June 21 2016 06:12 PM

New action thriller surgically dismantles modern institutional hypocrisy in Hong Kong

THREE_01
Three

State-run institutions and corporate goliaths are equally corruptible in the work of Johnnie To. Often they are in cahoots. The master Hong Kong auteur sees both as profit-driven entities preying on the weaknesses and insecurities of vulnerable individuals. He seamlessly buries this cynicism underneath tropes from classic genres such as the romantic comedy and action film, an act of effortless subversion with deep political undercurrents.

If the public and private sectors are littered with ethical landmines, it's logical that a few well-meaning characters will trip up trying to do the right thing. Others will simply use the system for their own benefit. To's latest thriller, Three, forces these two types of people into the same cramped space, then watches their good and evil intentions collide. Flawed professionals one and all, they spend the duration trying to keep up with their own bad decisions.

Doubling down on the bleak worldview of his 2012 masterpiece Drug War, the film initially feels like a striking homage to Hitchcock-ian menace and momentum, a collection of small pivotal moments that slowly unveil a grander plot. Considering such surgical preciseness, To not surprisingly begins mid-operation as Dr. Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao) conducts an intense procedure. One shot takes place inside the patient's body, with a scalpel almost kissing the camera after protruding through a layer of skin.

Seconds later, stoic police officers led by Inspector Chen (Louis Koo) escort a headshot criminal (Wallace Chung) into the hospital lobby. A television newscast describes the gun battle they have just left, insinuating that multiple other suspects are still on the loose. The tense entourage ends up on Qian's floor, interrupting the already volatile workflow of doctor and nurses. Unstable patients observe the commotion, each a distrusting eyewitness to the shadow play to come.

In an environment usually associated with control and protocol, uncertainty becomes the norm. The Hippocratic oath is quoted multiple times but for deceptive reasons. Antiseptic corridors line the hospital like elongated coffins. The repetitive swing of hospital curtains continues to reveal and obscure the truth. Despite the constant threat of chaos, the director wields complete control over every frame. He's a maestro of motion unafraid of testing the boundaries of time and space. No wonder so many characters continue to attempt the impossible.

Between the philosophizing of Chung's charismatic villain and the rationalizing of Zhao's talented, Chinese-born M.D., Three contemplates the many lies we tell ourselves to retain control. During an experimental and ambitious final sequence, gravity, logic and salvation are turned upside down. The only thing that makes traditional sense is the sound of spent shell casings hitting the ground from a discharged gun.

Here, Three quickly turns into a scathing critique of moral codes warped by singular motivations and blatant risk-taking. "We break the law to enforce the law," justifies Chen. His closed off perspective reflects one of many characters that have inflated their own professional importance in order to protect the masses. The consequences are dire, and To makes his leading trio feel the hurt in various different ways, stripping each of the power they so carelessly mishandle.

Much like Drug War, the film ends with a series of gut punches that do nothing to dissuade the viewer from seeing the worst in people. Except Three, which opens Friday, June 24 at local area theaters, provides no shred of nationalism as a security blanket, just the realization that those who are trained to protect and serve can fail equally at both.

One of the older physicians seems to understand a core truth: "We're professionals but not everything is in our control." To's crackerjack players, who continue to run, jump and shoot their way into karma's doghouse, can never admit he might be right. They are too busy being wrong.

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