Film review: Vengeance (MFF 2010)

Fuk sau
Milkyway Image

STARRING Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka-Tung, Lam Suet, Simon Yam, Sylvie Testud
PRODUCED BY Michèle Pétin, Laurent Pétin, Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai, John Chong, Peter Lam

SHOT BY Cheng Siu-Keung
EDITED BY David M. Richarson
DISTRIBUTED BY ARP Sélection, Media Asia Films

Screened at Milwaukee Film Festival, 2010-09-24

A purported French chef named Costello arrives in the eastern hemisphere’s gambling capital, gorgeous Macau, to track down the killers of his daughter, her husband, their children. Lucky for Costello, he happens to find the best hit men in Asia, and even luckier they all become best friends, in a strange but very pleasing literary-quality twist… brothers in combat, or even in their lives? Their hearts beat as one, Costello and his three brothers. They hunt for the killers. This may sound derivative (even though that relationship between Costello and the hit men is practically enough to sustain us), so Mr. To enlivens the story (or perhaps just complicates) with this addition: Costello has a bullet in his brain which is gradually wearing down his short-term memory, so with enough running, chasing, shooting and the fatigue that follows, worn-down middle-ager Costello will forget his friends, his daugher, his vengeance. Hold onto that feeling, Costello! Focus! Yes, he takes polaroids, writes on them, it’s exactly like Memento. Unfortunate. I’m sure deft Mr. To wouldn’t have borrowed the device had Memento not come from the distant West.

Johnny Hallyday plays Costello, which you may find familiar in name and bent (the role was originally considered for Alain Delon). Johnnie To’s Vengeance is, absolutely, a living homage to Jean-Pierre Melville, for these reasons: characters never speak without reason, and when they do it is directly to the point, providing us with much silent time (which is lovely)… shots are composed and the camera rarely moves at all… it’s a crime story… it’s very cool under its own steam, nobody’s trying too hard, it’s cool because of the look, the shadows, the attitudes, the professionalism and skill that reek from precision… Yes. Like Melville, the universe within the film feels like a vacuum. I adored it! How pleased I was to realize, 10 minutes in, that I was not watching crap! This vacuum neutrality is enhanced by the film’s lack of desire to be pigeonholed as a Chinese film, Costello often speaking French, the others speaking Chinese (god knows what dialect) and everybody else in the world falling back on broken English. There is a wonderful and I daresay relatively original presentation of a gunfight on a sporadically moonlit night. And finally, Vengeance’s greatest weakness lies in the assuming done between characters since they so rarely communicate verbally. Following this particular chain of cause of effect can be difficult for the viewer, but I fear is exaggerated here because silence seemed to be an unnatural turn for Mr. To (whom I had not met until now, so what do I know), whose efforts at personified precision came off as just a bit spurious.

Vengeance took part in Cannes 2009 and was considered for the Palme d’Or.

written by David Ashley