We like to consider filmmakers as authors, but most of them don’t have the control required to make that comparison accurate. If you go on a search for directors who can keep their hands on the wheel for the entire running time, you may end up crossing the globe in the process. If you’re lucky, the one that you end up finding is Johnnie To. The 61-year-old Hong Kong genre filmmaker—he’s got more than 40 movies to his name, and he’s threatening retirement in the coming years—works out of his own production house, with a recurring team of collaborators. Like a sure hand from the old studio system, he maintains a personalized aesthetic style (fast-paced editing that nonetheless prizes coherence over chaos) while exploring his pet themes (recently he’s been pitting ruthlessly merciless criminals against overreaching state officials) across a variety of genres (his latest works are a musical, a melodrama, a comedy, and a crime thriller.) To is not a writer, and when he’s saddled with the wrong material, he can get lost. But even then, his steadiness proves a virtue. You’d rather ride down the wrong road with him than ride down the right one with one of his peers.
The go-to cliche in describing To’s filmmaking is to say that he’s as precise as a surgeon. Three asks whether or not that’s a compliment. It leads us to a hospital, where a trio of lead characters fight over the driver’s seat. Dr. Tong (Zhao Wei) is an exceptionally talented alpha-woman. She’s the kind of person who says things like “I don’t believe in luck.” Inspector Chen (Louis Koo) is a cop in the mold of loose cannons from American movies. He’s the kind of person who says things like “we break the law to enforce the law.” And Shun (Wallace Chung) is a high-ranking criminal in the shape of mastermind bad guys from graphic novels. He’s the kind of archetypal sociopath who quotes philosophy texts during a maniacal monologue. All three think they’re in control of the narrative we’re watching. They’re the kind of people who always think they’re the lead character.
These characters are hardly complicated, though, so Three engineers complicated scenarios instead. Shun arrives at the emergency room with handcuffs on his wrists, and a bullet lodged in his head, but he chooses to stay conscious for the sake of escape, rather than accept anesthesia for the sake of surgery. Tong wants him on the operating table. Chen wants him on the interrogating table. And Shun’s just trying to keep them arguing until his backup arrives. They’re all operating based on a high level of self-confidence—which is to say that they end up making mistakes. Chen’s by-any-means-necessary attitude is bested by a criminal who’s even better at entrapment. Tong’s workaholic demeanor allows for fatigued miscalculations and manipulated emotions. Shun’s master plans start to fail as soon as his fragile body begins to do the same. The mini-story that frames Three sees Tong perform an unsuccessful operation on a semi-paralyzed patient. “You were so confident when you talked me into surgery,” is the way she gets rebuked. This is an action-parable, and that’s the theme: we like to think that talent and confidence give us a sense of agency in this random world, but those qualities set us up to fail just as often.
They’re seeing the world from skewed perspectives, and To adopts each one of them. Three looks through the eyelines of its leads—To’s shot sequences often cycle through the three of them. First you’ll see Chen through the eyes of a bedridden Shun (he’s looking up at his domineering captor.) Then you see Dr. Tong from Chen’s hot seat (he’s looking at his unofficial competitor with a sideways glance.) Then we see Shun from Tong’s eyes, finishing the cycle (she’s peering down.) Occasionally he turns sights into symbols more literally. There’s a shade that can be drawn around Shun’s hospital bed. Tong wants it open so that she can keep an eye on everything. Chen wants it shut so that he can do some “interrogation” away from the public eye.
All three want to play God. But only To gets to do it. Three is loaded with side characters—a techie obsessed with charging his laptop is one, the semi-paralyzed aggrieved patient is another—and it documents their movements through the hospital with an omniscient clarity. They’re all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, waiting for their director to click them into place. He does so during the climactic shootout, a rightfully braggadocious long-take that stitches together every single one of the eyelines we’ve seen thus far. They’re all witnessing—or participating in—a mass shootout that leaves behind grotesque results. The actors move in and out of manual slow-motion, while the camera turns its gaze like a whipped head, swapping from one perspective to another. For Three, it’s a formal encapsulation in a single shot. Unfortunately the screenplay—it’s credited to three authors—drives past it. The ultimate finale presents a humanist rewriting of Die Hard’s finish that’s staged in front of unconvincing visual effects. Each of the film’s themes are verbalized painstakingly in the process. Not even Johnnie To can control everything.
THREE. NOW PLAYING AT AMC BOSTON COMMON.