Throw Down
d. Johnnie To (2004)
The Criterion Collection

While I had heard of Hong Kong film director Johnnie To, I had never seen any of his movies until last week when I sat down to watch Throw Down, his 2004 film, which The Criterion Collection, on the back of their new release, positions as “one of [his] most personal films.” It was one of my favorite movie-watching experiences ever. Yes, I feel like I’ve just met one of my favorite filmmakers, on the basis of just one film.

That might be a bit brash, but I loved Throw Down! I’m confident that I will not be able to express just why in words, so much of the film’s magic is in its imagery and even its lack of a forceful narrative, but I’ll do my best.

Usually I might try to layout a little premise, but when I started the film I knew nothing about it at all. The characters just started appearing one by one on the screen. I had no footing and no idea where anything was going (or, for that matter, where things even were at at the moment), but I was drawn in completely. I was delighted.

While we settle into the film’s world, there are some establishing shots that make sense later on in the film. But let me start with the three main characters. First we get Tony, played by Aaron Kwok, arriving outside a club on a motorcycle, sporting a grin.

He goes up to the physically overwhelming bouncer and bets him he can throw him down. This is Tony, the man who grins and wants to challenge anyone he runs into. Like the upstart young gunslinger in a western, myopically searching to fight the people he idolizes, he’s more than willing to practice on anyone. The difference is that there is a striking lack of pride in the way Tony goes about his business, and that stands out and pulled me further into the film, though I didn’t yet understand just why.

The next character we meet is getting kicked out of her apartment. While her landlady curses her and throws her belongings in the street, Mona — played by Cherrie Ying, also with a mysterious grin on her face — finishes her noodles.

Mona and Tony come together at that club, run by a man who is not smiling. This is the third principle character, Szeto, played by Louis Koo. Tony wants to fight Szeto (of course!) because he was once a widely respected Judo master. Mona wants Szeto to hire her to sing, because somehow this might be step toward her dream to become a pop star.

Though they’re all struggling, Szeto seems to lack something that is giving Tony and Mona a bounce in their step. At first, he seems unworthy of either of them. He stumbles around, drunk most of the time, usually looking somewhere in the middle distance, out of focus.

But he has a bit of a heist to pull off, and he’s happy to have their help. Somehow these three start to get along, working together in the larger world.

Though there are bumps in the road.

Now, let me step back. As I said earlier, I had no idea what was going on, but I loved it. I loved it! I didn’t care at all. I was having a delightful time riding the waves, accompanied by the strange score by Peter Kam. I actually didn’t expect to ever catch up and make sense of what I was watching, and I was cool with that. Because I knew I’d be writing something about the film, I started to adapt a phrase I first heard from Andy Miller and put it in my back pocket: This film is so wonderfully and unabashedly stylish it gives substance a bad name.

This was nowhere more evident than in a massive judo brawl, during which a man I didn’t recognize yet goes up to the front to start singing about Akira Kurosawa’s debut film, Sanshiro Sugata (an earlier establishing shot and a later duel pay homage to the striking beauty of Kurosawa’s film). In the meantime, another person I don’t recognize yet sits apart from the fight, looking on disapprovingly.

It’s dreamlike and mesmerizing. Yes, I thought of David Lynch, too.

While, as I said, I would have been happy if the film continued to be relatively indecipherable, things do start to click into place, and I found myself not only giddy but also, surprisingly, touched.

Without necessarily rebuking accomplishment, To’s film suggests the true beauty and nobility is to be witnessed and gained in the struggle itself. Win? Lose? Irrelevant. This is not a new concept, but it does have an unexpected layer: losing is a foregone conclusion much of the time. What we have, then, is a beautiful meditation — though a fast-paced and frenetic meditation, if there is such a thing — on friendship, on support, on seeing the joy now because the road ahead is always going to be dark. Better learn now how to enjoy the darkness so you can enjoy it later on too.

The story clips along here as we learn a bit more about our principle characters, their struggles, their victories (which, again, is not synonymous with winning, with accomplishing a specific goal, or with avoiding devastating pain, hardship, and loss), and To masterfully gives us glimpses at the film’s beating heart:

One of my favorite moments comes later in the film, so some might consider it a spoiler. There’s your warning.

Mona is unsuccessful in Hong Kong (of course), but she thinks she might do better in Japan. Her reasonable father wonders what the point is. How will it be different from the other times she has ventured out, certain that some place or other promised success? In another wonderful scene, instead of getting into her father’s car she breaks away him. Tony and Szeto hold him back while she runs away (with a big smile), excitedly saying she’ll write from Japan. The reason I love this scene is not because it represents escape or anything of the sort. It’s this: while she runs away, her father fights against Tony and Szeto, trying to chase after his daughter because he knows she won’t succeed, but even as he does this he cheers her on. His heart is filled by what she is doing.

Throw Down hit me in exactly the right way. It was one of those films where right when I finished I rewatched some of my favorite scenes and also jumped right into the supplements on the Criterion disc. I found them wonderful as well. I was particularly delighted by two of them: first, an interview with screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi and, second, an interview with composer Peter Kam. The reason? They both said how confusing it was to work on the film because they didn’t see what was going on, but that they both eventually slipped out of the darkness and got the vision. Perhaps you will too! I am already looking forward to watching it again!

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