06/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Johnnie To at Cannes: Aesthetic Thrill with No Substance

It was my first Johnnie To film -- "Vengeance" -- and I was happy to find it an aesthetic experience. From the first shot of an upper-class mod home in Macao -- designed like a film-set with great white walls -- to the climatic forest shoot-out in the dark, the movie caught my attention as a series of installation pieces, one after another. I especially enjoyed the surprise of a peaceful beach scene at the end, with birds twittering -- and many delicious shots of gourmet food throughout.

Yet despite some echoes of Macbeth (and Kurosowa's Throne of Blood), and despite the pleasure of watching singer/actor Johnny Hallyday be himself ("this is why I chose him," said To), the movie offers no original perspective on its theme (vengeance), and stays on the surface. Yes, there is the clever idea that the character played by Hallyday, revenging his grandchildren's murder, loses his memory, raising the question: what does vengeance mean if one does not remember? But the idea remains a one-liner.


I met Johnnie To at the Majestic Hotel to discuss. He himself is an aesthetic experience: cool dark glasses, pressed shiny purple suit, and well-built, with an intriguing way of gesturing with a full wave of his arms. During our chat (with a translator -- although at the end To surprised me by speaking English!), To emphasized his commitment to original film aesthetics. "The filmmakers I admire like Kurosowa and Melville who create their own style. They are very free from story conventions, and I like to combine elements that are original, while also giving homage to film noir. For example, I chose Macao as the setting because it is geographically close to Hong Kong and has an original look because of its colonial past. The music I chose was to express the Western and Chinese infiltration in Hong Kong."

To also spoke a lot about the inner life of his main character, revealing that for him, "Vengeance" is not just a surface story of violent shoot-outs. "My character is desperate, he needs guidance. I don't use storyboards to prepare action scenes; I shoot them from what is in my head, and aim to connect the story to characters. For example, the reason I had the moonlit gun fight is that I wanted to use that moment to show Hallyday's state of mind: how his memory is going in and out. We see him in darkenss and then light again."