Review: Johnnie To's THREE, And The Intricacies Of Character

From acclaimed Hong Kong action director Johnnie To, this well-crafted action-thriller is set in a hospital environment. Where Hollywood can be bogged down in cliche when it comes to hospital drama, this director imparts his inimitable visual style as an artist brushes the canvass with precision and passion. To's brushes on this particular canvass are at once gritty, real, and eventually winds up as a battleground where people are caught in the crossfire.

We start off with the introduction of our three major characters with brain surgeon Doctor Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao/Wei Zhao) among a group of doctors evaluating patients, who is vilified by a young man (Jonathan Wong) that is paralyzed from the waist down. She had taken a risk with saving the young man's life but keeps a stoic yet firm belief he would get better in a few months. But the man is not cooperative and even spits at the surgeon in defiance.

Wei Zhao (credited here as Vicki Zhao) is one of China's more popular and richest award-winning working actors and music artists of her generation whose career in television and movies began in 1994 with "A Soul Haunted by Painting," a romantic drama. In "Three," we see an intense portrayal of a woman beset by her own flaws and demons, trying to sustain a balance to do the right thing for the patients she truly cares for and her own high-strung conscience. Introducing a character in her element in surgery to establish who and what she is doesn't necessarily detract from the plot. It's quick and painless, to coin a medical phrase. Even the surgeon's overly dramatic moment of confronting her superior, Steven (Eddie Cheung Siu-fai), after another patient was developing complications, was being nothing but supportive and offering some calm and reasoned advice.

More troubles brew when police bring in a wounded criminal, our second player of the film, Shun (Wallace Chung), with a bullet in his head. Shun is a seemingly highly intelligent man with powers of manipulation. The doctor estimates he has about six hours to decide on whether or not he should have surgery to remove the bullet as he begins to toy with her and Inspector Chen (Louis Koo), our third player, in a spryful and playful manner. With a penchant for quoting Bertrand Russell and Hippocrates, you wonder why he steals from jewelry shops. I think -- positing a thought here -- he enjoys stealing. No matter who you are, if you're passionate and good about something, the enjoyment of it will never cease even if you are a bit of an intellectual. And Shun's directness and manipulation becomes even more evident when he puts the cops and medical staff at risk when he promises his compatriots would be coming for him.

Wallace Chung is a Hong Kong actor, recording artist, and dancer. In 1997 he began his acting career in "Sweet Symphony" (Love Is Not A Joke - Fei Yat Boon Oi Ching Siu Suet) about three young men arriving in Hong Kong from Canada, bent on competing to find "Karen", the woman they think they all are in love with. Being a bit of a comedy, the ladies tended to be more interesting than the male characters. However, in keeping with the "Three" theme, Chung shines in his glory in this crafty and dramatic movie and his bed-ridden physical traits are in-keeping with his demanding time in about two-thirds of the film.

Inspector Chen (Louis Koo), gives us the "meat and potatoes" version of a lawman who knows that in his long years of service, he bends or breaks the law to bring criminals to justice. He is stern, focused, doesn't trust Shun, and has intense yet powerful words with the doctor, warning her of being manipulated. The power play of all three are on a delicate timeline which comes to a head when Shun eventually escapes between epileptic seizures from the bullet in his skull and makes a call for his group to get him out. Recaptured by Chen, it's a race against time leading up to one of the most visually amazing five minute shoot-outs that took three months to rehearse, according to Variety. I would not be surprised if this garnered awards as the camera revolves around a circular hospital ward and everyone’s choreographed movement is captured in the smallest detail. It should be one of the most memorable action film sequences ever created. And the vocalist with the piano playing during this brutal attack makes it all that sublime, putting Western action films to shame.

There are some ancillary players to lessen the shock and awe of our three main actors: apart from the stressed-out paramedics we have a tech nerd (Timmy Hung) that treats his bed like an IT hub, and an old gleeful man (Lo Hoi-pang) who has lost his sanity and prides in pranks that have terrible consequences. The ruses and reinforcements between Chen’s team and the criminals’ strangely immaculately suited cohorts (Michael Tse and Raymond Wong) are given first with some humor, then an air of rising danger, such as a scene set in a restroom that starts as old-style slapstick but all of a sudden erupts into harsh brutality.

A remarkable moment happens between Dr. Qian and her young patient (now in a wheelchair) who becomes suicidal near the film's end. It may be a bit cliche to some but my heart leapt as Dr. Qian reaches out to save her patient and he falls head over wheels to the lobby floor below. What would you expect after that? Tune in to see. I think you know what I know, actually.

As for Inspector Chen and Shun, a shootout ensues. Shun makes a bedsheet rope and tries to escape to the parking lot below. Each gun is out of bullets. Inspector Chen tries loading another bullet but it jams. As the doctor rushes in to pull up Shun with the bedsheet rope along with Chen who decides he has to do the right thing, Shun suddenly has another seizure and falls. The doctor and Inspector recover Shun and is finally operated on to remove the bullet lodged in his skull. The fate of the three: a doctor recovers her reputation, a cop recovers his humanity and lawfulness, and as for Shun... well...

I have been quite impressed with this movie where the action is second to none, the script tight and multi-layered, and To's beautiful style and direction as sharp as ever. I can say from my own experience that the slow-motion shoot-out between the cops and Shun's well-dressed thugs is the most remarkable and haunting scenes ever done on film. I wholeheartedly recommend this thriller to adult audiences and add it to your To collection.


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