Three, Johnnie To’s latest, finds the globally-praised Hong Kong filmmaker once again operating within a single location for the majority of the runtime. With his most recent, To navigates all throughout a hospital building, as Shun (Wallace Chung), a violent criminal, causes problems all around the hospital floor after having just shot himself in order to get out of a showdown with the police, so that he can be sent to the hospital instead of behind bars.
Opening up his film already following the aftermath, To drops us straight into the drama, as Shun tries to stall his operation, while neurosurgeon Dr. Tong (Vicki Zhao) pleads with him to get into surgery, but all the Shun seems to care about is getting out of the peripheries of his hospital bed. Trying to stall for as long as he can as he awaits the help of his men to rescue him from the hospital, Shun begins to cause headache to all those working within the hospital.
It is clear from the start that To is building up to something big here after just the first ten minutes or so of exposition. To’s tremendous ability to lay on exposition can be beaten by very few in such a short amount of time. With Three, To does so in such a short amount of time that it leaves all to follow to be quite a drudgery to make way through after his narrative begins to settle down.
Despite only running a scant 88-minutes, To’s character-work here lacks the kinetic energy in order to make for an engaging piece. Instead of the promising introduction To drops us into, we’re left with something far too repetitious ever to get drawn into the drama that is spreading out like an epidemic all throughout the hospital floor.
What’s far and away the most interesting element to Three is To’s approach to the social systems of those that occupy the floor. Periodically commenting on the devotion that the nurses and doctors of the hospital have to their line of work, To fails to leave us with anything particularly juicy to dive into after the film ends. It’s disappointing to see because the sporadic approach to this is far more compelling than anything else in the story up until the final act.
While not on the same level of visual spectacle as To’s previous work, Office, there is still a lot to chew on here visually. Structuring the hospital layout like one giant maze, characters weave their way between the unoccupied spaces of To’s enigmatic set. The set design is a marvel to gaze at, even when To’s exploration through it lacks the punch that it needs.
The third act brings upon a jarring switch in tone that ultimately feels uncharacteristic to everything that To had established beforehand, which is certainly problematic to the film as a whole. But when looking at this as a standalone spectacle, there’s not much else that you’re going to see this year that brings this amount of commitment to an exhibition as engaging as what To has up his sleeve in the final act.
While many won’t be able to get past the tacky effects, To’s chaotic atmosphere and commitment to his project were enough to wrap me up with all that he had to show off. The brawl that commences the third act is such a marvelous bombardment of the senses that the tonal switch that comes out of nowhere isn’t as much of an issue, as it’s just nice to get a break from the never-ending gags and conversations that filled the first hour from start to finish.
To’s latest certainly comes with its ups and downs, but when To is operating within chaos, Three flies by in a blink of an eye. It’s just a shame that it had to take so long for To to get there.