A man takes a picture, each picture, and looks at them. His eyes bores into them, drilling right through them, as if he is imprinting each picture into his mind, into his memory. A picture is…what, exactly? A moment in time, a memory frozen, for future reference. It is often used to evoke the moment that had passed, the moment that will never appear again. The kind of pictures that people usually take are the ones that are posed for, ones in which the subject of these photographs are conscience of the fact that they would be forever immortalised somewhere, somehow. It could well be on somebody’s hard drive, a memory chip, or stamped irrevocably into a film print. Either way, it will be there, and so the smiles come out. The poses are made. And because of that, it is not sincere, not genuine, because it is posed for. And yet the flash goes, the momentary blindness is gone, and a moment that is not genuine becomes the moment that defines the history just gone past.
It is these pictures that this man is looking at. He flicks through them one by one, shuffling the ones he had committed to his memory to the back of the back, before rinsing and repeating the process once more. Once deft the movements became, he whips out a marker pen, and he starts writing on them. Each and every one of the pictures, pictures of his son-in-law, his daughter, and his two grandchildren. The same words, over and over and over again.
Vengeance. Vengeance. Vengeance.
So that was something of an exaggeration, a dramatisation of a brief scene within Johnnie To’s ‘Vengeance’. Perhaps if ever there is a novelisation of the film, I might make a good candidate to write it. Could I live in hope? We should all live in hope, but perhaps I better not hold my breath too long for this one, for I will need it for other purposes. My health isn’t all it is cracked up to be these days, and I should save it for other purposes.
Like this review, for example. We follow Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday), an ageing French chef dragged to Macau somewhat unwillingly. His daughter (Sandrine Testud, which always makes me think of test-tube), had just been shot, and her whole family had been massacred. She is to return to France for further operations in an attempt to save her life, but before she does so, Costello manages to visit her in hospital, and she makes him promise one thing: “Avenge me.”
Avenge her he does, or at least tries to. Around the same time, he just happens to come across a group of three hitmen, led by the invincible Anthony Wong. I say invincible, because he gets shot at many, many times but always come back for more. Together, they work hard to find out who killed Costello’s family.
There is, however, a spanner in the works, as is always the case with these movies. From his rather shady past, he knows how to handle a gun; another memorabilia is a bullet lodged inside his brain. “My doctors told me that sooner or later, I would lose my memory,” he revealed to his newfound brethren. They look on in shock, and a rather deep question can be seen running through their faces: how can a man who will lose his memory get his revenge if he can’t remember the act? Who he’s avenging? Who he is killing? For a moment, it brings to mind Christopher Nolan’s excellent, excellent ‘Memento’ (damn it, Fazil, go watch it already!). What is a man? He is made only of the memories he could remember; not even the truth could save him, because the truth is only what we make of it, what we can recall. At the end of the day, it becomes a bunch of words, a case of he said she said.
Or in this case, words scribbled on black and white photograph. Vengeance, vengeance, vengeance. It’s not, as some might believe, an attempt to further stamp the film’s title into your brain (perhaps it is an attempt to stamp it into Costello’s brain). Perhaps we should also chip and make Johnnie To stamp these words into Hallyday’s brains: act your ass off. Before watching the movie, I had thought that it’s a brilliant move, to bring in someone who looks the way Hallyday does. He has mentioned before how he is an outsider in the process of making the film, and so, with his character being in unfamiliar surroundings, that should be a boon to the production, right? It should be a matter of replicating a lot of real life into film, digital or otherwise, when the red light is on. He has a great, great look for the camera.
Unfortunately, he ends up being the biggest disappointment of the film for me. For my part, I wanted to like him, and that may well have coloured my judgment. It may well have set the bar that bit higher than usual, perhaps unfairly so for a man who is not particularly trained in the art of film acting. There may well have been mitigating circumstances, but ultimately, I am not convinced. Beyond a few moments near the beginning and the end of the film, there is next to nothing change in the expressions of Hallyday. He looks great and all, but once the novelty wears off, there is very little meat on the bone. I am not particularly convinced by most of his acting, unfortunately. Lovely eyes, though.
Does that really matter, though? I’m inclined to say yes, because he’s the main man on the poster (in fact, his name comes out after the director’s in the credit list, if I remember correctly. Either that or just before the title), and in almost every scene from his early introduction onwards. On the other hand, I may well say no, because almost every other part of the film is more than satisfactory for me. In fact, some of them are absolutely stellar. I want to praise Anthony Wong as much as I want to slate Hallyday. OK, we all know he can act. He always has that extra gravitas that makes him stand out in a good way. It’s just the look he has, and here he plays the role of a gangster with a heart so effortlessly it’s…nice. Of course, he’s done it before, and in some ways, it seems like he just sleepwalks through the whole film. That’s how easy he makes it look.
It helps that the whole film itself is gorgeous to look at. Other directors may make gangsters seem richer, more powerful, and more vicious, but somehow in Johnny To’s films he makes them seem appealing. It is not just the style, but also the sense of brotherhood and friendship that you sense. Furthermore, it’s the sense of fair play; a common trait by now, but still a beautiful aspect to experience nonetheless. He makes it appealing to be a part of that brotherhood, and to actually live up to a code of honour. I am reminded of Jeffrey Archer’s ‘Honour Amongst Thieves’, a typically pacey novel from the former MP, and here that sense of honour is very strong. For example, Costello and his hired hands were about to strike at the perpetrators, the killers of his family, when…the killers’s own family starts to coming running towards them. They were having a planned picnic. Now, the dilemma begins: what should they do? Kill in cold blood? To find another alternative? But he has already promised vengeance for his family. The solution turns out to be a satisfactory one, and, with leaves falling all around us in slow-motion, somewhat needlessly but wonderfully stylish.
In short, this is a film that doesn’t really break new ground, I think. There are many elements that seems to have been borrowed from To’s own filmography (the bodyguard cheating with the boss’s girlfriend is reminiscent of ‘The Mission’), but it doesn’t mean that it is no less good. It is engrossing to watch, and it might have been even better had Johnny Hallyday brought his A-game to the game. Perhaps a more experienced actor would have pushed this further into award-winning territory (Harvey Keitel, anyone?).
In spite of all that, nobody makes vengeance and gangsterism look as appealing as Johnnie To.
Having said that, Fikri’s favourite revenge film is still Park Chan-wook’s ‘Oldboy’.