“Who did this?” Seeing his daughter gasping for breath on a hospital bed in Macau, Francis (Johnny Hallyday) can only ask this single question. Irene (Sylvie Testud) can’t speak, she can’t remember exactly who smashed through her front door and shot her husband and two children to death, but she manages to point to letters on a newspaper page her father holds up, in order to indicate it was three assassins. Oh, and she was able to shoot man’s ear off before he gunned her down and left her for dead too.
This is enough information for Francis, a Parisian chef with a mysterious but plainly violent past: he understands exactly what he needs to do when Irene rasps two words: “Avenge me.” It’s also enough to set the plot of Vengeance (Fuk Sau) in motion. From this moment on, Francis is racing against a clock, partly medical and partly metaphysical. He was shot in the head some time ago, and his doctor’s told him that he will soon lose his memory. He doesn’t know when or how the effect will kick in, but he he knows he needs to hurry. Right now, looking at Irene, bruised and broken, Francis can’t imagine anything more important that doing what she asks.
Francis’ obsession shapes the film. On the one hand is the question of time: Francis’ dwindling capacity provides Johnnie To’s movie with the requisite deadline and consequent sense of urgency. Though Francis is a crack shot himself, he’s also acutely aware of his impending limits. And so he hires three assassins of his own—Kwai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), Chu (Ka Tung Lam), and Fat Lok (Suet Lam)—in order to make sure the job will be done, even after he might be aware of it being done.
On another hand, Francis’ loss of time speaks to a more dreadful loss, of identity. Not only might he forget his self-appointed mission, but he might also forget the reasons for it, his background as a killer of some sort, his family ties, his new associations with Kwai and company. To prepare for this eventuality, Francis takes his killers’ photos and marks them with their names: aside from evoking Leonard’s existential plight in Memento, the effort reveals Francis’ rather quaint faith in moral labeling: if he marks these images “friends,” as opposed to “enemies,” he creates an order for his world—one that’s as arbitrary as his identity, as his time left, as the very concept of vengeance.
That concept might be termed an all-important third hand. Vengeance‘s questions about vengeance are impressively sophisticated, even amid all the shooting and car-chasing in To’s satisfying mash-up of the French policier and triad action movie. Most typically, vengeance is a convenient and familiar way to deploy the sort of violence that constitutes plot in such genres. Violence here also delineates characters and immerses viewers in a world of long hallways, rainy nights, and far-off thunder. These elements comprise the first scene, when the brutal assault on Irene’s family commences. It is filled out in shadowy and fragmented flashbacks: Irene remembers some bits (she’s cooking dinner when the shooting begins, the camera panning over pots boiling, anticipating the chaos to come). Other bits are visualized by Kwai and his team. As they make their way through the evidence left behind at her home—broken doors, blood on the walls, chalk outlines—they hold their hands to emulate guns, reenacting what they have done themselves, elsewhere.
During their walk -through of the crime scene, the film cuts between the past violence and present contemplation. The past shooters were emotionless, hired by a man (Simon Yam), who is an exceptionally wealthy and venal cretin. These men appear as monsters, in hooded raincoats, their faces grim. The shooters-to-be, the avengers, are equally emotionless. They interpret the past (“They are three men: one put weight on his foot and used his gun in the left hand”), and make their own plans based on what they see. In one of many striking visual compositions (a signature of To’s films), they eat pasta Francis prepares in his daughter’s kitchen (again, pots boil). All four sit down in Irene’s backyard, evaluating one another across the table in a mundane, serene setting, the grass green and the wind rustling tree branches behind them. It’s an image of time receding even as the men look ahead. When Francis demonstrates his expertise with a gun, his employees are impressed. “Who are you?” wonders Kwai. “A chef,” Francis insists.
Francis’ identity is increasingly irrelevant to his plot. As he loses his grip, Kwai and his men keep pressing ahead, following up on clues and marshaling firepower to compete their contract. If they initially take pride in their mercenary status and lack of emotion, they eventually come to wonder about how much money can mean. At first triumphant when they track down the first killers, Kwai, Chu, and Fat are surprised to see their enemies with wives and children: as they all face off in a campground (more food, more tables, more evaluations), the wind rises. The dark trees, whipping wind, and increasing thunder make the professionals’ growing inner turmoil vividly external.
Francis’ own turmoil is less explicit. As he begins to forget his reasons for vengeance, by definition, he stops caring whether it’s done, and has trouble figuring what it is. Seeing a photo of Irene, he asks, “Who is that?”, echoing his question to her at film’s start (and who is he in his plot, if not her father?). Francis’ loss of self is further reflected in Hallyday’s surgically stretched face, so sensationally and ineffectively resisting the passage of time.
This face, ironically and brilliantly, helps to undermine one of the film’s most melodramatic moments, when Francis literally drops to his knees—in a lapping surf, no less—to pray for God to save him. The scene is absurd, as Francis, forgetting himself, is quite unredeemable. And yet, it’s an apt last set-up for still more violence, with the action now spiraling into such utter abstraction, such absence of reason, that vengeance can’t mean anything.