A chef on a mission (Johnny Halladay) seeks revenge when his daughter’s family are slaughtered by triads in Johnny To’s baroque tragedy.
Johnny To came to widespread attention outside Hong Kong with Fulltime Killer (2001), the highly stylised Breaking News (2004) the two Election films (2005/2006), Exiled (2006) and Mad Detective (2007) – all films dealing with familiar Hong Kong action themes of loyalty, betrayal and identity. You could be forgiven for thinking that, coupled with the 18 rated violence of Vengeance, that To has comfortably aligned himself with one particular style of film. But a cursory look at his resume shows a director who chooses his films wisely and adapts to the plots and characters. Indeed it is on earlier character based films (the Chow Yun-Fat vehicles The Eighth Happiness (1988) and the weep along classic All About Ah-Long), the comedies (a number of enjoyable Stephen Chow films) and more esoteric action films (The Bare-Footed Kid (1993), the grim comic-book Heroic Trio (1993) films) that inform the later films in terms of pacing and style. With Vengeance To has taken a more international look at the genre in what is touted as his first English language film (perhaps a tenuous suggestion given the sheer diversity of French, English and Cantonese that abounds here).
Francois Costello (Halladay) is a Champs Elysee chef who travels to Macau’s gaudy casino world to vow death against the violent triads who have massacred his grandchildren and their father, leaving his daughter critically wounded. Fortunately he is in a good position to deal with the situation, at least initially, having previously been an assassin. Realising he is culturally out of his depth he hires three hit-men who he has seen bumping off the unfaithful girlfriend (and her lover) of the insane and sadistic triad boss George Fung (played with typical intensity by a constantly jittery Simon Yam). The four head to Hong Kong to confront the murderers, a quest that is given additional urgency because a bullet still lodged in Francois’ head from a previous job has left him on the brink of amnesia and he is forced occasionally to rely upon Polaroid photographs, Momento style. The problem is, though, that the killers of Francois’ family were also hired by Fung…
Vengeance plays on the ideal of loyalty and morality among (some) thieves. It’s a common theme in Hong Kong cinema but by having a foreigner as the centre of the revenge plot there is an additional air of frisson – the main characters are forced to converse in a common language (English) that makes them all outsiders. The three hired hands are honourable although at any time they could quite easily abandon Francois, knowing that at some point his memory is going to fail him (although their loyalty is profound "Even if he forgets, I will remember"). This begs the question that plagues the film – how can vengeance be meaningful if there is no memory of the act that instigated it? Even his own daughter’s face, at one point, becomes unrecognisable to Francois and, during one tense shoot-out in the rain, he is forced to stumble through crowds, comparing snapshots to find out who his friends and enemies are.
The moral dilemmas of the film are most aptly shown in an extended set-piece when the four men finally come across the trio of killers responsible for Francois’ grief – their initial need for action curtailed when it is revealed that the men have bought their entire families to woodland picnic, creating a predicament that these family men clearly ignored when slaughtering children themselves. When the battle finally erupts it is set against the full moon that becomes obscured by clouds, alternately revealing and disguising the scene, sometimes reducing shots to pin-pricks of light in the darkness. This is all highly stylised and offsets the scenes of introspection between the characters. Later, a pitched battle is fought using cubes of recycled paper as cover, another contrast in that this battle occurs in the glaring sun, the shards of paper shot off like confetti, the victims’ blood a hazy mist of crimson drifting on the breeze.
To’s film is a visual delight with strong performances and a solid plot that constantly surprises. The film partly comes across as a western in scope and Halladay seems to have walked out of a Jean-Pierre Melville film, albeit a far more violent one.
Optimum’s DVD release features removable subtitles, a short Making Of feature that shows the uncommonly long shooting schedule and a trailer.