Here's the difference between Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To in three similar images:
Tsui's is a cinema of objects; even bodies are things. Character exists in the dialogue, but on the screen all we see are hands, foreheads, eyes. Objects in motion, body parts reduced to the level of shapes. Even in a wide shot, there's never a person, but a figure.
Lam, on the other hand, is all characters, and chiefly, characters in opposition. There's a reason his best movies have been set in prisons; confinement is a perfect vehicle for forcing characters together. Even when they're free men, Lam's characters are prisoners in a way — tied into plots, secrets, or, in this case, a heist gone wrong. His images have this quality that suggests that "to capture" (but not "to catch") really is the right verb for creating an image. He directs as though his favorite Hitchcock is The Wrong Man.
With To, things get a lot more complicated. With Tsui we have abstraction, with Lam opposition and sometimes expression, but with To we have all of these things and more. A dynamic. If Hark represents the cult of the image and Lam represents its possibilities in regards to characterization, To represents the image itself. In the first still we have a general sense of the mood, in the second a sense of the characters, but in the third, removed from its film, we don't quite know what's going on. There are so many elements: faces, hands, emotions, objects, threats, possibilities. To understands the widescreen image not instinctually, like Michael Mann or Claire Denis, but through intelligence, the same kind George Cukor had when he made A Star is Born.
The set-up for Triangle is a little like the set-up for its crime: a plan that doesn't go quite as it should. Lam, To and Tsui decided to play a game of exquisite corpse: each director will continue the story the previous one starts, but lead it into whatever direction he wants. It's one of those great auteurist experiments. From a production standpoint, Triangle is a "Johnnie To movie:" made through his company, Milkyway Image, starring his regular actors (Simon Yam, Louis Koo and Kelly Lin, plus many more familiar faces), shot by his cinematographer, Siu-keung Cheng, and cut together by his regular editor, David M. Richardson (those who believe the quality of a film's editing depends on the editor should look no further than Richardson's resume; the man who works on the brilliant editing of To's films is the same one who edits Uwe Boll's movies). There are no title cards to indicate which segment is directed by whom (only the opening credits and a recurring establishing shot hint at divisions or orders), but it's obvious to anyone who's seen two or more films by any of the involved directors who is directing which part: Tsui for the first 25 minutes, Lam for the next half hour or so, and To for the last lap.
Tsui's episode is full of clever conceits: when Yam's wife (played by Lin) spots him in an Internet cafe, she starts a scene, accusing him of cheating so her lover can get away; a discarded girder just barely misses a man’s head as it breaks through the windshield of his car; the loot, contained in a case with wheels, rolls away from the robbers down a highway ramp. All of this shot with Cheng's colorful chiaroscuro, that way he has of throwing a shadow over a face while simultaneously highlighting the bright yellow of a passing truck, but it's as alien as The Girlfriend Experience. Objects dominate: a pair of glasses, a red phone booth, the bars of a teller's window. Lam jettisons the heist in favor of its results: the loot and fear, both equally dangerous. The crooks' fear of one another, their fear of getting caught, and the fear and contempt Lin and Yam share for each other. Tsui imprisons the characters and Lam shows us how they imprison themselves; it's up to To, then, to set them free. Always remember this: To's heroes are free men. Lam, like John Carpenter, believes the essence of a person rests in what they do when compelled or threatened. For To, that essence, maybe the soul, is visible in what they choose to do when compelled to do nothing, in the choice they make when they can just run away or betray. It's no surprise that, like We Own the Night, it all ends in reeds and fog. Having escaped the city, our crooks, with accomplices in tow, arrive at a roadside eatery; soon, most of the other characters catch up with them. It's like some shitty afterlife where, after you die, you meet everyone you knew in life, only to discover you owe them all money. Just when you think it can't get worse, you realize everybody has a gun. The beauty of the final showdown is that it's a form in which anything could happen. It's an emotional wilderness, a sort of invented environment that brings To closer to André Téchiné than either of his two co-directors here. Not that Lam and Hark aren't both excellent directors who've made great their share of great films. But To belongs to a class entirely his own.
Triangle is playing on The Auteurs in many countries around the world, and opens theatrically in Chicago on August 14th.