A Little Serenade: Johnnie To's "Three"

The genre master's first crime film since 2013 is a psychological thriller about a cop, a crook and a doctor stuck in a hospital.
Sean Gilman

The latest Chinese film to sneak into North American theatres with little fanfare, targeting immigrant communities with single multiplex screens in a handful of major metropolitan markets, is the new film from prolific Hong Kong director Johnnie To. His first crime film since 2013’s Blind Detective (yet to see a US release) and his first film set in a hospital since his 2000 farce Help!!!, To’s latest is a bottle episode, a side-swipe at a psychological thriller about a cop, a crook and a doctor battling to see who can best exemplify humanity’s hubris in the face of chance and fate. This conflict between free will and universal randomness lies at the heart of most of the films To has made in the twenty years since he established the Milkyway Image studio, uniting both his crime thrillers and his romances, though rarely has it been stated so explicitly.

Taking its title from the Analects of Confucius (“When three men are walking together, there is one who can be my teacher. I pick out people's good and follow it. When I see their bad points, I correct them in myself.”), Three follows its principals, all convinced of their own infallibility, as they argue over whether or not the crook—admitted after a run-in with the police, bullet in his brain—should have surgery. The doctor (Zhao Wei) wants to remove the bullet and potentially save the criminal’s life. The cop (Louis Koo) wants to find out where the man’s accomplices are hiding and also cover-up the fact that the injury was the result of his team’s misconduct. The crook (Wallace Chung) wants to stay conscious long enough for his gang to bust him out of police custody. This all plays out in a single location, a hospital set constructed for the film in Guangzhou, and mostly on a single stage, an open plan pre-op/recovery room populated with a variety of other patients. These other patients play side roles, comic and tragic, breaking up and commenting on the central events, while a desperate fool (To’s portly talisman Lam Suet) wanders the hospital in search of the incoming criminals. With this triangulated character construction, open set and precisely weaving camera, Three is as unabashedly theatrical a film as To’s last movie, the 2015 musical Office.

Opening the film with the first of several skin-crawlingly graphic scenes of brain surgery, the film establishes the doctor as an obsessive expert, convinced of her own supreme competence. During an early round-making where we learn the geography of the recovery room and meet the supporting patients, a young man who has failed to recover feeling in his legs hurls nasty insults at her. “I took a chance for your own good,” she tells him. Later a colleague advises her to rest and relax, telling her “We are professionals, but not everything is within our control.” But she “does not believe in luck,” her background as an immigrant, learning Cantonese, working her way to the top of her profession, doesn’t allow for randomness: she is where she is because of effort and skill, chance can have nothing to do with it. This absolute arrogance is what drives her to insist on performing surgery on the criminal, even though no one, including the criminal himself, wants that to happen. It also will drive her to return to work after losing a patient on the operating table, despite an apparent exhaustion. It’s at this time she conspires with the cop to drug the crook, but crucially, while the cop wants the bad guy dead, she merely wants him unconscious so she can operate to save his life. Finally, her tunnel vision will lead her to give into Chung’s demand to telephone his accomplices, with disastrous consequences.

The cop and the criminal are inverted images of each other, Koo’s tooth-grinding determination and Chung’s flamboyant speechifying, reciting Bertrand Russell, Happiness Indices and the Hippocratic Oath on a whim, gleefully playing with his antagonists, pointing out their hypocrisies and reveling in his own intelligence. It gradually becomes apparent that Chung was shot by accident while Koo and his team were trying to extract information from him by pointing a gun to his head. The penalty for the cops in this situation, should it be discovered, would be severe, and so, enacting the ritual of self-protection familiar from many of To’s police films, most effectively in PTU, a similarly theatrical roundelay of corruption, chance and interconnection, close ranks and begin fabricating evidence and a story to justify their actions. Key to this is planting the criminal’s fingerprints on the gun that shot him (by hiding it amongst some French fries, a variation on Mickey Rourke’s stunt from Diner) to support their claim that it went off in a struggle. But, as chance would have it, the crook later reveals that due to an earlier injury, he’s unable to fire a gun with that hand. Thus the fabricated evidence becomes evidence of the police’s own corruption. That Chung will later fire a gun with this same hand will go uncommented upon, but demonstrates the depth of his character’s pathological dishonesty.

Where the doctor and cop have constructed elaborate systems of self-justification that allow for their extreme egotism, the crook seemingly has none. He exists simply for his own ends, an agent of pure malevolence. There’s a bullet in his head, but he won’t allow surgery: he trusts neither the doctor nor the cops, he trusts only in the inevitability of his gang coming to rescue him and, while he waits, he toys with his oppressors. It becomes increasingly apparent that his mission is suicidal, but he goes about it anyway. There’s simply no other way for him to act: since he’s doomed, he might as well tear every institutional authority within reach down with him. The patients that surround him offer a variety of alternative approaches to brain injury. A middle-aged man with an aneurism takes his fear of surgery out on his helpful and understanding wife. The angry young man paralyzed after Zhao removed a tumor from his neck is hostile and suicidal. The old man in the bed next to Chung is a loony mental patient (Lo Hoi-pang, a To regular going all the way back to 1987’s Seven Years Itch), laughing and goofing off and joking with the nurses. Later, after Chung teaches him how to remove his straightjacket, he will wander the hospital halls stealing whatever keys he can find and offer them to Chung in gratitude. Lo is paralleled by Lam Suet’s incompetent cop, introduced whirling within a swirling camera movement near the beginning of the film, having lost his handcuff keys, which Lo will eventually find. Lam spends most of the film lurching through the lower levels of the hospital, looking for Chung’s accomplice whom he can recognize only by the whistled tune of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”

This Mozartian motif is introduced near the halfway point of the movie, the famous melody whistled by Chung in an apparent moment of triumph over Koo, while he counts three fingers in the air. The number three and its variations recur throughout the film, in the kind of numerological game-playing one would expect from filmmaker as meticulous and goofy as Johnnie To and his team of writers (led by Yau Na-hoi, who has been with Milkyway Image since its inception and is, after To and Wai Ka-fai, one of the prime creative forces in the studio). A short summary of some of the threes in Three: There are of course three principal actors, and Chung will be rescued by three accomplices; the whole film takes place over six hours (3x2) and the final shootout begins at six o’clock; the lowest state of brain activity is “GCS 3”; at one point, Koo will slap Zhao three times; the cop who shot Chung is officer number PC39633, numbers all divisible by three; Chung launches his escape attempt from bathroom stall W3; the phone number Chung wishes to call is 6373-0639, the digits of which add up to 37, a number which is made up of those mystical primes three and seven (you can also add the digits across and get “9-10-9-9,” which is thrice three-cubed with an unexpected ten thrown in the middle); “Eine kleine Nachmusik” is Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for Strings (the unluckiest prime number, but one which contains a three and a one, which add up to four); Lo Hoi-pang’s character is stated to be 73 years old, which is the inverse of the sum of Chung’s phone number; the difference between three and seven is four, and four is the number of the bed Chung occupies, on the fourth floor of the hospital.

This last bit is significant in relation to the passage from Confucius. The obvious assumption is that the three dramatic principals are the “three people walking,” one of whom would make a good teacher. But I’d suggest instead that it is a fourth character, Lo Hoi-pang’s lunatic, who is the teacher. He’s the one character in the film who is happy, who accepts his relation to the universe, and, most importantly, acts selflessly. Far from a cynical or bleak film about the corruption and emptiness of modern life, Three is a parable about three narcissists who come to realize that they are not fully in control of the world around them, that they are not masters of their fate (Chung to Koo: “The source of anger is fear of losing control... I’m always in control, that’s why I’m happy.” Koo responds, “But your nose is bleeding.”) Two of the three principal characters come to understand what Lo embodies, that they are not the prime movers, that they are merely part of an infinitely complex and mysterious whole, one that cannot and will not bend to human desire. A microcosm of the Milkyway Universe in action is the film’s showpiece, a dazzling slow-motion shootout, reportedly performed in real-time by the actors, requiring months of rehearsal. It’s a ballet of chaos set to a delicate pop fable (recalling a key moment in Office, a children’s choir singing the financial apocalypse), bullets and people and props floating through the air, exquisitely choreographed randomness. As it does in countless Johnnie To films, chance determines the ultimate outcome, and Zhao and To are able to realize this truth before it is too late: Zhao’s patient throws himself down the stairs and is cured; and Koo’s gun jams, repeatedly, at a key moment. These fateful interventions spark an enlightenment in the two heroes, and as a result they are finally able to work together, selflessly, to save the life of a murderer. Chung has no such revelation: he is the fourth person walking. In the aftermath of the shootout, both the doctor and the cop find the peace they had lacked. Zhao goes to work to the sound of the music she had earlier ordered silenced; Koo admits his crimes and turns in his badge, smiling as he learns that this self-sacrifice is totally unnecessary.


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