More of what we have come to expect from Johnnie To operating in the crime-thriller territory, but now with a French lead in tow.
Dir. Johnnie To
2009 | Hong Kong | Action/Crime/Thriller | 108 mins | 2.35: 1 | Cantonese, English & French
R21 (passed clean) for strong violence and some sexuality
Cast: Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Simon Yam
Plot: A French chef swears revenge after a violent attack on his daughter’s family in Macau, during which her husband and her two children are murdered. To help him find the killers, he hires three local hit-men working for the mafia.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
International Sales: Kinology
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed in theatres – first published 8 Nov 2009)
Johnnie To, one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed exports to world cinema, is back with a new film – Vengeance. A nominee for the Cannes Palme d’Or this year, Vengeance is one of the many violent films screened in what many critics called the ‘darkest Cannes’ of the decade featuring controversial and disturbing films such as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (2009), and Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009).
It is interesting to note that the lead is played by French singer Johnny Hallyday as the character Costello, a chef whose family (residing in Hong Kong) is brutally massacred by professional killers. He seeks revenge and hires three hitmen to find and kill the murderers.
Easy as it seems, however, things get complicated along the way – both groups of hitmen serve the same boss of a triad gang. Loyalties are thrown out of the window as Costello’s hitmen stick by him (out of money and sympathy), causing a severe riff between them and their boss with consequences far from peaceful.
“I need a Colt Double Eagle.”
Using a French lead in an Asian film is not unprecedented, but it is fairly unusual. Nevertheless, Hallyday’s involvement in Vengeance is a sign of multiculturalism as cinema becomes increasingly globalized. From a paradoxical standpoint, while the globalization of ‘world cinema’ gives it its literal meaning, does it mean that it is not national cinema anymore? Is Vengeance any less Asian with Hallyday in it?
In my opinion, with an auteur pulling the strings, a film is very much a product of his or her personal cultural influences. In fact, To’s unique take on Vengeance – by anchoring the film’s narrative from the point-of-view of a foreigner – helps to strengthen the film’s identification with Asian culture, rather than to suppress it.
Vengeance makes up for what it is (quite) lacking in narrative depth with expertly-crafted action sequences. These sequences are well-directed by To; they are stylish and deliberately edited in slow-motion to give a sense of visual fluidity.
Alain Delon was originally attached but pulled out due to his dissatisfaction with the script.
The most outstanding sequence is shot in a wide, open grassland where Costello’s hitmen do battle with a large gang of armed ‘baddies’. Each man takes cover behind a huge, cube-like bundle of hay, rolling it forward as shots are exchanged between sides. To interchanges close-ups with wide framing cleverly, and together with slow-motion, he makes the whole sequence seem like an operatic bloodbath – beautifully choreographed and hypnotically captured.
To is considered by many as an auteur; he is consistent in depicting the fluid and self-possessed visual style which he has maintained for numerous years especially in his crime films. Vengeance is no different. It is more of the same as we have come to expect from him.