I didn’t think I would see a better Cantonese film this year than Soi Cheang’s Accident – then along came Johnnie To’s Vengeance, a remarkable crime drama which ultimately transcends the genre.
A Hong Kong / France co-production, Vengeance is set mainly in Macau and stars French actor/singer Johnny Hallyday. Initially, Alain Delon was to be the lead but he pulled out and was replaced by Hallyday.
The opening twenty minutes are superb and announce to the audience that this is movie making of the highest order.
The story begins in Macau where an accountant and his family are brutally murdered by a team of hitmen. The only survivor is the accountant’s wife, a French woman who lies comatose in hospital.
A Parisian restaurant owner, Francois Costello (Johnny Hallyday) arrives in Macau to take his dying daughter back to France. She manages to communicate with him ; she wants revenge for her dead family. For a French businessman Costello has unusual but effective skills when it comes to dealing with criminals. He has soon contracted three Chinese gangsters to find and kill the family’s murderers. The team is Kwai (Anthony Wong), Chu (Lam Ka-Tung)and Lok (Lam Suet). At first, attracted by the money and assets on offer from Costello, then the gang becomes interested in who this French restaurateur is, and why he is so knowledgeable and proficient around guns. The trail leads to three brothers who work at a fish market in Hong Kong.
Back on home ground now, To and writer Wa Ka-Fai (Too Many Ways To Be Number One) create a storyline that keeps the cast and audience on edge. Part of this involves some tremendous dramatic set-pieces that will enthrall even the most jaded Asian film fan. A long sequence set in a Hong Kong park during a family barbeque is extraordinary.
It’s now where I’d usually say “It’s all good – except for the use of digital photography.” Well, it’s definitely digital but DOPs Cheng Sui-Keung and To Hung Mo understand the limitations of this format and have filmed accordingly. Vengeance is a top example of what can be achieved with digital cameras. The film’s opening montage of Macau’s casino district pulsates color, golds and reds have never looked more seductive.
Anthony Wong as head of the hit team delivers a first rate performance as Kwai, an ageing crim who knows when to stay and when to go. Lam Ka Tung as the up and coming killer Chu plys his trade all too well and, not surprisingly, is the gang’s only fluent English speaker. Lam Suet is the slovenly but well connected Lok. For an actor, he has one of the most expressive faces and it’s nearly worth the price of a ticket to see his face contort in pleasure and pain as a bullet is being dug out of his buttock. The gang is rounded off by Simon Yam as George Fung, a flamboyant triad boss who hires killers to the highest bidder.
The group’s relationship with Costello is carefully developed by To and Wa Ka-Fai and it becomes much more than a commercial arrangement, mainly because Costello becomes part of the team. These hardened assassins see his pain and understand his dual need for revenge. In an important scene Kwai takes Costello’s gun and writes on it the name of the person who ordered the family’s murder.
As the film begins in Macau it also ends in Macau and it’s this passage of Vengeance which works on another level altogether.
Costello returns to take his revenge and to accept the consequences of this act. With this difficult scenario that To creates for himself, morally and physically, and for such a nihilistic gangster picture, Vengeance finishes on an emotional high when a man with no-name and no-past sits with his family enjoying the moment. This film is the work of a master film-maker!