OK then. It’s my turn to offer some thoughts on a movie from Johnnie To, someone whose long and varied output I largely relish, and a much-loved director here on HC.
Three is alright. Gulp.
A single location thriller set in a hospital, Three maintains the quirky humour that is a big part of the Milkyway Image house style, although there’s a dark edge to most of the comedy this time around. Chance has a big influence on the outcome, but not in a whimsical poetic way like the banana peel slip did in PTU. While the main characters each try to control the situation, it’s capricious coincidence and minor characters on the periphery of the conflict like Lam Suet’s inept police officer and Lo Hoi Pang’s constantly hungry hospital patient that enable the final showdown to happen at all.
The overarching tone of slick cynicism is similar to Life Without Principle, and also like that film Three is centred on a triumvirate of central characters: an injured gangster (Wallace Chung) is placed under the care of a driven neurosurgeon (Zhao Wei), while remaining under the watch of a police Chief Inspector (Louis Koo). These are all pretty unlikeable people. The gangster is the most relatable simply by being more charismatic than the cold demeanour of the other two. Throwing out quotes and statistics, he’s insufferably arrogant and dangerous. Zhao Wei gives the best performance, her icy calm put under pressure by high stakes surgeries and challenging attitudes from the hospital patients. She conveys so much with a look and minor changes in facial expression, which is classic Johnnie To story telling.
Amping up the absurdity on a textual level is the knowing deployment of a classic excerpt from Mozart. His famous composition Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is massively overused in movies as scene-setting background music. Typically the first few bars are played by a chamber ensemble as dignitaries or spies mill around during an expensive party or function. In Three, the melody is casually whistled for longer than the piece is usually heard, on multiple occasions, in an extended running joke. It then gets woven into the music for the finale in an altered form to bring the meta-awareness full circle. Johnnie To has embraced a wide aural palette across his filmography and this is yet another deft use of music to emphasise mood. There’s also some more standard scoring with low volume bass sounds to raise tension.
Unusually for a Johnnie To film, the camera is highly mobile. It glides around scenes, showing everything clearly but upping the sense of impending action by rarely settling down. The editing is also pretty rapid, with little opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of the moment. Three is longer than The Mission by only a few minutes, but feels exhausting because of the way it is shot. It’s not my personal preference as a viewer, but it fits the pacing of this story, never allowing the audience to rest.
With the viewpoint shifting around so much, Director To has to adapt his visual story telling mode. (Check out this great David Bordwell article for an analysis of director To’s typical sparing style of exposition in Drug War.) For this film the audience is still trusted to pick up on details without drawing undue attention to them — no rule of threes here — but important moments are less oblique and more easily noticed. As a result, Three is easier to understand on first watch than some of To’s other films, as there’s less meaning lurking in silent glances and careful shot framing that may not be readily apparent until a second watch with the full story in mind. Briefly seeing a man in a light blue coat handing out leaflets in a hallway doesn’t take up much time, but when that character appears again half an hour later he’s easy to remember. A lot of plates are set to spinning, and two thirds of the way into the movie it’s hard to know which will cause the situation to shatter if they fall.
Unfortunately, Three stumbles in the final act — so the plates do fall, but not where they were meant to land. When everything pops off, little vignettes from the last hour and change are concluded as the roving camera really goes to town, winging around the main hospital room and employing bucket loads of speed ramping to highlight individual moments. It’s a cool idea and the sequence starts strong, but the whirlwind of CG gunsmoke, flying objects and debris, weak digital blood puffs and half sombre/half overwrought backing music render the whole thing kind of silly. It’s unclear whether this is supposed to be comical, tragic, nihilistic, or what. The more contained final showdown of Exiled executed a similar hectic scene as a drink can arced through the air, but with way more impact. Following this wild couple of minutes, there’s another extended bit that relies on so much CGI it feels weightless. No doubt about it, Hard Boiled is still the reigning champ of the hospital gun battle.
If this sounds harsh, bear in mind it’s apparent from fairly early on the film is building to a confrontation and it does a great job raising the anticipation. The fumbled payoff and ending sends the audience off with a muddled, unsatisfying whimper. There was no one to really get behind at the start, no one is really a hero in the end, and any good outcomes are due to luck more than anything. That’s certainly a point that could be made, but the disappointing finale means it isn’t made particularly well. Still, there’s fun and thrills on the journey to get there. A middling Johnnie To film is still worth watching, so Three remains an intriguing viewing experience.