'Three' ('Saam Yan Hang'/'San Ren Xing'): Film Review

Courtesy of Media Asia Film Production
Louis Koo and Vicki Zhao in 'Three'
Where technical tricks and twists don't tally.

Johnnie To unleashes a showdown between a cop, a robber and a doctor, mostly within the confines of a single Hong Kong hospital ward.

A year after leaping outside his comfort zone with Office, a musical set among corporate climbers in high finance, Hong Kong noir-master Johnnie To returns to his favorite metier with Three, a claustrophobic cat-and-mouse thriller about the struggle for supremacy among an anguished policeman, an amoral felon and an assertive surgeon in a hospital ward. But while it deploys visual stunts aplenty and boasts a stellar cast — Louis Koo's smoldering looks, Vicki Zhao's intense acting, Wallace Chung's kudos as an A-lister in mainland China — Three simply doesn't add up.

The by-the-numbers genre exercise features a plot weighed down by scene-stealing but irrelevant supporting characters, longueurs and a half-baked, ludicrous finale. In fact, the movie could be seen as an equivalent of Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights, in which a Hong Kong filmmaker trawled through his own oeuvre and reworked narrative tropes (from policiers such as PTU to the hospital dramedy Help!!!) and imagery (a sequence shot resembling those in Breaking News or Office) in an attempt to cultivate a comparatively new demographic (in To's case, the masses in mainland China who weren't able to watch his Hong Kong-set films in the late 1990s and early 2000s).

After its commercially audacious release in China — where the film opened Friday, up against Now You See Me 2 and Independence Day: Resurgence — Three, which also unspooled day-and-date in the U.S., should register further festival bookings on the strength of To's auteur standing, starting with its closing slot at the Taipei Film Festival next month.

To his credit, To begins Three with something new: As if responding to criticism about the lack of full-fledged female protagonists in his work, the director dedicates the film's first five minutes to Dong (Zhao), a mainland Chinese-born doctor seen operating and checking patients with utmost professionalism and aloofness in a Hong Kong hospital. But all is not well with her: Desperate to make up for the "disadvantages" of her gender and non-local roots, she has nurtured an aggressiveness which has led to a string of botched surgeries.

While she's recovering from yet another bungled operation, Dong's day gets worse as a new patient is rolled into her ward. With a bullet lodged in his head, Shun (Chung) is an apparently high-risk suspect being heavily guarded by a team of detectives led by inspector Ken Chan (Koo). Dong insists the still-conscious Shun must consent to being operated on; Shun says he won't unless Ken allows him to call a friend; Ken refuses Shun's request, despite Dong's protests. This circular struggle for the upper hand continues as the surrounding circumstances are revealed: apparently one of Ken's underlings shot Shun by mistake, and the detectives present are busy cooking up illicit plans to silence the cocky, Bertrand Russell-quoting hoodlum to protect their own.

In his prime — specifically in films like The Mission or Election — To proved his sure-handed ability in conjuring electric tension even in the most claustrophobic and contained spaces. Sadly, that's not the case with Three. Yau Nai-hoi's atypically incoherent screenplay — co-written by Lau Ho-leung (Two Thumbs Up) and Mak Tin-shu (Trivisa) — confounds and confuses with its increasingly preposterous twists and turns. The thinly sketched protagonists are frequently upstaged by supporting characters, most of them over-the-top patients whose presence adds nothing, merely distracting the viewer from the core narrative.

Then there's the tone. Three lurches dangerously at times toward comedy or even melodrama, as in a subplot about Dong and a young man who became paralyzed under her charge. The slow-motion shootout centerpiece unfurls to the incongruous sound of a pop ballad. By the time the final one-take shoot-'em-up rolls around, one is hard-pressed to remember why all this is even taking place. And the truncated denouement, which somehow cuts an action-scene cliffhanger short, offers more questions than answers about the plot. Rather than providing a vision of hell where characters live and die by other people, Three delivers only impasse and illogic — two things very much at odds with most of To's work.

Distributor: Well Go USA
Production companies: Milkyway Image in a Media Asia Film Production and iQiyi Motion Pictures presentation
Cast: Vicki Zhao, Louis Koo, Wallace Chung
Director: Johnnie To
Screenwriters: Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, Mak Tin-shu
Producers: Johnnie To, Yau Nai-hoi
Executive producers: Peter Lam, Gong Yu
Director of photography: Cheng Siu-keung
Production and costume designer: Cheung Siu-hong
Editor: David Richardson
Music: Xavier Jamaux
Sales: Media Asia

In Cantonese

Not rated, 88 minutes