. You can see it slowly building, the pieces coming together, until you get a clear view of the whole picture - it just feels so inspired.

Most of the usual Milkyway players are present – the exception being Lau Ching Wan (Running Out Of Time, Overheard). Anthony Wong has never been cooler than he is here, and even Lam Suet manages to look tough. Simon Yam does ham it up a little as the Big Boss, though. As for Johnny Hallyday, his eyes look like those of a reptile, and he brings a stylish stillness to his role. He also manages to act in both a fatherly manner (both with his daughter and the gang) and as a lost, fragile person having to trust people he barely knows or even remembers (he takes polaroids of them at the beginning).

Finally, a mention for Tayu Lo, who did the score. It’s very sparingly used but when it is, a mix of heavy bass and blues guitars fits the mood perfectly.

One of the most stylish thrillers you’re likely to see this year, Johnny To’s Vengeance is a film likely to be discussed for ages by filmatists dissecting each and every scene. Full of action, moments of light frivolity and gorgeous camera-work, Vengeance is a treat. MOW

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