Hong Kong rarely does prestige projects, but when Tsui Hark asked Johnnie To and Ringo Lam to join him for Triangle [Tie Saam Gok] it quickly transpired that this undertaking had the potential to become a landmark film. The timing was perfect, the international scene had just rediscovered Hong Kong crime cinema and with established names attached to the project the film festivals were lining up to put it on their roster. I really liked Triangle when I first watched it, but have to admit I'd forgotten most of the details since. Time to give it another shot, luckily it didn't disappoint the second time around.
Hark was the instigator of this project. It was his idea to chop up a film in three distinct, 30-minute parts and give each director a sizeable amount of freedom to finish his segment the way he saw fit. They each got a writer to develop one part of the story, with no communication between the teams during production. The actors, cinematographer and composer on the other hand were shared to assure the film has a level of consistency, keeping it from becoming a full-blown anthology. If you ever needed a film to substantiate auteur theory (particularly related to genre cinema), this is the one.
Though Hark and Ringo Lam are prominent directors whose influence on Hong Kong cinema can't be trivialized, Triangle feels like a celebration of Johnnie To's work. No doubt because To was one of the prime directors who reinvented Hong Kong crime cinema and put it back on the map during the early 00s. With films like The Mission, PTU, Throw Down, Election 1 & 2 (and the list goes on) he made the genre his own and brought international audiences back to Hong Kong after the mid-90s collapse of their local film industry. Hark may have been the one who came up with this project, it does feel like he and Ringo are just going along for the ride.
The plot revolves around three friends planning a heist. They are tired of living an honest life, slaving away every day for a mere nickle and a dime. A mysterious figure in a bar overhears their scrummy plans and makes them an offer they can't refuse. The man tells them about a buried treasure ready for the taking. It's a watertight plan, but internal problems complicate things and once they've dug up their bounty, the police and the Triads are right on their tail. What started as a simple plan quickly turns into a clusterfuck where everyone is trying to outsmart the others.
While the three directors shared a single cinematographer, the trained eye will no doubt spot some visual differences between the segments. To's signature was the easiest to identify, whereas I felt Tsui's hand was least obvious (which isn't too surprising, since his trademark style is also the farthest removed from this type of film). You can look forward to a rather grim color palette, lingering camera work, sultry environments and shadowy setting, like you'd expect from a good Hong Kong crime noir. Not quite top of the line, but the quality is definitely there.
Guy Zerafa, an old familiar of Johnnie To, was chosen to handle the score for all three segments. Zerafa worked with To on Exiled and Fulltime Killer and delivers another very distinctive selection of tracks. To is known for pairing off-kilter scores with his films to differentiate them from the average Hong Kong crime flick and Zerafa does a great job continuing that tradition. The music is moody, stands out in the right places and does a stellar job uniting the three segments. Mission accomplished in other words.
Actors too are shared, as we're dealing with a continuous story and characters that carry through from start to finish. Which is a good thing really, as the lead trio is pretty ace. Simon Yam, Louis Koo and Honglei Sun all manage to shine, while the supporting cast is solid too, with outstanding performances by Kelly Lin, Ka Tung Lam and the inimitable Suet Lam. No real career-defining performances, they've all done these characters before, in slightly better films too, but every one of them delivers and makes sure his character is right on point.
Even though Triangle is split in three even parts, helmed by three different directors, I don't think most people would actually notice. Unless you're aware of the nature of this project, or you're very familiar with the work of each director, there's enough cohesion here to pass as a regular feature film. Don't expect a typical anthology or an explosion of creativity, instead Hark brought three legendary directors together to create a signature Hong Kong crime flick. He just made sure the three of them wouldn't get in each other's way while adding their typical flavor to the film. Fans of Hong Kong on the other hand will have no trouble linking each director to his specific segment, which is a nice little perk.
Though this isn't exactly the ultimate in Hong Kong crime cinema, it's a beacon of quality that easily mingles with the best Hong Kong has to offer in the crime genre. Triangle looks stylish, sports a great soundtrack, leans on a superb central trio and highlights the talents of its lauded directors. A true flagship project if there ever was one. If also holds up very well on revision, so with the Hong Kong movie industry in a slump right now, it's the ideal time to catch up on this film if you haven't seen it yet. If you like yourself a bit of crime cinema, it's an easy recommend.