Skip to content

(Fuk Sau) Vengeance (2009) ***1/2

September 8, 2010

written by: Wai Ka-Fai
produced by: Michèle Pétin, Laurent Pétin, Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai, John Chong & Peter Lam
directed by: Johnnie To
109 min.
U.S. release date: Plays on IFC On Demand through August 2010 (with a limited run in select art-house theaters).
The mysterious man in the fedora, tinted glasses and trench coat methodically thumbs through stolen police photos of a slaughtered family. What he sees is the result of a brutal break-in by three unknown assailants in Macau. The man, blown away at his door was his son-in-law, the two dead children that hid in a bedroom closet were his grandchildren, and the woman, barely hanging onto her life in a hospital he just visited, is his daughter. Sitting in a hotel room, he writes across each photo in black marker the word: Vengeance.
“Vengeance” is not only the title of the latest film from veteran Hong Kong director Johnnie To, it’s also something this character has vowed to his daughter (Sylvie Testud). Leaving his restaurant in Paris, Costello (Johnny Hallyday) has now dedicated every fiber left of his husky frame to finding out who is behind this tragedy. It’s difficult to take your eyes off Hallyday as this grouper-faced Frenchman tries to piece together events despite not knowing anyone or the language. American audiences may know rock star Hallyday (known as “The French Elvis”) from the forgettable “Pink Panther 2”, but in France the guy is a pop icon. He comes across more like a hard-lived version of Gaff from “Blade Runner”, to me. As Costello, he looks like he stepped right out of a New Wave noir, like he may know a thing or two about vigilantism, yet there is something a bit off about him. There have been strangers in strange lands in cinema, but this guy is one of the strangest I’ve seen in a while.
Johnny Hallyday in Johnnie To's 'Vengeance'
One night in his hotel hallway, Costello finds himself in a stare down with three hitmen, who had just finished off a guest. It’s quite obvious to all four of them that he knows what they are and what they did. Nothing is said. Nothing needs to be said. Ordinarily, Costello would have been “dealt with” since he saw their faces but for some reason, they let him go. An undeterred Costello seeks them out and offers them a job, telling them he knows no one here and would like them to help him track down the three men responsible for destroying his daughter’s life.
Mostly out of curiosity, the three hitmen (excellently played by Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Lam Suet) accept the job and soon learn there’s more to this Costello than his penchant for labeling Polaroids of people he’s snapped. They also learn that the three men they are after belong to the local Triad gang and have connections to their own boss, George Fung (Simon Yam). The closer these guys get to their subjects, the closer the entire Triad get to taking them out. When the three hired men build an unlikely camaraderie and eventual loyalty with their new boss, they find themselves on an inevitable pursuit for their own vengeance.
The story has a straightforward approach that can be found in just about any “vengeance” film, but here the screenplay has several unforseen turns immersed in engaging dialogue. Granted, the dialogue is sparse and not entirely original, yet it’s the talent of the cast and director that deliver intriguing characterization and exhilarating visuals. To creates a moody noir atmosphere in which inarticulate objects such as wind-blown debris accentuate the mood of the scene just as much as the rain or moonlight. It’s great when a director  takes the time to incorporate the elements of the story’s setting in a way that not only serves the story well but also enhances the emotions portrayed by the actors.
There’s a tense setting in a park at night where the only light provided comes from the moon above, it spotlights the four men as they finally confront the three they search for. Costello and his new friends can’t do anything though because their foes are surrounded by family. Both parties know neither can make a move, and To’s camera makes sure we know that they know. Once the families depart for the evening, the men left advance with guns drawn and what transpires is a quiet ballet-like showdown amid the shadows created by the moon and trees. To employs a generous color palette and a precise use of light, creating environments that are synchronous with the character’s given situation.
Johnnie To's 'Vengeance'
Later on, there’s a saturated sequence at a trash dump in Maccau, where the three wounded comrades prepare for what they know will be their final stand. Not only are they surrounded by gigantic cubes of compressed trash but behind them is an army of adversaries, ready to take them out. They know they are outnumbered and they know they are going down together. Flanked by these giant squares of trash that are now lumbering closer, bullets begin to spray through the air, tearing through both trash and flesh. These shots display a unique approach to the often confusing ammunition exchange we so often see on film. To is methodical with his action shots, he wants you to follow along with every hit and miss. 
This film respectfully resembles work by other directors who’ve worked in this genre before. There’s a subplot that invokes Christopher Nolan’s “Momento” but the most predominant homage recalls Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï”.  In fact, the lone protagonist here is named after veteran French actor Alain Delon’s character from that film. So, it’s not ironic that Hallyday was chosen since frequent collaborators, To and Ka-Fai have made films that are heavily-influenced by classic French noir films. In fact, To originally wanted Delon for Costello but he declined after reading the script. It’s a good thing though since, at age 74, Delon is seven years older than Hallyday. It was hard enough seeing a fatigued Hallyday, wasted and out-of-breath in the heat of all the action, I can’t imagine an actor in his mid-70’s running down alleys taking and dispensing bullets.  
The film marks the final installment in To’s established trilogy, one that began with 1999’s “The Mission” and then 2006’s “Exiled”. All of the films share some of the same actors, locations, along with some heavy themes injected with the right dash of needed humor. Connected by parallel reflections on themes like brotherhood, loyalty and mortality. “Vengeance” can be a good gateway film to Milkyway Image, a Hong Kong production company founded by To and Kai-Fai and should motivate viewers to seek out other films by these filmmakers. I know it has for me.  
I recently caught this film at the tail-end of its run at the Gene Siskel Film Center during a limited release. I don’t know where or when you’ll find it again in the states. IFC Films had apparently released it as part of their VoD (Video on Demand) last month, so time will tell when it will be released on DVD/Bluray.Regardless, this is definitely one to add to your list, since it’s now a strong contender for my Top Ten Films of 2010.

Leave a Reply