Vengeance first published by EyeforFilm
If Johnnie To was already looking towards the cinematic sensibilities of French directors Jacques Demy and Robert Bresson with his stylish pickpocket caper Sparrow (2008), then his latest film Vengeance conjures the spirit of Jean-Pierre Melville, with its noirish existentialism, its air of heroic futility, and its interest in the cool processes of criminal action.
Indeed, the role of protagonist Costello in To’s first genuine French co-production was written specifically for Alain Delon, whose presence would immediately have stirred memories of the anti-heroes that he had played in Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). When, however, Delon turned the part down, the name of iconic French singer Johnny Hallyday (The Man On The Train) came up as a possible replacement – and although To had never heard of him, it is now impossible to imagine Vengeance without the grizzled, vulnerable chanteur at its heart. Hallyday is a revelation, but then, so is the film.
Not that you would know it either from the bald way that the title of Vengeance states its central theme, or indeed from the conventionality of the narrative set-up. Costello is a Parisian restaurateur come to Macau after his daughter Irene (Sylvie Testud) has been left critically wounded in a home invasion that also saw her Chinese husband (Vincent Sze) and their two young sons coldly gunned down. Despite his disorientation, the ageing father swears to Irene that he will avenge her, and sets about hiring three local hitmen, Kwai, Chu and Lok (Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Lam Ka Tung, Lam Suet), to help him find – and kill – his family’s attackers.
Though a stranger in a strange land, Costello is certainly no stranger to violence, having been a professional assassin himself some two decades ago, and he is soon sharing meals and forming bonds with his new employees – until their allegiances are tested by the revelation that their local boss, the effete yet ruthless crime lord George Fong (Simon Yam), was the man behind the massacre of Costello’s family. Meanwhile Costello, gradually losing his mind to a bullet lodged years ago in his head, learns that if he cannot forgive, he can at least forget.
With Vengeance, To gives well-worn tropes of the revenge thriller some mannered tweaks, before ultimately turning them on their head. In one key sequence, Costello and his crew size up to his family’s killers in a woodland picnic area, only for the expected shootout to be deferred first by the arrival of the killers’ wives and children, and then by a cloud passing over the full moon and plunging everything in total darkness. When the gun battle finally comes, it is filmed impressionistically in wide shot and half light, as though to match the murky lack of focus that increasingly clouds Costello’s own perceptions. Ending bathetically, this entire sequence repeatedly withholds what the viewer assumes, even hopes, will happen.
If the later set-pieces, in which Costello’s three friends take their last noble stand and Costello finally gets his ‘fitting’ payback, play out as pure, and purely conventional, retributive fantasy, then that is also how they are framed, given the strong suggestion that the film’s third act quite possibly unfolds only in the protagonist’s disintegrating, child-like mind. For much as To inverted the policier with a Mad Detective (2007), here he presents us with the genre-subverting paradox of a forgetful avenger, determined to find satisfaction, but unable to remember for what or from whom. “What is revenge?” asks our addled hero – and his words come to resonate in a film where all the typical gestures of vengeance are adopted even as their emptiness is exposed.
Together with To’s earlier The Mission (1999) and Exiled (2006), Vengeance forms a loose ‘triad’ of Macau-set films concerned with fraternity amongst assassins and honour amongst thieves – although it also slyly introduces a new motif of Memento-style amnesia, thus inviting us to forget, as much as retrace, the trilogy’s principal preoccupations. In fact Vengeance ends where it begins – with a maternal figure in an idyllic setting cooking a bounteous meal (emphatically served warm) for her boys. In this alternative to all the slick machismo and cold-blooded killing that revenge involves, male violence, far from being celebrated, is relegated to an uncertain future, a bullet-damaged imagination, or merely a distant memory.
© Anton Bitel