Johnnie To’s baffling Throw Down, from 2004, is a hell of a good-looking film. It’s a homage to Akira Kurosawa a dedication at the end tells us – “the greatest film-maker”. And though you might find influences from the great Japanese director, who had died only six years before, you’ll search in vain for coherent storytelling, one of Kurosawa’s strengths.
What the hell is going on, in other words. Three characters who have little obvious connection band together: Sze-To (Louis Ko), the drunken manager of a Hong Kong nightclub; Tony (Aaron Kwok), a figure of wild impetuosity who wants to fight everybody; and Mona (Cherrie Ying), a skank living on her wits, doing and saying whatever is necessary to get by. Flakes, outsiders, trouble.
She sings, too, one of Mona’s skills, when she’s not eating. Tony plays the sax, Sze-To the guitar, and at a couple of points in this strange film they all end up on stage together in the club as a makeshift band. That’s when they’re not fighting or robbing, in particular off Brother Savage (Eddie Cheung), a local mobster whose first love is arcade fight games, which he plays while badmouthing his opponent, regardless of who it is, even if it’s just a speccy kid.
The arcades set the visual tone for the film, which is high Hong Kong. We’re seven years on from the handover to the Chinese but it’s business as usual for the lighting and camera crew – bright lights, coloured gels, reds and greens, yellows and blues. And all shot on lush 35mm – this is really one for the celluloid junkies.
Tony Leung arrives around halfway through, more incoherence, as Lee Kong, fighter extraordinaire, and even further down the road we meet Master Cheng (Lo Hoi Pang), another judo badass – that’s the martial art most on display here, practised one handed at one point, as if to ring the changes.
You could unkindly call judo the martial art that’s all about someone being thrown to the floor. They get up. They’re thrown to the floor again. And again. It entirely suits the comedy action tone, and the plot, which is “steal money, get chased, have fight, repeat”.
But the judo, the judo. Martial arts in movies tends to be about steely-eyed, stone-faced men squaring off, summoning the spirit of an eagle, a snake or a dragon as they lay into their foe, perhaps emitting a piercing shriek as they go. Not here. The fighting here is mostly for fun, Tony setting the tone when he first arrives at the nightclub where Sze-To drunkenly is in charge and challenging the bouncer outside to a fight – “Hello, I”m Tony. Let’s fight!” he says. Both men seem delighted. Smiles not scowls.
Like a comedy show, it’s comprised of individually strong “sketches” – a scam in an arcade, a mad dash down a street with paper money billowing in the wind, a fight on a rooftop, in the nightclub, out in the grassy wasteland surrounding the city, where it ends as it began, as if to insist that a story had been told.
I watched it and enjoyed it in that spirit, like you might enjoy the individual items in a dim sum without ever expecting the “meal” to hang together. The cast is good, the action is good, the visuals are fantastic. Cherrie Ying is a real godsend, two-thirds of the way to being a manic pixie dream girl, she propels what little there is of a plot when things start to stagnate.
Right after the mention of Kurosawa in the end credits, up came the names of Gillette and San Miguel as sponsors. Which does explain that lovely shaving scene (a Mach 3 razor, I think). Spanish beer is also evident at various points and it looks fresh and fizzy and cold. Something does at least make sense.
Johnnie To’s Throw Down – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021