Three: Watch Your Back, by Scott Nye
Stripped down to its bare ass, Johnnie To’s Three has no fat, no frills, and no fucks to give. Entirely set in a hospital, we’re barely introduced to the overworked, underperforming Dr. Tong (Vicki Zhao) when in wheels Shun (Wallace Chung), head of a gang of robbers, recently on the receiving end of a discharged police pistol. But he’s refusing treatment, conforted in the certainty his underlings will be along to free him before the bullet does him in. Since he can’t be stitched up, head cop Ken (Louis Koo) has no choice but to wait it all out, hoping the occasional question he can sneak past the medical staff will reveal the criminals’ whereabouts. When he finds out they’re coming right to him, he plots a scheme to take care of everything once and for all. But this being a Johnnie To crime film, nobody’s truly clean.
Despite their constant claims of professional integrity, all three spend more time hiding information from one another than truly doing their jobs. Chung has the most delightful role to play (as Shun reminds Ken, anger comes only when you fear you’re losing control), but Koo’s barely-restrained wrath and Zhao’s more overt tension make for a really strong dynamic. To exploits this with his roving, never-misplaced camera, which he and cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung keep trained on their performers’ eyes and the innumerable distractions that seek to delay them. It’s never busy, but they see everything – the mysterious guy in the suit whistling a catchy tune and dropping packages in trash cans, loafing police officer, the maintenance worker, the whining patients and busybody nurses. Shun has a plan; Ken knows this. Without belaboring a backstory, Koo and To (along with screenwriters Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, and Mak Tin-shu) craft a character who’s spent too much time wondering how a criminal thinks that he’s starting to assume the mindset himself.
This builds to a shootout truly unlike one I’ve ever seen onscreen – a barrage of CGI, strangely artificial slow-motion, a mess of bodies and victims both intended and utterly accidental, all captured in a carefully-choreographed single take that lasts in the neighborhood of four minutes. That’s hardly the end of the final showdown; that’s just how it starts. To has an active disregard for realism, which would undermine the effectiveness of its drama were the prior 70 minutes (this is a very short film) not so seat-grippingly tense. The explosion of the genuinely fake feels like a needed release after every single element seems to ratchet up around us. I say “us” because we have little reason to root for the cops – who want Shun dead – or for Shun – who’s an unrepentent criminal – or for Tong – who’s in way over her head and whose carelessness has already cost two patients dearly. Perhaps we’re just hoping anyone can survive and maybe become a bit of a better person by the end. But that hope is just our own invention. What I’m really caught up in is the complete confidence of the storytelling, the clarity with which it’s expressed, and the thrill of the chase.
To doesn’t present this as a pure escape; he gives us plenty of time to consider the victims his protagonists leave behind. This two-sided view keeps us constantly aware of the amoral mind, and its effects. Like many American directors, To admires a professional. He just doesn’t let that remain a pure virtue. He sees everything that professionalism shuts out without resorting to a neglected spouse or kid or dog or debt. The professional must be completely focused on their goal. We’re left to wonder if the goal is really all that vital.