South Korea was not one of the lucky countries where Three (三人行) was released last summer, but I wanted to see Wallace in the film so badly that I decided to fly to Hong Kong to watch it. I was not a big fan of crime thrillers or Johnnie To, nor Three was an easy or friendly movie—it took me three views to finally get a grasp of it!—yet it was totally worth the trip and all its cost! After watching it, I came to like Johnnie To and of course to like Wallace even more! Three finally landed on Korean soil in early October at Busan International Film Festival and I watched it for the fourth time, which finally got me down to write a much belated review.
In a nutshell, Wallace never disappoints us with his acting! Oh my, from the very first scene he appears on screen, when he was suppressed down to the operation room floor, Wallace overwhelms the audience with that unforgettable look on the face!
From that moment on, we forget about Wallace and only focus on the brainy gangster Zhang. Zhang is not an easy role to play because not much information about him is given to the audience to understand his character: unlike Doctor Tong (Zhao Mei) or Cop Chen (Louis Koo), his past is completely unknown and his physical action or interaction with others is pretty much limited. He is tied to the hospital bed most of the time and all we know about him comes from his words or facial expressions. Yet, wow, words and facial expressions! Praise Wallace for them! As most fans know by now, his lines are full of difficult quotes about all sorts of knowledge from weaponry and criminal law to philosophy, education, biology, socioeconomics, medical ethics, religion, and psychology.
Actually, the characterization of a criminal to be so knowledgeable and well-versed could be highly unbelievable or even resistible to the audience. However, Wallace delivered them in such an effortlessly fluent and natural manner that I almost believed that becoming a thug should require higher education and longer training than becoming a doctor! (Well, that may be desirable for a better society.) The keyword here is “effortless”: the brilliancy of his acting lies in that Wallace doesn’t “perform” an effortful personification of some make-believe character but “become” an effortless revelation of the character himself, which must be a product of his ceaseless effort to understand and draw out the character from his inner self. As such, Wallace didn’t need surfacy skills: without the typical “criminal” look, scary voice, or dreadful action, Wallace managed to pull off the most ruthless, smartest gangster character who possessed the strongest survival instinct, with his calm and rhythmical lines, exquisite facial expressions, and well-controlled gestures. He is not dubbed King of Acting (影帝) for nothing!
The title of the film Three (三人行) originates in Confucius’ famous phrase “三人行, 必有我師焉,” which means ‘If three people are on the road, there will always be at least one person who can serve as my teacher, i.e., I can learn from them, by their good or bad examples.’ Then in this story what did the three people on the road, or in the hospital—Doctor Tong, Cop Chen, and Criminal Zhang—learn from each other? Did they learn anything at all? The answer that Director Johnnie To and screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi give us is . . . Yes . . . I think. The answer lies in the rather unusual, controversial ending.
The life and death of Zhang plays the pivotal role in this film. Doctor Tong and Cop Chen confront each other over Zhang’s life: Tong wishes to save his life, while Chen desires his death. Cornered by a series of medical failures, Tong desperately needs to succeed in a surgery; cornered by a series of failed arrests, Chen desperately needs to cover up the police’s mistakes. Interestingly, despite being shot in the head, Zhang appears most cool-headed among the three. Being on top of the other two’s stark conflict of interest, Zhang tries to escape, manipulating their psychological and situational weaknesses using his oh-so-smart tongue. There doesn’t seem to exist a single point of reconciliation among the three, let alone any room for learning . . . at least not until the climax shooting scene starts—the impressive “low-tech” slow motion, where actors literally move slow!
Now, during this overly detailed shooting extravaganza, the three people are each faced with their moment of epiphany, the sudden turning point to realize the lesson of life that this fateful threesome encounter apparently imposes upon them. Ironically, their moments of epiphany come when they have given up all human efforts to persist with their initial desires. The very moment of despair to see her paralyzed young patient trying to commit suicide becomes Tong’s moment of realization, when the young man, who’s been blaming Tong for his paralysis, stands up on his feet and yells in joy “Doctor, I’m OK.” The success or failure of her surgery is not up to her human effort or will; it is beyond her! What an irony of life! What saves his life is his own attempt at death!
Chen’s moment comes when he finally obtains a chance to kill Zhang. Having gone unconscious and dropped the gun, Zhang is now hanging on a bed-sheet rope, unguarded from Chen’s gunshot. Once Chen pulls the trigger, it will put an end, once for all, to this long-lasting stand-off between the cop and the criminal. Chen pulls the trigger . . . no fire . . . pulls it again . . . and again . . . What the heck! The stupid gun fails to serve him at this critical moment! Even the most seasoned veteran cop Chen cannot end his life if Zhang is not destined to die, as yet. After all, Zhang’s life is not up to Chen; it is beyond him! Struck and illuminated by the will of fate, Chen changes his mind (perhaps too suddenly?) and climbs down the rope to save Zhang.
Zhang’s moment of learning comes in a paradoxical form and time, when he can’t really “learn” after losing his consciousness and thus ceasing to use his brain. Against all odds, he managed to outsmart all humans and almost succeed in escape, but alas, he couldn’t outrun time. The window of 6 hours’ survival time runs out and he falls unconscious, submitting himself in right before the victory. The irony of life continues, as his life is “saved” by his archenemy Chen, and Zhang in turn saves Chen’s life by holding Chen’s slipping hands back . . . unconsciously! His “living” brain was always ready to kill but his “dead” brain is reluctant to let go of the falling life. Now comes the big happy moment of reconciliation between the two.
There is no winner in this triangular fight: Tong failed to save Zhang’s life; Chen failed to kill Zhang; Zhang failed to escape or survive. Even though none of the three were successful with their hidden desires, as Tong couldn’t save her reputation, Chen couldn’t save his job, Zhang couldn’t save his brain, we don’t feel that the movie is sad-ended, for the three seem to have made peace with themselves . . . and with their tough life. They have learned that there’s only so much they can do and beyond and above that is not their share. They have earned the courage and freedom to admit human errors and limitations and submit themselves to what exists above and beyond.
This is why I believe that 三人行 carries more of a philosophical message than a political one, unlike some who argue that the movie portrays the current Hong Kong situation, symbolically represented by Zhang. To me, the director seems to have delved into a more profound question about life and human nature and tries to answer it with the questionable ending despite the danger of it looking not as “cool” as some of his previous films . . . after all, life is not so cool. On the other hand, I also object to the view that Johnnie To has lost his critical consciousness about social issues. Albeit subtle, his critiques of the society are scattered all over the movie: a reporter’s mention on the freedom of speech, Zhang’s quotes on budget, happiness index, etc., the police’s unjust and incompetent moves, contrasted by the gang’ clever and systematic operation, etc. etc. However, all these melt down in the furnace of the final shoot and blast, and what comes out are three humans tempered harder and stronger . . . and perhaps, “happier.” Remember the song the old man sang at the end, “Smile like me, and you will be happy.”