Johnnie To was already one of the leading genre filmmakers in the world when he made 2000’s Help!!!, a dark comedy set in a hospital ruled by incompetence and driven by a trio of idealistic doctors hoping to improve the facility. In the intervening years, however, To’s comedies have become less character-based and more political, and his latest film, Three, is no exception. The hospital here suffers not from casual neglect, but from an excess of ambition, as the young head neurosurgeon, Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao), takes such pride in her work that she refuses to take necessary breaks, resulting in mistakes that only compound her constant performance anxiety.
Into Dr. Tong’s care comes a criminal (Wallace Chung) terminally wounded by Police Inspector Chen (Louis Koo). In short order, the film establishes a relationship between the three main characters based on their respective levels of power. Chen illegally discharged his firearm and spends much of his time in the hospital working with peers to cover up his transgression from an internal investigation. But the suspect complicates the officer’s self-preservation by refusing surgery to save his life, turning himself into both witness and evidence. His stubbornness infuriates not only Chen, but Tong, who cannot afford to let a patient die in the wake of her botched operations.
This setup, of clearly delineated but strongly linked characters who each represent a facet of a shifting culture, most directly brings to mind To’s Life Without Principle and Drug War. Chen is a traditionally corrupt police officer who makes ominous statements like “We break the law to enforce the law,” though for all his paranoia he fails to notice that all of his colleagues work to help him avoid trouble. The suspect contents himself with stoking his shooter’s fears, and he’s so adept at getting under everyone’s skin that even a seizure he suffers seems deliberately timed.
But it’s Tong who proves most interesting, complicating a simple cop-versus-criminal narrative by embodying a lateral social problem. Tong’s work ethic is, on paper, admirable, but her dedication has been corrupted by ego and the pressures placed on workers in globalized societies and especially in Asia. She struggles not only with the moral conundrums prompted by the suspect’s refusal of treatment, but the pride she needs to repair by saving his life.
The film uses the hospital to project the characters’ overlapping conflicts, using hallways and wards to create an illusion of labyrinthine density. Adding to this manic complexity are the residents of the ICU that centralizes the location, a madhouse atmosphere populated by such figures as a wily old man (Lo Hoi-pang) whose escape attempts and casual kleptomania recall Etienne Giradot’s kooky codger from Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century. The elegant yet intimidating look of the setting, with its low-angle compositions of antiseptic blues and seafoam greens, can be attributed to To’s usual stable of crew members, such as cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung, editor David Richardson, and production designer Bruce Yu. The director’s recurring collaborations have bred a familiarity that, far from producing a sense of repetition, instead prompts constant refinement.
Even so, Three shows how much To still experiments with form, especially as he continues to transition to digital cinema. Few things are more exciting than a Johnnie To shootout, but the one that erupts at the climax of the film is unlike anything he’s orchestrated before. Kicked off in a bathroom where we see bombs planted throughout the hospital exploding via a ripple in the ceiling tiles, the sequence is quickly thrown into jerking movement by a mixture of variable-framerate cinematography and choreography that has the actors fake slow motion, which produces dissonant images of people moving slowly, but gunfire and pink mists occurring in normal time.
The intricacy of this set piece builds from the tricks To learned from making last year’s Office. It’s obvious that the film was built around the shootout, but that doesn’t preclude this singularly balletic director from continuing to draw troubling conclusions from a society in nebulous transition. But even if Three is a relatively minor work, it nonetheless stands proudly with To’s ongoing exploration of Hong Kong’s changing cultural landscape.