Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Conflicts of Interest

If you want to know what a director actually does, and if you want to know what distinguishes a "good" movie from a "bad" movie when both types of movie share a common pool of elements, you could do worse than study Hong Kong director Johnnie To. I mean, taken purely on the level of their plots, To's movies are not particularly distinguished. They're stock genre exercises, most of them. It's what To does with the elements of his movies that make him special. His films chart the geographies of action like no other. He moves his pieces around the board like a chess grandmaster.

Take, for instance, the scene in Vengeance (2009) where Johnny Hallyday's character first hires the team of hit men to find his daughter's murderers. Each of the hit men are shown in a series of crosscut shots walking in specific directions. When they come together in the same frame, there's a sense of an action completed. They're in the EXACT right spots relative to where they've been shown in the previous shots, and from there, the director puts them into motion into the next sequence:

It's fluid. It's carefully composed. It's totally not essential to the movie, but the aggregate of these kinds of shot sequences adds up. You can sense the quality of the filmmaking, especially when the director punctuates them with shots that DO matter. For an action film, the shots that matter are in the action sequences, and here, the director takes the rhythms he's been riffing on in the rest of the movie and kicks out the jams.

Keeping in mind that To makes movies for an action audience, it's worth looking at the action sequences in the same light. The first big action sequence is like a blueprint, in which the hit men retrace the murder of Hallyday's family. It's like the director is going through point by point and showing the audience how he blocks the action, so they know what the hell they're looking at when he's not guiding them by the nose. When the bullets are flying for keeps, the director is very cognizant of where his characters are, what is around them, and how it affects the battle. The first of these scenes is beautifully orchestrated after the filmmakers allow the bad guys to finish a picnic with their families (suggesting a level of honor among killers). The subsequent shootout hinges on the position of the clouds in relation to the moon, of all things. To is a master at putting the elements to work in his movies, something he learned from Kurosawa. There's a further scene in the movie, in which To recreates the essence of one of Kurosawa's big samurai battles in a trash dump, complete with a "king" viewing the action from a pavilion. It's a sequence that stands as one of the glories of the director's output. It's a marvel of motion and color.

The story in Vengeance, while an exercise in stock genre, is more convoluted than one would expect. It's twofold. It's the story of Frank Costello, a chef with a violent past intent on avenging his his daughter's murder. Complicating things is a bullet in his brain that is slowly depriving him of his memory. Costello was written for Alain Delon, and To, for his part, would be a perfect director for Delon, a kind of Asian descendant of Jean-Pierre Melville, whose existential crime films explore many of the same themes. To has Johnny Hallyday to stand in for Delon, and it works. Hallyday is a superior presence. The memory theme is interesting, too, providing the question of what vengeance means. Of what use is it to a man who cannot remember it? The film even puts this question in the mouth of one of its hitmen. This is also the story of the trio of hit men he hires, played by To regulars Lam Suet, Ka Tung Lam, and the ubiquitous Anthony Wong. In taking the job, they unknowingly cross their boss (played by To regular Simon Yam), who does not look kindly on their conflict of interest, and Costello's vengeance suddenly becomes their own. To is on familiar ground here, inhabiting a Hong Kong noir style that he largely invented, and this film forms a thematic trio with The Mission and Exiled. As he does in those films, he tweaks the conventions of the action film to make them sing.


Andrew Green said...

Ah, I love a good discussion on a talented director....
I'll check out some of this guy's films.

dr.morbius said...

Hi, Andrew. If you're new to Johnnie To, the best places to start are probably Exiled or PTU. The Election movies are excellent, too, but those set an awfully high bar for the rest of the director's films.

I don't recommend jumping into his romantic comedies if you haven't seen any of his movies before, and To took a while to develop his mature style, so some of his early films are pretty raw.

Oh, and welcome. Thanks for following!