After showing no genre was beyond him with last year’s successful musical, Office, Johnnie To returns to more familiar territory in Three. Set entirely within a hospital building, the director examines the pressures building on three principal characters – a doctor (Vicki Zhao) buckling beneath stress following an unsuccessful surgery, a detective (Louis Koo) desperate to bring a criminal to justice and said villain (Wallace Chung) betting his health against his freedom – and their responses.
The Chinese title 「三人行」comes from Confucius’ Analects: “Three people walk together; there must be a teacher among them.” The film’s greatest weakness is this didacticism and the straightforward manner in which the characters dutifully learn their lessons – a conclusion possibly constructed with Mainland censors in mind. Though, that doesn’t mean the journey is worthless. All three leads excel. Zhao mixes bristling indignation with vulnerability, Koo shoulders immeasurable weight behind his stern visage and Chung, though implausibly well-read for a petty criminal, revels in his cunning.
The path to the climax may be contrived, but the final shootout is one of To’s finest. Exquisitely shot, the actors perform slow motion in real life, allowing for fluid and dynamic shifts in movement from one character to the next. It may have taken three months to film but the result is stunning, and although the action is occasionally a little over the top, it’s no exaggeration to claim the tableau is worthy of Veronese.
Despite some clear weak links, there’s much to appreciatehere. And if anyone has a lot to teach other Hong Kong filmmakers, it’s To. This is just the latest evidence. Douglas Parkes