HONG KONG / FRANCE 2009 Directed by: Johnnie To Written by: Wai Ka Fai Produced by: Johnnie To, Peter Lam, Laurent Petin, Michele Petin Cinematography: Cheng Siu-Keung Editing: David M. Richardson Music: Tayu Lo Cast: Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka Tung, Lam Suet, Simon Yam, Cheung Siu Wai, Felix Wong, Ting Yip Ng, Maggie Siu, Irene Thompson
At first sight VENGEANCE seems like the late but expected Asian contribution to the once-again popular genre of revenge flicks. After DEATH SENTENCE and TAKEN comes VENGEANCE.
Most of these new movies are neither particularly creative, nor especially meaningful. They are original as far as some details are concerned at best, leaving their mark through creative ideas that however do not change the fact that the movie generally speaking is irrelevant. The two aforementioned movies are proof that revenge 2.0 is following the principle “everything remains different”. An eye for an eye; he who laughs last, laughs best.
But even if today the laughing sounds a bit different: Darwinism and the concept of natural selection remains the intrinsic philosophy of the genre. It is important to understand though that natural selection is always a question of balance of power at point in time X, and that this balance of power by definition is dynamic, always in the flow. Every film that makes payback its central idea dramaturgically pretends that balance of power is a linear process: the (anti)hero is the victim that turns into the delinquent and „wins“ at the end. The film however is nothing but a window, a moment in time, a fragment that makes us believe that the balance of power actually has a zero-point, starts from there and reaches its final stage at the end of the movie’s run-time, marking a kind of endpoint.
That is of course not true at all. It’s a lie. Revenge movies simply stop telling the story when it is most convenient. They do not mention that each victim may have been a culprit before the film’s beginning, and that after the film is over the hero will become a victim again (it is very likely that not only the hero avenges the death of his family – murderers have friends too, you know). The balance of power is shifting permanently, is renegotiated case by case, again and again and again. Revenge movies ignore this cycle and reduce the balance of power to a very simple scenario: the good guy is doing bad things to bad people and therefore comes out as the good guy. And it all ends there.
Johnny To has achieved a new milestone for the genre: the deconstruction of the revenge flick. This is much more important than the fact that VENGEANCE is one of the most aesthetic Hong Kong films of recent years; or that it is a balls-to-the-wall thriller; that it celebrates violence, just as it was common during the good old days of Hong Kong cinema; that it features two (!) of the most original showdowns seen in a long time; that it takes itself and the genre seriously, but not too seriously; that it showcases some very fine acting, especially a fabulous Anthony Wong; and that it is exquisitely nonchalant, even more than most other To films.
VENGEANCE is a discourse on revenge, not just revenge in a 24fps format. It is actually both. VENGEANCE feels very comfortable being a thriller, but then it feels even more at ease as abstraction of what happens. VENGEANCE is prancing, playful, imaginative, then dissembles all in an instant. In VENGEANCE Johnny Hallyday is Costello who assigns three hit men to avenge his family and kill their murderers. Costello doesn’t have much time: he has a bullet in the head and begins to lose his memory. That’s why he begins to photograph and archive the people he meets and the places he goes. It’s a memory substitute. Analogue RAM.
Already before the first showdown it is obvious that Costello doesn’t really realize much of what is happening around him anymore. Anthony Wong and his men however arrive at the point of no return: a promise is a promise, old-school triads like them still know what rules, ethics and morale are. They have taken Costello’s money, now they will finish the job. With or without the employer.
Thus they win the battle, but lose the war. The murderers who have killed Costello’s family are dead. And then also Wong et al. die in a hail of bullets courtesy of the mafia. Pure coincidence. Bad luck. Shit happens. But you gotta finish what you’ve started. Even if you know that it’s the end of everything. Facing death eyes wide open. Like Pike Bishop, Dutch Engstrom, Deke Thornton. Never back down. Defending values and ideals against this overwhelming nihilism.
VENGEANCE is not a revenge thriller, but its swan song. It’s the WILD BUNCH of revenge flicks. With VENGEANCE the eternal cycle ends, not just because at the end everybody’s dead (that would be too simple), but when everything finally is really over the avenger has forgotten what revenge is. “What does revenge mean when you have forgotten everything?”
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