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Close-Up on Johnnie To's "Vengeance"

Johnnie To’s gangster story of retribution has all the usual ingredients: hitmen, tests of loyalty, showdowns, moody cityscapes…and food.
Sucheta Chakraborty
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Johnnie To's Vengeance (2009) is showing August 12 – September 11, 2018 in the United States as part of the series Johnnie To: Men on a Mission.
Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s gangster story of violence and retribution has all the usual ingredients: icy hitmen, decisive tests of loyalty, grand showdowns, moody cityscapes…and food. Our aging hero, Francis Costello (French singer Johnny Hallyday), is a chef who owns a restaurant at the Champs-Élysées. And in an early scene, without wasting too much time—a quality that he shares with his director—Costello sets about displaying his culinary skills. He has just flown in to Macau upon hearing of the devastation that has befallen his daughter and her family, and is visiting her recently-decimated home for the first time. And yet, not once does he stop to grieve at the sight of his daughter’s destroyed haven, to mourn the loss of the life that she had once so lovingly built. Instead, he surveys the contents of the fridge, throws out the remains of the dinner that she had been preparing before the bullets started to rain, and cooks a meal. In fact, it is the three men (Anthony Wong, Lam Ka-tung, and Lam Suet) he has hired to avenge this massacre who go about exploring the home, and through a series of clever edits they reconstruct the horrific events of that day. It is they who walk into the now-dusty rooms and pore over old picture albums taking in the sadness of the place, reminiscing on his behalf.    
This sequence in Vengeance (2009) establishes some of the film’s central themes and holds the key to much of what will follow. While the introduction to Costello’s real family through an entry into the spaces they once inhabited convinces the hitmen of the Frenchman’s need for payback and inspires in them a fierce loyalty, the meal that the four men share out in the porch signals the forging of a new bond. In fact, food and family—whether real or surrogate—are closely linked throughout the film. As Costello reveals to his new friends at one point, his restaurant in Paris is called Les Freres (‘Brothers’). In Vengeance, To compensates for the massacre of one family by repeatedly enabling the formation of others. Similarly, it is almost as if the food that is left untouched in the film’s opening scenes is passed around and shared over and over again in its course. It is also interesting that To doesn’t end the film at the point where Costello avenges his daughter at long last. He treats us to one final moment of calm where, with the sea behind him, Costello sits down to eat with his new adoptive family and for the first time in the film looks up to smile. Balance has been restored and with the streets once again in order, our hero retires to the comfort and safety of his new-found domesticity.
In fact, within the broader conventions of Hong Kong action cinema, Johnnie To has frequently been associated with the ‘urban western,’ a genre that has brought the frontier to the city streets. And besides all the homosociality, epic face-offs and relentless gun-toting—conventions of both westerns and gangster films alike—the hybrid has resulted, among other things, in a series of exquisite urban action set pieces. Hong Kong’s neon-tinted, rain-washed nightscape has enabled so much of the action and mood in this film, the most electrifying of which is perhaps the long stairway shoot-out between two rival gangs. Here scenes alternate between the inside and the outside on both literal and symbolic levels, as a frantic camera moves between shots of dingy rooms and dimly-lit staircases to those of men in raincoats patrolling narrow, dark alleys and crouching on roofs outside in the rain. The constricted, rapid framing indoors—moments tense with activity and anticipation—eventually opens up into wider, longer shots of the wet sidewalks and finally ends on a lost, helpless Costello standing among the passing sea of umbrellas desperately trying to match faces to his Polaroid photographs. The chaos all-around of the previous few minutes is reflected in his confusion within—the product of an old bullet wound in the head that is rapidly eroding his memory. The ramshackle structure, which is the site of most of the action here and which suffers a great deal of further damage with its doors kicked down and walls shattered with bullets as the men descend through it, ultimately becomes a symbol of a deeper inner disintegration.      
Being vulnerable in a world which has no place for it is what links our hitman-turned-chef to that other Costello—Jef (Alain Delon) in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) —who inspired the creation of To’s character in the first place. Johnnie To has spoken often of how he grew up watching French thrillers, especially those starring the dashing Delon. He had wanted to work with the French actor for years and had approached him for Vengeance. However, when Delon withdrew and Hallyday took his place, To refused to change the character’s name which was intended as a tribute to a film that, according to To, “gave birth to the cool hitman archetype.” Melville’s influence on To is palpable—so many of the latter’s films have dealt with crime, method and questions of honor. Their styles however vary significantly. To infuses flair and excess as opposed to Melville’s clinical precision. Where Jef is all secrecy and muted colours, Francis with his foreign features, trench coat and fedora is decidedly conspicuous. Moreover, in spite of the indiscriminate violence, To holds on to a sense of hope and redemption till the end which is in stark contrast to the French filmmaker’s characteristic fatalism. Johnnie To’s films are ultimately distinctly his own.
In an interview, To once remarked that the usual paucity of dialogue in his films leaves scope for the creation of mood, and the mood that he has often wished to create, in spite of the overarching presence of action, has not been one of violence and gunfire but rather of something akin to dance. Movement, pace and rhythm, and an essential staged quality is apparent in Vengeance’s beautiful moonlit gun battle in the park, shot in slow motion with falling leaves, a capricious moon and sprays of dark red oozing all around as the bullets hit flesh. This stylization lends elegance to a brutal world. Style and content come together merging the graceful with the ugly.
Finally, Vengeance like Memento (2000) ponders the relationship between memory and revenge. Revenge—perhaps the most cinematic of motives, granting purpose and enabling exploration of character and morality—is an act that does not exist on its own. It is born out of the original offence which is expressly rooted in the past. But with that past swiftly receding from view how is the desire for retaliation sustained? How is revenge sought? Not alone at least, the film urges.           

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