Long the feisty David to Hollywood’s splashy Goliath fare, Hong Kong action cinema has always intrigued and amazed, where those studio counterpart offerings tend to range from assembly line synthetics to heavy handed gore. And Chinese thriller maven Johnnie To once again doesn’t disappoint even at his bloodiest, with the fascinating and mystifying Vengeance (Fuk Sau).
French crooner icon turned pensive thespian Johnny Hallyday is Costello, a weathered Parisian restaurant owner and chef who travels to Hong Kong to the hospital bedside of his gravely wounded daughter Irene (Sylvie Testud), after her husband and young children are gunned down during a mysterious home invasion mob hit. Intent on exacting retribution, Costello offers a trio of gangsters (To tough guy regulars Anthony Wong, Lam Suet and Lam Ka Tung) whom he witnesses in the act of another hit, everything he possesses on the planet, including his watch and restaurant, in exchange for tracking down and killing his family’s murderers.
Though the bare bones narrative may sound unexceptionally conventional, be prepared for the expectation-defying unexpected when stepping into a Johnnie To murder for hire masterpiece. An immensely gifted and never less than imaginatively playful filmmaker, To never forgets that movies, no matter how done to death in more ways than one the genre, are always about art. And the limitless creative possibilities of even piles of trash. Which in Vengeance, happen to be graced by the breathlessly assured hand of this visual artist and storyteller extraordinaire.
In other words, To’s focus in Vengeance is less about gunning down the bad guys – although there’s plenty of that – than crystallizing with exacting precision the visceral sensations surrounding violence, and the many metaphysical looming silences in between. And scene after scene plays out, as if lyrical canvases in motion. Whether capturing identical ominous assassins in hooded raincoats cruising for their prey in a sea of umbrellas, or a freaky poetic shootout in total darkness, as the moon above drifts into a sea of clouds.
Which is not to say that there isn’t at the same time lots of room for an abundance of humor, along with bittersweet existential despair. This, as gangsters ranging from menacing executioners to buffoonish family men, and with names like Python, Wolf and Crow, become inextricably tangled in a confusing web of perpetrators and victims. And Costello, devoured by advancing amnesia, earnestly releases his inner dark side before its too late, only to find that compromised memory has left him unable to comprehend even what vengeance is as a concept anymore. A cunning plot point which To himself unleashes here, subverting the very genre he so passionately embraces.
3 1/2 stars