With Hong Kong director Johnnie To having long been admired as an auteur by French film critics, his desired collaboration with European talent has been a much mooted and anticipated possibility. Finally, it arrives in the form of “Vengeance”, which sees To teaming with legendary French singer Johnny Hallyday for a thriller written by Milkyway regular Wai Ka Fai. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is heavily reminiscent of two of the director’s signature works, namely “The Mission” and “Exiled”, not least since its cast includes the likes of Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Gordon Lam and Simon Yam, with support from other familiar faces including Michelle Yip, Eddie Cheung, Maggie Shiu, Felix Wong, Berg Ng, and Stanley Fung. Despite underwhelming some critics, the film played in competition at Cannes 2009, with To being nominated for the prestigious Golden Palm Award.
All things considered, the narrative is pretty much standard fare for To and Wai Ka Fai, with Hallyday playing a French Chef called Costello, who heads to Macau after his daughter’s husband and children are assassinated by triad hitmen. A former killer himself, Costello, soon falls in with a trio of mercenaries in Kwai (Anthony Wong), Chu (Gordon Lam), and Lok (Lam Suet), who he hires to help him take revenge – a task made all the more pressing my his own increasing memory problems, caused by a bullet lodged in his brain. Unfortunately for all concerned, the man who ordered the hit turns out to be none other than the boss of Costello’s new friends (Simon Yam), leading to a violent conflict of interests which looks increasingly unlikely to leave anyone left alive.
Although the plot of “Vengeance” is strictly standard, and indeed predictable stuff, few know this kind of material better than To and Wai Ka Fai, and the film certainly benefits from their magic touch, which helps lift it to being somewhat more than the sum of its parts. From the first frame, it’s obvious that comparisons with “The Mission” and “Exiled” are more than well founded, and indeed the film comes across throughout as a spinoff or not too distant cousin. Of course, any complaints of originality aside, this is by no means a bad thing, and the usual themes of brotherhood and revenge are trotted out to good effect.
As is so often the case with Milkway productions, the strength of the film is in its characters, and “Vengeance” is certainly populated with an interesting, idiosyncratic bunch of cool, moody murderers and offbeat oddballs, in particular Yam’s morally ambiguous but gleeful mob boss. This does make the story more engaging than it might otherwise have been, and although the whole value of revenge theme is somewhat undermined by the tacky and obvious device of Costello’s fading memory, the film has a winningly melancholic air and vaguely philosophical underpinning. As a result, whilst a downbeat conclusion is pretty much a given from the start, the film still manages to be moving, thanks in no small part to a great performance from Hallyday in the lead and from Wong, Lam and Suet as his hitmen comrades, who make for a likeable and believable band of brothers.
To’s direction gives the film a very similar look and feel to “Exiled”, featuring plenty of rich colours and a pronounced use of shadows. Graceful slow motion gunplay is very much the order of the day, with most of the fire fights coming complete with misty eruptions of blood filling the air – which although a little stagey are infinitely preferable to the kind of CGI seen in most other productions. Visually, the film includes all of the expected flourishes expected from the director, and although some of these are immediately recognisable from certain other productions, there are a few genuinely delightful moments scattered throughout.
Certainly, it’s hard to imagine any fans of the writer and director, or indeed the Milkway output in general having many complaints, and whilst “Vengeance” could perhaps have shown a little more ambition, it still performs to a high standard. Even To by the numbers is vastly superior to the majority of other Hong Kong helmers, and the film is easily one of the classiest and effortlessly cool thrillers of the last year.
Johnnie To (director) / Ka-Fai Wai (screenplay)
CAST: Johnny Hallyday … Costello
Sylvie Testud … Irene Thompson
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang … Kwai
Ka Tung Lam … Chu
Suet Lam … Fat Lok
Simon Yam … George Fung
Siu-Fai Cheung … Wolf
Felix Wong … Python
Ting Yip Ng … Crow
Maggie Siu … Inspector Wong