In his recent movies, Hong Kong director Johnnie To has been pushing the crime genre in strange new directions. Mad Detective blended a police procedural with barmy surrealism, while Sparrow was much more light-hearted, a hip caper with plenty of nods to 60s French cinema. But Vengeance marks a return to what To does best - stripped down gangster stories with a hard-boiled edge and slickly executed stand-offs. With this film, he has gone back to the action of Exiled and the detachment of his crime saga Election.
The plot is simple - a woman barely survives the assassination of her family and demands that her father Costello (Hallyday), a French chef, take revenge on those responsible. Costello employs a trio of hitmen (played by To favourites Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Gordon Lam and Lam Suet) to track them down, but there are a number of twists and turns as the group make their way to Simon Yam’s unrepentant crime lord.
The main stumbling block is Costello’s own memory, which is slowly failing him. He takes pictures of people to remember their names and faces and his condition worsens to the point where he can forget where he actually is. While this all sounds a bit Memento, To keeps this theme very much in the background, playing out the shoot-outs and double crosses as you’d expect but leaving Costello’s degrading motivation as a nagging question for the audience - can he take revenge if he cannot even remember why he’s doing it?
Revenge in cinema often falls into two camps; either it is a moment of glorious catharsis or it transforms the protagonist into the sort of person who wronged him in the first place. Vengeance is less clear-cut. Here, revenge becomes a commodity, bought and sold by the various parties involved in the criminal world, so much so that Costello is almost completely removed from proceedings and his original goal ceases to matter. But To isn’t one to hammer these points home, and Costello’s condition is played subtly at first while To wallows in the seedily lit Macau location, showing that he is still very much about style and visuals.
As usual, To provides some memorable set-pieces that are both playful and fraught with tension. One is the climactic shootout that sees Costello’s hired assassins surrounded by gangsters who roll out huge bales of paper ahead of them as protection. The other is the final face-off in which Costello’s enemy is plastered with stickers so that the Frenchman can remember who he’s hunting, and once his target works that out he starts sticking the flags on other people to confuse him. It’s this simple poetry that gives To’s films a distinctive mark, this touch of the bizarre and the humorous that sets his work out from the crowd.
Vengeance might be a little Westernised for some die-hard To fans. It goes at a slower pace and the inclusion of French singer/actor Hallyday might seem like To is pandering to European audiences, but the director proves himself once again to be a master of the crime film. With each new film he manages to approach the genre from a fresh, unexpected angle and Vengeance takes revenge into dark, compelling territory.