Three (Johnnie To, 2016)

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This guest review comes courtesy of critic Jaime Grijalba.

I’m not an expert on Johnnie To, nor do I pretend to be one. Not because I don’t find him interesting, and I will end up watching his entire filmography before too long. I’m wary of clogging the feed of the many people who are unaware of his talents with my half-assed thoughts, especially when there are so many critics and fans that have spent way more time than I’d ever spend examining and studying the style and everything that surrounds the films of To and his Milkyway Image studio. So, with all that I’ve said, what lead me to write about the latest film from one of the most well-regarded Asian directors of the past two decades?

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After seeing Office in 3D, I was surprised by how tightly To constructed the plot not only in the script, but also with the film’s imagery and locations. It left me with the sensation that all the characters had immense, deep lives that went before and continued after the movie ended, similar to the way the film’s finance building set was limited with beams and offices and dividers, but also was transparent, giving a depth of field stretching to infinity. In Three there are no transparent walls, yet the space in which it takes place is similarly confined, which is similarly reflected in the story.

Three is set in a modern hospital building, more specifically in the neurosurgery ward, where the patients recovering from brain operations (or waiting for them) lie in beds arranged in a semi-circle, such that they can all be seen from the central main desk where nurses and doctors work. This is where an arrested criminal is put when he regains consciousness and refuses surgery after being shot in the head by the police. How does the disposition of the beds and the main desk in this room speak about the plot, the conflict and the characters? In a way it mimics the Panopticon as designed and described by Jeremy Bentham.

It is, in a way, a demonstration of how structures of vigilance and care don’t change much between hospitals and prisons. The patients are visible from one point, they know they can be watched at any time, and at the same time are conscious of the patients by their side and how their behavior compares with their own. This isn’t immediately apparent, because it doesn’t much impact the plot, but the idea of vigilance and what each character sees is fundamental to the two best sequences of the film: the drugging and the (inevitable) shootout. The camera focuses on and frames just one element at a time: the eyes of a character, the objects being surveyed, other people looking. . . but that also means that the camera isn’t looking at something else, and thus (for example, in the scene where they try to drug the criminal) something important is being hidden from us. Thus, the panoptic guard, the camera, has failed even though it was designed to catch details like these.

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So, the criminal, prostrate and cuffed, is the one that is testing the limitations and the faults in the system of vigilance. It would be the same in a jail, no matter how many people could look into his cell. The main failure of a panoptic system of vigilance is that is inherently human (and the technology doesn’t seem to help, see one of the police detectives clumsily browsing through security camera footage, trying to find someone that he swore he saw before, and failing), as it still depends on the memory and the skill of the human mind, and if we know anything in this world it is that a mind can surpass another mind with enough wit and knowledge.

So, when the camera frees itself from what had been a fixed perspective, making quick but straight movements, it manages to see it all in one of the final sequences, as the criminal manages to get out of his cuffs. It makes slow and sweeping circular movements that cover the action sequence shootout, while at the same time demonstrating to us the absolute control that the character has of the same tool that had been used to confine him. The criminal starts to be in control, and there’s nothing that can stop him from becoming powerful enough to free himself, as he has managed to control those around him.

Or maybe I’m just reading too much into what is one of the most entertaining (though not entirely satisfying in the end) films of the year. Johnnie To confronts the idea of how he can make movies in one location, this time confining his camera more and more. . . . I’d like to see him make a full-on chamber drama piece of any genre he likes, but truly restricting his movements to one single room. How would he fare?

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