Tag Archives: Johnnie To

Three (2016, Johnnie To)

Three is about a dirty cop (Louis Koo), a determined doctor (Zhao Wei), and an injured criminal (Wallace Chung). It’s not real time, but its present action is probably seven hours–in an under ninety minute runtime–so it’s close. Zhao is supposed to be getting more and more tired because she refuses to go home from work. Koo’s getting fed up, Chung should be suffering effects from the bullet lodged in his skull. There should be a lot of tension.

And there isn’t. Even when the script goes out of its way to foreshadow tense sequences, it’s never tense. Director To puts so little time into the performances, it’s impossible to emphasize even superficially with any of the cast. And it’s set in a hospital. There are sick people who should be likable. But To never puts anything into the characters. He’s all about this artificial sense of place. Three’s hospital isn’t nitty gritty or pragmatic and functional. It’s often CG. The ultra wide-angle shots, where the actors all stand around and pretend to be intense, hint at some possibility, but To’s either checked out or just doing a bad job.

The script isn’t good. It goes on and on to get to the big events, whether it’s a shootout or Chung revealing himself to be a genius against Koo’s less and less competent cop. Making Koo corrupt–and his entire character motivation built around it–is one of the lamer aspects of the script. It turns Koo’s character into something of a dope and gives Koo, as an actor, almost nothing to do. Chung’s better because the part–manic, superviolent, supersmart criminal–is better. Chung’s character is the trope too, which is just another problem with the script. Writers Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, and Mak Tin-shu are terrible with the character stuff. They’re not much better planning out the reveals, but they’re worse with the character stuff.

Yet, To’s good enough at keeping it moving he’s able to move Three over the more glaring problems. Zhao’s unlikable evil doctor–she’s not just an uncaring woman doctor, she’s also an overambitious country girl–is reduced to this absurd, derisive point. The script gives her bad material and then makes it worse. She functions in the film as the scapegoat. And because she’s an ambitious woman it’s even worse.

Watching Three, especially in the third act, really felt like watching something from the early nineties. The slow motion action sequences–which all have something flipping over in the air–and the weak music choices (and score). It wastes a compelling hook–they’re all trapped in a hospital after all–but keeps promising it eventually won’t waste it. Then it does. Watching the movie, you see it run out of steam. Everything catches up and drags it down.

Cheng Siu-Keung’s photography is occasionally great, occasionally not. It’s usually competent and able to keep up with To when it seems like he’s building to some kind of visual pace. He never gets to one. David Richardson’s editing is mundane but competent.

It’s a rather depressing seventy-five minutes; fifteen in is about where it’s clear Three isn’t going to work out. But it’s not clear until the very end just how disappointing it’s going to turn out. And To still does do some interesting things–those wide shots, for example–but it doesn’t matter. The rest of his work is either disinterested or just bad. Three’s a stinker.



Directed by Johnnie To; written by Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, and Mak Tin-shu; director of photography, Cheng Siu-keung; edited by David Richardson; music by Xavier Jamaux; production designer, Cheung Siu-hong; produced by To and Yau; released by Media Asia Film.

Starring Zhao Wei (Dr. Tong), Louis Koo (Chief Inspector Ken), Wallace Chung (Shun), Lo Hoi-pang (Chung), Cheung Siu-fai (Dr. Fok), and Lam Suet (Fatty).



Drug War (2012, Johnnie To)

Who would have thought a movie just called Drug War would be so amazing? The original Chinese title appears to be just as simple, director To and his amazing batch of writers–War is the probably the best four person scripted film ever–must have known they didn’t really need a flashy title. To’s direction is astoundingly assured and every one of his choices is spot on. Even when things get “predictable,” To makes them play pitch perfect.

The first third of the film sets up the anti-drug units, it shows how different cities work alongside each other, it shows the procedures. It’s not a procedural; To never tries to fill any genre. War isn’t a docudrama either. It’s not really a cop movie, not really a criminals movie. It’s a very matter-of-fact presentation of its events, they just happen to concern cops and criminals. To and the writers never take the time to explain to the viewer. From the first sequence, it’s clear To’s doing something very different.

Great minimalist score from Xavier Jamaux, great photography from Cheng Siu-keung. All around, just amazing production values.

The film mostly follows Sun Honglei’s captain from a big, but routine bust into a breakneck race. Louis Koo’s meth kingpin unexpectedly gets into a wreck and gets busted; Sun uses him to go after the big villain.

To ratchets the film up to a relentless pace. Amazing performances from the cast, every move is a good one.

War’s perfect.



Directed by Johnnie To; written by Wai Ka-Fa, Yau Nai-Hoi, Ryker Chan and Yu Xi; director of photography, Cheng Siu-keung; edited by David M. Richardson and Allen Leung; music by Xavier Jamaux; production designer, Horace Ma; produced by To and Wai; released by Media Asia Distribution.

Starring Sun Honglei (Captain Zhang), Louis Koo (Timmy Choi), Haung Yi (Yang Xiaobei), Gao Yunxiang (Guo Weijun), Li Guangjie (Chen Shixong), Gou Tao (Senior Dumb), Li Jing (Junior Dumb), Lo Hoi-Pang (Birdie), Cheung Siu-Fai (Su), Lam Ka Tung (East Lee), Michelle Ye (Sal), Lam Suet (Fatso), Ng Yuk San (Hatred), Keung Hon Man (Darkie), Gan Tinging (Mrs. Haha) and Hao Ping (Haha).


Yesterday Once More (2004, Johnnie To)

The event romantic comedy is a familiar genre, but not one with frequent entries. With the exception of Julia Roberts (and maybe Sandra Bullock), the genre in American cinema does not exist anymore. The hardships of making these films is finding a project the stars jibe with–I mean, people actually like Runaway Bride. Two Weeks Notice, which I thought was a huge bomb, was actually a hit. It’s just a hard genre because these films are about the audience’s affection for the actor, not the character she’s playing. I say “she,” of course, because there isn’t–currently–a male event romantic comedy star. Though Hugh Grant tries, it only works when Julia Roberts is part of the equation.

Yesterday Once More is a Hong Kong event romantic comedy, pairing Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng as a pair of divorced (but still, of course, in love) professional thieves. As I understand it from my cursory research, Lau and Cheng did a couple other romantic comedies (as well as some dramas, I guess) and a pairing is a big deal. I’ve seen Lau in Days of Being Wild, but I don’t remember him and I’ve never seen Cheng in anything. I’m not hip on my Hong Kong offerings anymore. I used to watch John Woo stuff, but now I don’t and unless it’s a Wong Kar-Wai, I just queue a Chinese-language film, I don’t rush to see it. An event romantic comedy has a specific target audience (albeit, in theory, a large part of the moviegoing audience) and I am not part of Yesterday Once More’s demographic. But I got it.

For the first forty minutes of the Yesterday, there’s nicely shot, nicely scored montage after montage. First the divorce, then a proposal to Cheng, then a heist, then a trip to Italy. I had to pause it to see what the time was when the film finally slowed down for a scene. Since Yesterday is supposed to be purely entertaining, it has to do very little. It has to be charming. Well, Yesterday pits Cheng against a kleptomaniac mother-in-law to-be, has a couple private investigators who worry about each other’s cholesterol intake. The heists are even cute. Yesterday works because it keeps it simple–besides the couple, there’s a mother-in-law to-be and a few supporting characters, really supporting. When I started watching it, not remembering why I’d queued it in the first place, I realized as long as they kept the character count low, the film would work.

While Lau is good, he’s not the protagonist–he is the character the audience has to identify with, however. Cheng is the one who actually has to act in Yesterday and she brings a semblance of depth to an easy character. Ultimately, the film stumbles because it doesn’t want to embrace its levity. Out of nowhere, in the last half hour, it actually wants to say something, which it can’t. But even those false steps can’t defeat the film’s charm.



Produced and directed by Johnnie To; written by The Hermit and Au Kin Yee; director of photography, Cheng Siu-keung; edited by Law Wing-cheong and David M. Richardson; music by Chung Chi Wing and Ben Cheung; production designer, Bruce Yu; released by Media Asia.

Starring Andy Lau (Mr. Thief), Sammi Cheng (Mrs. Thief), Jenny Hu (Mrs. Allen) and Carl Ng (Steve).