Vengeance (2009)

Director:  Johnnie To
Johnny HallydaySylvie TestudAnthony Wong Chau-Sang 

Plot: A French chef swears revenge after a violent attack on his daughter's family in Hong Kong, during which her husband and her two children are murdered. To help him find the killers, he hires three local hit-men working for the mafia.

Genre:  Action / Crime / Thriller
Awards:  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  108min
Rating:  R21 for strong violence and some sexuality. 


Johnnie To, Hong Kong’s most acclaimed export to world cinema, is back with a new film – Vengeance.  A nominee for the Golden Palm this year, Vengeance is one of the many violent films screened in what many critics called the “darkest Cannes” of the decade featuring controversially disturbing films such as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (2009), and Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009). 

It is interesting to note that the lead is played by French singer Johnny Hallyday as the character Costello, a chef whos
e family (residing in Hong Kong) is brutally massacred by professional killers.  He seeks revenge and hires three hitmen to find and kill the murderers.  Easy as it seems, however, things get complicated along the way – both groups of hitmen serve the same boss of a triad gang.  Loyalties are thrown out of the window as Costello’s hitmen stick by him (out of money and sympathy), causing a severe riff between them and their boss with consequences far from peaceful. 

Using a French lead in an Asian film is not unprecedented, but it is fairly unusual.  Nevertheless, Hallyday’s involvement
in Vengeance is a sign of multiculturalism as cinema becomes increasingly globalized.  From a paradoxical standpoint, while the globalization of “world cinema” gives it its literal meaning, does it mean that it is not national cinema anymore?  Is Vengeance any less Asian with Hallyday in it? 

In my opinion, with an auteur pulling the strings, a film is very much a product of his or her personal cultural influences.  In fact, To’s unique take on Vengeance – by anchoring the film’s narrative from the point-of-view of a foreigner – helps to strengthen the film’s identification with Asian culture, rather than to suppress it. 

Vengeance makes up for what it is (quite) lacking in narrative depth with expertly-crafted action sequences.  T
hese sequences are well-directed by To; they are stylish and deliberately edited in slow-motion to give a sense of visual fluidity.  

The most outstanding sequence is shot in a wide, open grassland where Costello’s hitmen do battle with a large gang of armed ‘baddies’.  Each man takes cover behind a huge, cube-like bundle of hay, rolling it forward as shots are exchanged between sides.  To interchanges close-ups with wide framing cleverly, and together with slow-motion, he makes the whole sequence seem like an operatic bloodbath – beautifully choreographed and hypnotically captured. 

To is considered by many as an auteur; he is consistent in depicting the fluid and self-possessed visual style which
he has maintained for numerous years especially in his crime films.  Vengeance is no different.  It is more of the same as we have come to expect from him.

However, To needs to work on his storytelling (which has not been his forte all this while).  Brilliant action set-pieces can only take a film so far; the rest relies on the power and engagement of its narrative.  Vengeance is quite entertaining as visual pleasure but it is not the kind of crime film to watch if one expects more than just that.

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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