Known for Hong Kong cop-versus-criminal classics such as the “Election” movies and “PTU,” the venerable Johnnie To is no stranger to firearms-packed plotlines revolving around complicated character entanglements, and he’s at it again with “Three”—though this time on a deliberately tighter, smaller scale.
The film revolves around the conflicting philosophies of three main characters: Talented but stressed neurosurgeon Tong Qian (a weathered-looking Zhao Wei), taciturn cop Inspector Chen (the ever-stoic Louis Koo), and wily, smiley bank robber Shun (Wallace Chung), who for much of the film is confined to his hospital bed. With a bullet lodged in his head, the thief refuses brain surgery, stalling for time in an effort to enable his accomplices to rescue him. And as he tries to throw the cops off with Bertrand Russell analogies, Tong and Chen argue about his fate: Should he live? Is he to be trusted? Can he be manipulated as bait for a much bigger catch? Given the dialogue-driven nature of the film, especially in its confined hospital setting, it feels very much like a stage play.
“Three” is built like a lab experiment. Shot entirely on a specially constructed hospital set, To plays around with everything: From innovative shooting techniques such as a shot that looks like the inside of a brain membrane during surgery; to one long, symphonic take in which actors deliver slowmotion moves in real-time; to keeping the entire process fluid— longtime collaborator Yau Nai-hoi’s screenplay was apparently finalized scene by scene, just minutes before the camera rolled.
Adding to the tension is a motley cast of hospital patients (or undercover cops, or killers on Shun’s side—you won’t find out until the end) whose ailments and misadventures lead to further problems down the line. Each little spark sets off another, leading to one large, literal explosion, which eventually triggers the climax of the movie: that glorious one-take slowmotion shootout. With the camera snaking around the room, actors apparently underwent weeks of training to be able to convincingly maneuver themselves around in slow motion, even managing slow gun throws and jumps with the help of wires and post-production trickery.
There are moments when the intensive job done in post becomes glaringly obvious and even bothersome: The hospital foyer has been blatantly tacked onto a green screen, and the very obviously CG blood distracts from the pumping action sequences. More crucially, throughout the film it feels as if To is trying to rush his ideas into existence, whether they be technical or plot-driven, which brings out lapses in logic. For instance, why does a philosophical thief like Shun exist in the first place?
Nevertheless, with a thought-provoking story that crescendos from start to finish, and with a purpose behind every single diversion, this is yet another masterful story from a master filmmaker.
(Hong Kong/China) Action/Drama. Directed by Johnnie To. Starring Vicky Zhao Wei, Louis Koo, Wallace Chung. Category IIB. 88 minutes. Opened Jul