January 15, 2014

Throw Down (2004)

A man loses all of his money in an illegal gambling den. Rather than see him walk home empty-handed, his friend impulsively snatches the cash and runs for her life. They run down the street together, chased by a trio of gangsters. When the gangsters are about to catch the girl, the man leaps into their path. He submissively takes the beating of his life while she hides around the corner. When the man finally staggers around the corner to re-join her, he is missing a shoe. She walks back to the gangsters to retrieve it. And it’s one of the most romantic scenes ever committed to film.

Throw Down is a marvel: a unique film experience that blends genre so effortlessly that it becomes difficult to describe its genre at all. It is too funny to be a drama. It is too whimsical to be a thriller. It’s too sedate and meditative to be an action film. It’s too heartfelt and melancholic to be a comedy. It is, instead, simply a wonderfully told story. It is rich in visual imagery, overflowing with heart and originality, and stands head-and-shoulders above almost every Hong Kong movie ever made. It is a particular favourite of mine.

The film is directed by Johnnie To, who is a strong contender for Hong Kong’s most talented living director. It basically boils down to a choice between To and Wong Kar-wai, I think, and which director you ultimately side with will depend on your personal taste in films. Throw Down is To’s tribute to Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa, who must rank as a strong contender for best director ever. The tribute does not disappoint, nor is it misplaced. Throw Down is a film of images. It could likely be broadly understood without bothering to read the subtitles. This visual storytelling not only gives the film simplicity, it also gives it subtlety. An actor can express far more with a look or a gesture than with dialogue.

Louis Koo plays Sze To, a former judo champion turned eccentric drunken bar manager. Once he was the best judo fighter in the city. Now he stumbles around his darkened bar, addicted to alcohol and gambling. When he needs money, he steals it from a local Triad leader. Once he’s got it, he gambles it away. He hasn’t performed judo in two years, and nobody knows why he spontaneously quit. Sze To encounters two strangers on the same day. Mona (Cherry Ying) is an aspiring pop star recently kicked out of her apartment for non-payment of rent. Tony (Aaron Kwok) is an up-and-coming judo fighter with a desire to spar with a legendary master. The three form the emotional core of the film, with the numerous supporting characters orbiting them in a series of overlapping storylines. All three actors are sensational. Ying brings a phenomenal amount of appeal to her character, while Koo gives what I feel is the best performance of his career.

The film also stars Tony Leung Ka-Fai as Lee Kong, a master judo fighter still smarting from Sze To’s unexpected retirement. The use of such a high-calibre actor in a supporting role gives Lee Kong a gravity that he might otherwise lack.

Also of note is the film’s score, composed and performed by four-time HK Film Award-winner Peter Kam. It does what movie scores do best: it underlines the action, and gives emotional resonance to the scenes.

The overall effect of Throw Down is difficult to surprise. It juggles so many genres simultaneously, and flicks from one to the other with apparent ease. To has directed so many of Hong Kong’s finest motion pictures, whether kung fu action films like The Heroic Trio, or Triad thrillers like Election, The Mission and Exiled, or dramas like All About Ah-Long or even romantic comedies like Don't Go Breaking my Heart. Throw Down is the best of all of them.

This review was originally published on the Eiga: Asian Cinema website.

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