Ruairí McCann on Johnnie To’s ‘Throw Down’ (2004)
Johnnie To, working prolifically in the Hong Kong film industry since 1980, is a filmmaker with a large body of work across many genres. Yet he is usually associated with his gunplay crime films from the late ‘90s onwards. He himself often calls these his most personal work, oriented around his deep interest in homosocial sub-societies, composed of triads, hitmen, or cops. There’s melodrama and an oddball sense of humour, but the prevailing tone is a Melvillian coolness, a masculine display of bravado that is buttoned down. The action set-pieces are inventive experiments in screen geometry, marked less for their realism or straight bombast, but for how bodies are placed and composed in minimalist arrangements, precise staging that expresses the characters’ personalities and relationships to one another, as well as To’s own view.
That description excludes a film like Throw Down (2004) — a contemporary-set, martial-arts film with strong comedic and musical elements that is not interested in specific group dynamics, whose tone is broad, and not a single shot is fired. And yet it is a highly personal work, where To’s artistry is not only apparent but at its height.
It stars Louis Koo as Sze-to, a man coasting along on a path of self-destruction. Working as a manager of a late-night bar and its house band, he keeps himself perpetually drunk off his own supply and financially precarious through a gambling habit. It is soon made clear it wasn’t always like this. He was once the “Judo Golden Boy”, an accomplished and respected martial artist, but that’s in the past. That is until two go-getters ingratiate themselves and bring it up in the process. One is a young judo practitioner called Tony, played likeably brash by Aaron Kwok. All piss and vinegar, he is mono-manically set on becoming a champion and sees challenging and beating Sze-to as an important step towards that goal. He is introduced in the film’s first, of many, full-bodied combats, which To does not efface. Instead, he shoots for immediacy, using close-ups, amplified by a wide-angle lens, and cutting not haphazardly but on specific moves, accentuating them.
Meanwhile, Mona (Cherrie Ying) is determined to become a famous torch singer and sees joining Sze-to’s band as a chance to perform while staving off destitution. Initially bewildered, Sze-to soon puts them to use in his band but also to help him jilt triad Brother Savage (Eddie Cheung). But their friendship and exuberance, along with other factors, shape him up for regeneration.
The film has its roots in Kurosawa Akira’s debut film Sugata Sanshiro (1943). It’s where To borrows the element of judo, the arc of personal reckoning, and also its personal status. For though the two films and filmmakers don’t share much formally, the end dedication to Kurosawa, a ”salute to the greatest filmmaker”, speaks to To’s experience of encountering Kurosawa’s deeply held humanism and realising that film is a personally and philosophically expressive medium. And the means of this expression he found in a specific scene in Sugata Sanshiro, where the hero, scolded, re-affirms himself by leaping into a pond. This supplanted in To the belief that cinematic action was uniquely and deeply expressive, in and of itself, beyond elements like narrative.
Throw Down’s greatness comes from being able to explore his usual interests, in depicting personal attainment in a hostile and power-hungry world, while remaining formally uninhibited, largely forgoing characterisation as dictated by explicit narrative construction and realist psychology. Instead, specific performance choices in coordination with To’s masterful blocking and composition do the talking.
Koo’s performance of drunkenness, for instance, is no one’s idea of a realistic depiction of debilitating alcohol dependency. A look of consternation, eking out stilted or muted line deliveries, sits atop a body that is constantly either stumbling, knocking into people or falling flat as it cycles between being as stiff as a board and as lax as a ragdoll. Nor is it traced to an instigating event—he’s just an alcoholic and that’s it. Rather To and Koo use the mien of an alcoholic as a metaphorical manifestation of an inner imbalance, an interpretation of his lack of principle, ambition or even a way of expressing himself as a state of extreme inelegance.
His spiritual sickness sits in contrast with his fellow players, whose performances are built to express drive and purpose, and so there is a mastery of movement. In keeping with the philosophical foundations of judo itself, where its more restricted set of techniques—compared to its antecedent jujitsu—is rooted in a belief that physical precision and efficiency reflects a contented psychic state.
We see this contrast play out in a denuded musical number in which Mona and Tony, wielding a sax, audition for Sze-to who they have caught unaware and hungover. The two of them are hives of activity, absorbed in their respective actions, while Sze-to’s dishevelment is portrayed by its incompatibility with other elements in the scene. A bottle rolls off a table, bonking him on the head. Mona and Tony’s performing is presented as uncanny, drenched in reverb, with the camera movements and cutting cock-eyed and arrhythmic, to match his footwork. It amounts to his attempt to get up and on the move appearing as an attempt to exit the frame altogether.
This use of the cinematic expression of screen space and editing, as tools more expressive than dialogue, is melded with To’s world view, that any attempt to attain and maintain a sense of self and conviction is sabotaged by the functions of commerce and power, as expressed in a midway turning point. The film’s multiple plot threads converge and develop as several characters come to confront and exact a toll on the central trio. To’s approach is to stage this narrative congestion as a game of musical chairs. The meetings are side by side in the way they are staged and framed in relation to each other, and how that changes, reflects the unhealthy power dynamics at play.
A weaker filmmaker may have expressed this merely through a block of dialogue, or stop the film in its tracks. Instead, To’s incredible film sense allows him to fill the frame without it feeling overstuffed, with moving elements in keeping with the film’s concern, while simultaneously delivering an exciting sequence with the rhythm of its escalation and it’s about-face into a bathroom farce then a mass brawl.
In other words, it is Johnnie To working as a total filmmaker, his instincts as an entertainer and artist indivisible and in full flight.
Throw Down was released on Blu-ray in the UK and Ireland on May 18th under Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema imprint.