By Godric Leung
Johnnie To Kei-fung’s latest offering Three is not a usual crime thriller. Rather than being an action-packed feature – a genre that put Hong Kong cinema on the world map in the past – this cat-and-mouse game among three characters stuck in a hospital becomes an allegory of the current political crisis facing the former British colony in the hands of the acclaimed director.
Shun, a young armed robber, is shot in the head by a cop by mistake. He regains consciousness but and refuses to undergo any surgery, in order to buy time for his fraudsters’ revenge scheme towards the police. While Medical doctor Tong, who is from mainland China, urges Shun to accept her surgical treatment in order to prove her professionalism, police inspector Ken keeps pressing Shun for details about the robbery.
The police are not necessarily righteous in the cinematic world of To, as seen in his previous titles The Longest Nite and Mad Detective. To continues to expose the dark side of the guardian of law and order in Three, as inspector Ken fabricates false evidence to conceal the shot fired at Shun while pushing Tong to poison the young robber in the name of police-citizen cooperation.
To ordinary Western audience, this might just be another dramatic treatment in a crime thriller. But to the people of Hong Kong, this is a mirror of the city’s political reality.
The way how the police abuse their power in Three echoes the deteriorating public image of the Hong Kong police after the Umbrella Movement in 2014. During the 79-days Occupy protests, which demanded for a universal suffrage of the city’s governor without Beijing’s screening occupation, a local TV station accidentally captured seven police officers allegedly beating up a protester at a dark corner. The footages were aired and shocked the city. Other footages showing the police attacking armless civilians during the protests were widely circulated online. The incidents tarnished public’s trust in the police and increasing citizens’ hostility towards the authority.
The setting of the film is another motif that warrants audience’s attention. In Three, the main characters are stuck in the hospital. In reality, Hong Kong is also facing a political standstill. Neither the pro-democracy, nor the pro-Beijing camp can win a majority support. The lack of middle-way negotiation leads to a more scattered society.
Director To trades in gave up his traditional fast-paced gunfights for a 10-minute highly stylised slow-motioned shoot-out, which involves more than 200 actors and it turns out impressive and flawless. He also inserts a reinterpretation of a classic Mandarin song, which is sung by Canto-pop singer Ivana Wong as background music. Her gentle voice makes the bloody killing scene more ridiculous and yet tragic.
The shoot-out reminds Hong Kong audiences of with the increase of violent protests in recent years, such as the Mongkok clash Riot at the first night of this year’s Lunar New Year. Radical localist protesters threw glasses and bricks to police officers, as they opposed the hygiene department staffs, who charged unlicensed hawkers during the local festive seasonal. Meanwhile, police used pepper spray and fired two warning shots in return. The confrontation injured more than 100 people and shocked the public.
While people keep asking why the young generation is so rebellious, To tries to offer an answer through the lyrics of the theme song, which sings “Listen to what the youths are saying, think about why they do that”.
It is a theatrical attempt in using only one set for the whole film. Yet, it is nicely executed, as To gained experience from his previous work Office, which is a movie adaptation of a theatre musical show. As an unusual criminal thriller, Three can give western audiences a new and fresh impression of Hong Kong movie, but it may require audiences a strong involvement in local affairs in order to understand the metaphors in the film.
Three is selected to be the closing gala for the 1st London East Asia Film Festival 2016 (LEAFF). Saturday, October 30, 7pm: Ham Yard Hotel Cinema, followed by Q&A section with director Johnnie To.
In Cantonese with English subtitles