Three (Cert 15)
Digital Download (Distributor: Kaleidoscope Entertainment) Running Time: 88 minutes approx.
Johnny To has been one of the leading lights in Hong Kong cinema since the turn of the millennium, with a slew of gritty, violent, densely plotted and stylishly shot crime thrillers. Recently To has stepped out of his comfort zone trying romance and even a musical, but the lure of his speciality is always near.
Set almost exclusively in an open plan hospital ward, neurosurgeon Dr. Tong Qian (Zhao Wei) is trying up keep her reputation intact after a series of brain surgeries have yielded more failures than successes. The police arrive with criminal gang leader Shun (Wallace Chung) who has been shot in the head, the bullet lodged in his brain.
Amazingly, Shun awakens but refuses surgery to buy time for his gang to come rescue him. Because Shun was accidentally shot by a cop which Chief Inspector Ken (Louis Koo) knows Shun will use against him, while Ken is holding out so he can arrest the whole gang at once. Dr. Tong simply wants to do her duty as a doctor but ends up drawn into this bitter feud.
Screenwriters Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung and Mak Tin-shu have crafted a tight script in the form of the cerebral game of chess played between Shun and Ken, the former as smart as he is deranged. Quick to quote western philosophy, police procedure and even the medical Hippocratic Oath to make his point, Shun knows what game Ken is trying to play but is always one step ahead.
If this doesn’t sound too engaging, think again. Shun may be handcuffed to a bed and have a bullet in his brain but it is still working fine. Despite this major inconvenience, Shun is able to have Ken dancing to his tune whilst tacitly wheedling away at Dr. Tong’s medical integrity and duty to her patient, all by providing one simple phone number.
Despite the largely singular location, To keeps the camera moving at all times in a conscience effort to distract us from this static set up whilst reflecting the busy atmosphere of a hospital ward. However, this does suggest a plot cavil in the lack of a private room for Shun which would also allow Ken and his crew to keep tabs on Shun and not disturb the other patients.
This plays to Shun’s advantage as he knows Ken can’t make any moves without exposing himself; Ken is quickly revealed to be as a maverick officer in getting results (“We break the law to uphold the law”). Similarly, Shun needs to be canny about how he plans his moves, but the other patients are suitable distractions.
For the audience we get to guess how many visitors to the hospital are from Shun’s gang, aided by regular Johnnie To collaborator Lam Suet, playing his usual role of the inept constable Fatty. Having inadvertently stumbled across a significant clue concerning the gang, he is forced to investigate. As if the levity of this wasn’t already evident, Fatty ends up with a knife up his bum! No, really!
Dr. Tong is the first major female protagonist in a Johnnie To crime thriller for a while; the last time possibly being Chun-Lei in Sparrow, but even then, she was a pickpocket. Tong’s dedication to her duty provides both an obstacle for Ken and a moral compass to counter his malfeasance in trying to frame Shun, but they eventually realise they need each other if Tong is to operate and Ken wants answers.
Ordinarily, this would lead to tense showdowns between two headstrong professionals trying to do their jobs but this doesn’t happen to any real extent that allows the moral implications of both sides of the argument to be put before the audience for any kind of scrutiny or debate. Even at a brisk 88-minutes there is a lot going on already so perhaps this was possibly dismissed as burden to the pacing.
The benefit however is that this just keeps moving and the added twists and turns are deftly weaved into the narrative with an undercurrent of misdirection executed right under our noses to avoid predictability. Yet, for the explosive finale, it seems that someone ordered an extra dose of incredulity as logic and credibility is defenestrated in favour of Hollywood excess.
It is no secret that the Chinese and US film industries have been forging closer ties recently and Hong Kong by way of also enjoying Chinese investment may also want a piece of that action, which may explain the slow motion/CGI assisted shoot out that serves as the huge set piece to close the film. If the suspicion were that To was trying to impress Hollywood, this scene would certainly corroborate that notion.
To infuses his trademark visual flare and balletic choreography into this, sadly let down by the CGI. Actors deliberately running slow or flying wire assisted across the ward is more risible than dramatic, and the green screen work is noticably poor, further diluting the suspense. Elsewhere the close-up camerawork during the operations is astounding, including stunning but gruesome shots of the scalpel blade penetrating the surface from the inside.
As ever To has called upon his extensive troupe of top name actors to fulfil the lead roles, with the exception of Zhao Wei, for whom this is her first time working with To. Inspired casting, Zhao embodies the quiet pride of Dr. Tong along with the burden of terror resulting from doing her noble duty. Louis Koo is rather brusque and monosyllabic as Ken while Wallace Chung has fun as the smug Shun.
Clever plot twists, moral ambiguity and nerve wracking tension sadly spoiled by an overindulgent climax, Three is not without its issues but has more to like that to dislike. However, the decision for this title to be a VOD/download only release in the UK is both baffling and detrimental as it deserves a wider audience.
Rating – *** ½
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