Johnnie To is one of the more productive directors among my list of favorites, that's why reviews of PTU, Mad Detective and Sparrow graced this blog before. His latest film Vengeance continues his winning streak and makes it clearer than ever that To effectively reinvented himself these last ten years to become a true author.
Vengeance is a little different though. His regular cast is still very much present (Anthony Wong, Suet Lam, Simon Yam), but the lead role is reserved for someone else this time. Johnny Hallyday, famed French singer and occasional actor is the main man this time, lending the film a very specific direction. A pretty daring move, but one that works well.
Hallyday's inclusion raises a pretty big language issue, as Hallyday is a native French speaker while the rest of them speaks Cantonese. Middle ground for both parties is English, spoken with rather fat accents. To handles it well though. I actually don't mind bad English and stilted dialogues if they feel real enough (opposed to say an entire Japanese cast trying to exclaim complex English dialogue for no reason at all). It's personal preference of course, but I'm glad To didn't decide to dub Hallyday in Cantonese, opting for a more realistic approach. It even adds some charm to the film.
The story, like in most of To's films, is rather simple. A basic revenge tale with a couple of twists and turns hurling the film forward. Grandpa Costello travels to Hong Kong after his daughter's family is murdered. His daughter barely survives and demands revenge. After some meager attempts Costello realizes he needs locals to help him out, so when he runs into the group run by Anthony Wong he hires them to do the job for him. Like I said, pretty basic stuff.
To makes sure to put his visual stamp on Vengeance. Brooding slow-motion, dark corners, lots of posing and scarred faces. It's all here again. It has become a crucial element for his films, which thrive on the tension created between two opposing fractions. It's amazing what he can accomplish with a floating camera, tempo changes and two groups of people standing in front of each other.
The soundtrack is not as quirky or as present as in his previous films. It almost seems as if To was scared to surprise his audience with his somewhat atypical choice of music, especially for a film with a broader international appeal. Vengeance is rather silent, but it works well with the slow motion and dark images dreamed up. Acting is as solid as you can expect from the To regulars, even Hallyday puts in a fitting performance. Yam has a pretty small role this time, but Anthony Wong en Suet Lam fans will find enough screen time for both to look forward to.
All that said, if there's anything that defines To these last couple of years it's the addition of certain funny, frivolous elements, granting his films a level of vitality and quirkiness completely absent in comparable films. Somehow it underlines To's love for cinema, and Vengeance doesn't escape from his signature style. Some lovely details (like the bike, the kite-like thing and the stickers) liven up the film without actually hurting the dark atmosphere.
Vengeance is a film that will do well with most Johnnie To fans. There's a chance that the use of different languages will put some people off, or maybe To's playful side will come as a surprise, but apart from that Vengeance is another shining star on To's ever-growing repertoire. A very solid film in all departments, allowing you to sink back into your couch and let the film drift over you like a warm, dark blanket.
Try the trailer for a glimpse of To's magic.