Want a little poetry with your blood and guts? Initially, I thought about pairing Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s Vengeance with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. There are many parallels. If you don’t mind changing culture, time and geography, it’s not a bad idea. Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies. However, for this double feature, I’m recommending another film by Johnnie To — Mad Detective.
Vengeance is a result of a French and Hong Kong partnership. French singer/actor Johnny Hallyday plays a hitman turned restaurateur who revisits his first profession after his daughter, her husband and children are slaughtered by a Hong Kong gangster. A little rusty at the game and unfamiliar with Macau where the cold-blooded murders take place, he finds a professional hit threesome to help him get revenge. There is a bit of a twist, and in literary terms, an important one. The viewer learns fairly quickly that Hallyday’s character has a bullet in his brain from a long-ago job. However the bullet is moving and medical opinion is that he is losing his memory. He is compelled to complete his mission before he forgets what it is. The philosophical question is: If you cannot remember the harm that is done to you and the ones you loved, how important is it to avenge it? This lends, for me, a question about the usual satisfaction of seeing justice done.
Hallyday, with his tiny snake-like eyes, is magnetic. The cinematography is top notch. The acting is superb. Anthony Wong, is just one example. He plays one of Hallyday’s hired thugs, creating something strangely, yet believably honorable and tender in his role as a killer. The Cantonese language film was released in 2009.
There was both surrealism and poetry (must be the French questioning the meaning of existence again) in Vengeance. Mad Detective, an earlier film (2007), offers much more surrealism and perhaps a tad less poetry. Lau Ching-Wan plays a once top detective, but who is now off the force and shunned as dangerously crazy. He is. I wouldn’t want him watching my kids. Nonetheless he is brought into the case by a young and admiring young police detective perplexed by a case of a missing cop. What we see as a viewer is often what the crazy cop sees — the personalities of those he meets, some of them with multiple personalities. It is disorienting at first, perhaps a little too outside the box. But if you hold on a little longer, you pick it up — a tribute to the cinematographer and to the actor. Chinese-American actor Andy On shows true leading man abilities as the young detective in need of mentorship, but gets more than he bargained for. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for the police and eventually even for the young do-gooder cop to accept the crazy man’s antics. His actions, while they make less and less sense to the characters in the film, start to make more sense to the audience. It is a bit of directorial magic.
These are violent films. The world is a dark place. Nobody gets out without paying the price. My guess is that we’re back to sipping the hard stuff. So stay home and don’t water down the whiskey.