What is unbelievable about director Johnnie To is not his prolificacy — each year generally brings with it another one, sometimes two, of his films — nor is it his uncanny understanding of the Hong Kong crime genre, and the equal ease with which he seems to uproot it. It is his ability to do both and still remain relatively unknown to general audiences. His films seem to strike a balance between accessible thrill and thematic richness, more often than not occupying both spaces simultaneously — perfecting the style of the genre, while also allowing it the room to contort and twist into something different. His latest, “Three,” is no break in this (non) pattern which favors deviation from expectation.
The title refers to its trio of primary characters, each characterized by their professions and bound by the stress thereof. Doctor Tong, Inspector Ken, and Shun are brought to life by Wei Zhao, Louis Koo, and Wallace Chung respectively. They converge on a single ordinary hospital night after criminal Shun is brought in on a stretcher with a bullet wound in his head delivered by one of Ken’s team members. So begins the time-sensitive, night-long siege in which each character is forced to face their vices: Tong, plagued by the guilt of not being able to save everyone; Ken, struggling to do right by his team even if it means breaking a few laws; and Shun, as he struggles with the bullet and refuses the live-saving operation out of arrogance, handcuffed to the hospital bed and biding time before his crew break him out..
Whereas the action film genre in general hardly pays attention to the complexities of such underlying factors, “Three” relies heavily on it. To seeks alternate methods to characterize each side, specifically through the ramifications behind each role. The interaction between Tong and Ken are most distinct in conveying these differences as both struggle to save but maintain different priorities — a battle between lawful and chaotic good.
The cop-action movie genre is subverted as To finds himself more interested in the drama within the hospital and its patients. The mere hospital drama is subverted as he shoots scenes both in the midst of major operations and in the recovery wards with the earned intensity of major action set pieces; appropriately so, as both have lives at stake. And although there is a constant threat of trouble looming in the distance, there is no calm before this perpetual storm.
The single hospital setting is used to perfection here. The ward in which most of the film takes place is a world itself, masterfully built and just as beautifully torn down. The director populates his world with a wide array of colorful characters, each one providing continuous movement and activity within the room. The building itself is a veritable maze: it’s hallways and corners never feel safe, always hiding suspicious characters and imminent danger.
To directs with a confident precision; surgical, not unlike some of the subjects of the film. Whereas most directors find themselves scrambling to match the intensity of their action sequences, To strives for understanding. He exercises control in the direst of the moments; his camera always moves with this stable grace, even in moments of utter chaos and confusion. He instead calmly follows with long, well choreographed tracking shots, and in the case of the denouement — which might just be one of the year’s finest, if not boldest — even slows it down. In doing so, he allows his audience to prime their focus on the various characters — cops, criminals, and collateral alike.
The character arcs at the core of “Three” are fresh, hinting at insights into the dichotomy of insecurity versus arrogance, and reliance on self versus leaving things up to chance. This is the case even if the arcs at the core feel a bit too hastily completed. To does all of this while maintaining an unfaltering joy throughout, continuing to cement himself as one of the best formalists out there, with an incredible mastery of entertainment in the action genre. [A-]