Recently the unusual sub-genre of film that is the Asian (Korean/Japanese/Thai/Chinese) thriller has joined the (Spaghetti) Western as one of my favorites. Once in a blue moon, I get lucky and come across a movie which actually draws on elements of both "genres" effectively. How can can a Chinese movie starring a Frenchman set in modern Hong Kong be a "Western"? While a film such as Vengeance (2009) has a very definite Eastern setting, the movie's tone, characterization and aesthetic are, to this viewer, have an unmistakeably Western flair.
Directed by Johnnie To, from a script by Wai Ka-Fai, Vengeance (2009) stars French music icon Johnny Hallyday as Francis Costello, a grieving (and brooding) father who's daughter is victimized by three home invaders. To add to the trauma, his son-in-law and two young grandsons are also murdered in the pre-title assault.
A chef and restaurateur from France, Hallyday's character, with a suitably "secret past," is very much a fish out of water in the Chinese cities of Macau and Hong Kong. Relying on help from some unlikely allies, Costello seeks revenge for the senseless and brutal attack on his family. Further adding to the outsider dynamic, common in the majority of spaghetti westerns, is the revelation that Costello suffers from periodic memory-loss, a condition that necessitates his taking Polaroid pictures of the faces he needs to remember lest he forget them completely--and therefore re-meeting them throughout the film. Cognisant of his health condition which is the result of a previous "secret" activity, Costello acknowledges that at some point in the near future he will not even remember his daughter even as avenging her pain and loss becomes the focus of his existence.
As teased in the film trailer above, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert has called Vengeance "A Classic Western," and further wrote that the film had "certain parallels" with Clint Eastwood's 1992 film Unforgiven. The film has just as many parallels with some of Eastwood's much earlier westerns. Very much a "Man With No Name," Costello, as played by Hallyday (who at one point was culturally seen as France's equivalent to Elvis Presley), says little while ingratiating himself to the "locals" (translation: Chinese hit men) with whom he develops a deep bond. This bond is further developed when their shared history, and code, are revealed toward the middle of the film. Later, Hallyday is also befriended and assisted by a young women with many children who sees the good in his hear, despite his grisly mission of vengeance.
One thematic cornerstone of the Western present in Vengeance is the depiction of a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice. Some other important production choices seem influenced by a desired western motif such as the dramatic staging of key showdowns, as well as the accompanying soundtrack written by Lo Tayu.
Part Western, part Asian Thriller, part character study, more than anything, Vengeance is a well-produced thriller with a number of twists, none of which are novelties, as each further enhances the story of Costello's drive toward revenge. This film is currently available for on-demand viewing on Netflix.