25 December 2009

VENGEANCE (Dir. Johnnie To, 2009, Hong Kong/France) – Hong Kong Noir

Johnnie To is recognised by many to be one of the finest genre film makers working in the world today. Now, this is not an understatement when one evaluates how the combined efforts of To’s prolific directorial career and the production company (Milky Way Image Company) he established with regular co-director Wai Kai-Fai in 1996 have helped to more or less sustain the Hong Kong film industry during one of their worst periods in terms of commercial box office success. His latest noir soaked hybrid ‘Vengeance’ is a Hong Kong and France co-production that continues a thematic fixation with revenge, friendship and honour amongst the world of professional hit-men. The moment the family is executed in cold blood we know with absolute certainty that who ever takes revenge is not likely to remain standing; this has little to do with contemporary morality and everything to do with genre mechanics. Conventions dictate certain death for the male anti-hero yet the presence of a figure like Johnny Hallyday who helped secure financial backing for the project would have played a role in opting for a warmer, upbeat ending. One could point to a predictability that permeates To’s body of work but with most genre films part of the pleasure rests largely with variation and difference. To’s cinema lives and breathes the universe of noir and the single biggest influence on his work continues to be the existential gangster films directed by French director Jean Pierre Melville. To is currently busy remaking Melville’s ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ (The Red Circle) with Hollywood actor Orlando Bloom (either is inspired casting or simply crazy!) and it is of little wonder that ‘Vengeance’, which premiered at Cannes, is littered with playful references and intertextual allusions to another Melville film, ‘Le Samourai’. To originally pursued Alain Delon for the lead role of Costello but had to settle with Hallyday who stepped in after Delon expressed unhappiness with the final script. Hallyday is a cultural icon in France and he plays the aging hit-man with an effortless charm – his character also seemed like a variation on the gangster role he played in Patrice Leconte’s ‘L’Homme Du Train’.

Beautifully shot, much of the action alternates between the neonesque streets of Hong Kong and Macau whilst similarly like ‘Sparrow’, the seductively iconic use of umbrellas, rain and slow motion work to produce an aesthetically stylised surface that borders on the sublime. The plot itself is unsurprisingly formulaic but this is more than compensated by the charismatic presence of Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and other To regulars who deliver dependable performances. Though Melville’s shadow lingers considerably over the work of both Johnnie To and John Woo, the elements of the western genre and particularly the films of Sergio Leone also play an influential role in how we read many of To’s gangster films. To’s is remarkably consistent for a director of genre and ‘Vengeance’ proves how today being labelled as prolific does not necessarily equate to a discrepancy in terms of quality film making. In addition, no other film maker (except for perhaps Michael Mann) quite like To really knows and understands the dynamics of filming a shoot out without the making the slow motion appear pretentiously redundant. To is simply not just a film maker - his involvement in producing numerous Hong Kong films with co-director, Wai Kai-Fai, for their commercially successful production company (almost a mini studio) has meant his position in the film industry is very significant in terms of influence and prestige. ‘Vengeance’ is likely to join the company of To’s previous films that include ‘Exiled’, ‘Election’, ‘Sparrow’ and ‘Mad Detective’. Like the films of American film maker Michael Mann and David Fincher as well as John Woo, the absence of women surely points to a masculine moral code that finds a shared affinity with both the gangster and western genre. Like Melville, To presents a primitive and virtually instinct mode of masculinity yet this is precisely what makes it so alluring for contemporary audiences – men out of synch with the rest of society.


  1. Really looking forward to this one, Omar. Thanks.

  2. Just saw teh film, Omar. This is a fabulous review, unlike teh film which left me disappointed.

    Yes, Melville was all over - thematically and stylistically. And revenge turning out to be mere ritual instead of being backed by emotions is also Melvillian. Somehow, IMO, it seemed to relating the central conflict to contemporary world politics, wherein actual war on terror has mutated into something like an identity clash, away from reason and intellect.

    But then, the film seemed to be reveling too much on its action set-pieces, which was a huge let-down for me since I just could not grasp the "space" of the action at all. It was either zip zap zoom or too detached and flashy. May be I have to check out more of To's movies...