Friday, February 26, 2010
Johnnie To's Vengeance
When I saw Hong Sang-soo's latest film, Like You Know it All, it immediately put me in mind of the Italian still-life painter Giorgio Morandi, who's been painting the same arrangement of bottles for decades. You can look at a painting from the 50s and one from the 90s and see very little variation. It's the meditative attention to this small set of objects, and the subtle differences in the way he arranges and paints them, that mesmerizes. Hong, I realized, is becoming like that. He essentially makes the same film year after year, with slight variations. It just so happens that I don't mind watching that film over and over again.
If Hong is a still life painter, Johnnie To is more like a chef at a restaurant you frequent.
His best dishes mix new and familiar ingredients into something delicious. The metaphor is apt for Vengeance, which stars French singer Johnny Hallyday as a chef who travels to Macau to avenge the deaths of his daughter's family. It has exactly what you want from a To movie: continuously rising tension hinging on just-plausible plot twists that incrementally ratchet up the stakes, the easygoing bon homie of his stock gang of actors (which is even more pleasurably evident in Sparrow), brilliantly staged gun battles, and devices that might or might not be borrowed from other movies.
But they're borrowed because they work, in the same way (if I may stretch the metaphor a bit further) a chef might borrow a combination of flavors he tasted somewhere else simply because it tastes good. In Vengeance we find Polaroid pictures with words scrawled on them as aids to memory (bringing to mind Memento), a choreographed street scene of umbrella-covered pedestrians (To's own Sparrow, itself borrowing from Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), the re-enactment of a crime intercut with the actual one (any number of TV shows).
Vengeance is said to be part of a trilogy that began with The Mission and Exiled, both of which play with notions of brotherhood among assassins, but it's also an extension of what tyros of the 1980s Hong Kong New Wave like John Woo and Tsui Hark brought to their early films: the creative remixing of action movie conventions into something maybe not new but certainly satisfying.