Published: November 10, 2010
Vengeance IFC Films THE MOVIE Though Hong Kong action cinema doesn’t carry the same sort of American cinematic cachet it did in the late 1980s and early ’90s doesn’t mean this filmmaking hotspot has stopped making sublime, arty actioners—just that we don’t pay as much attention to them. Take Johnnie To’s Vengeance, a sublime example of Hong Kong genre work that hit a few American film festivals this year and comes out on DVD Nov. 16. A French woman living with her Chinese husband and family in Macau is gunned down by some shadowy hit men, bringing her father all the way from Paris to seek revenge. It’s a formulaic plot, but as directed by auteur To and written by Wai Ka-Fai, it’s given a supple twist. And thanks to the French actor playing the father, the movie ascends into the stratosphere. The father is a Parisian restaurant owner played by Johnny Hallyday, the ’60s French singer who is regarded as a rock icon in France and virtually unknown everywhere else. Now in his late 60s, he looks a little like a cross between Cesar Romero and Henry Silva, but he has the onscreen feline stoicism of Alain Delon—which is probably intentional. His name is Costello, a la Delon’s character in Le Samourai, and he has a little problem. He hasn’t always been a restaurateur, as he displays when reassembling a handgun while blindfolded for the three Macau hit men he hires to help him sniff out his daughter’s shooters. His former life resulted in him taking a bullet to the head, and the slug remains there, impairing his memory. So Costello is reduced to taking snapshots of the people around him to remember who he is and what he’s doing. But before you scoff at the multiple layers of genre allusions going on here, bear in mind that To has been responsible for some of the better HK action flicks of the past decade (see: 2005’s Election) thanks to his orchestral visual panache. He turns the pat and familiar—such as genre-staple shootouts—into moments of plain old movie magic: They’re just cool to watch. A gun battle in a wind-swept trash heap plays out with bundles of paper used as moveable shields. Costello and his three hit man mates fleeing an ambush finds Costello confused on a crowded street and searching the faces around him and the photos in his hands for something familiar. And in a sequence of almost transcendent ingenuity, a nighttime gunfight in a park takes place under intermittent moonlight. THE DISC Pretty basic: a trailer and “making of” featurette are included, but the movie alone is more than enough. There’s no such thing as too many smart and touching actioners, and Asian-film fans have plenty to love here. Regular and workhorse character actors Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Gordon Lam, and Lam Suet deliver their usual solid work as the trio of hitters Costello hires. Best of all, Simon Yam plays a smarmy Macau crime boss with an Eric Roberts level of reptilian, over-the-top relish.
> Email Bret McCabe