Wednesday, September 16, 2009

TIFF Review - Vengeance

"What is vengeance when you've forgotten everything?"

The Hong Kong bullet ballet is its own genre of cinema. John Woo may be the best known name in it, but Johnnie To has built up no small amount of respect among its fans. It's part noir, part gangster film, and generally a whole bunch of bad-ass.

And this time, he's brought a French rock star into the mix. Johnny Hallyday plays Costello, a man who comes to Macau from Paris when his daughter's family is blown away in their home by a trio of men. He arrives at the hospital to find her lucky to be alive. She asks him to avenge her, and he promises he will.

He enlists the services of three hit men to investigate the killings and help him achieve his revenge. As the story progresses, we learn that there is more to Costello than the chef and restaurant owner he claims to be.

Among those secrets is that he is rapidly losing his memory. He forgets people within hours of meeting them, scrawls "vengeance" on pictures of his deceased family so that he will remember why he is in China, and writes the names of the hit men he's hired on the polaroids he's taken so that he won't forget who they are.

He must have his vengeance before he forgets about everything completely, and time is short.

The story progresses in a fairly linear manner. Secrets that aren't really so secret are revealed, twists that you've already figured out occur, and justice is served, after a fashion. But what sets the film apart from just another generic noir revenge movie is the beauty of it and the honour that underlies it all.

The hired hitmen are the personification of honour among thieves. As Costello's memory fades, they remind him of his purpose, and continue the job when they could have easily abandoned it without consequence, leaving Costello a lost soul. They guide him to his vengeance, and forgive his failings. They have taken a job, it is an honourable one, and they will see it through, regardless of the consequences.

Johnnie To brings creativity and beauty to a genre that has played out any number of ways. A nighttime gun battle in a park is lit by the moon dodging in and out of the clouds, symbolizing Costello's failing memories. A final war between factions is an homage to Kurosawa and what starts as a seemingly goofy device becomes an intriguing battlefield.

And the casting is excellent. Hallyday looks every bit the aging bad-ass. In an outfit straight from Reservoir Dogs (and knowing Tarantino's influences, no doubt this is simply coming full circle), he stalks the movie. But his menace is overshadowed by the lost look that crosses his face and his eyes that constantly show the battle to hold on to his memories. His hired guns are equally up to the task. Anthony Wong Chau-Sang as Kwai, the grizzled leader of the trio is dangerous, determined, and calculating. Ka Tung Lam is the younger, flashier pro Chu, who pushes aside his doubts with loyalty. Suet Lam as Lok is the clown of the group, but shines when the chips are down, showing that he belongs there as much as the other two.

And the pacing is deliberate. This isn't an action movie where it's scene after scene of guns blazing. Every step of the task has a purpose, and the quiet moments between allies are just as important as the firefights by moonlight. Any unfulfilled desires of endless battles are forgotten in a finale that would make Charles Bronson proud. Never will the question "Is this your coat?" mean quite the same thing. What most impressed me about the ending though was how intelligence trumped memory loss. The final scene, for all its seeming simplicity, has layers that make it worth discussion.

This is a film that embodies its title. Vengeance is determined, deliberate, and unstoppable - even when you don't remember why you're seeking it.

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