Throw Down Review
Newcomers to HK cinema may not be aware of director Johnnie To. After all he has not achieved the recognition in the West that his contemporaries John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam have. But his career has been as long and varied as theirs, ranging from period swordplay films to family melodramas, comic-book action films to formulaic romantic comedies. In 1996 he formed his own film company called Milkyway Image and started to make more personal, edgy character dramas and action thrillers. Films like A Hero Never Dies, The Mission and Running Out of Time attracted a new legion of Western fans, but didn’t exactly rake in the megabucks. So in 2000 Milkyway signed a deal with the largest film company in HK; China Star, and To started to intersperse his more personal productions with formulaic, fluffy mainstream romantic comedies that were a huge success at the local Box-Office. This solidified his status as one of HK’s most popular directors, but split his fan base between those who prefer his edgy films and those who prefer the fluffy ones.
Lately though, To has stuck to what he does best: stylish action films and when I heard he was planning a tournament film about Judo I started hoping for a good old fashioned hark back to the cheesy classics of the 80’s. Like The Karate Kid and Best of the Best, but with a fresh Asian slant. However, the moment I got the DVD in my hands my expectations were replaced by something higher, because there in the liner notes was an introduction from To stating that Throw Down is his homage to the late, great filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Lofty aspirations indeed but To has successfully recreated some of the life affirming magic that pervaded Kurosawa’s work.
Sze (Louise Koo) once had the Judo world at his feet, but now he’s just an alcoholic, debt-ridden, nightclub manager who’s unable to face up to anything. Least of all his former mentor Cheng, who is having a hard time enrolling new students. Desperate for publicity Cheng wants his former pupil to come out of retirement and represent his Dojo in the upcoming Judo Championship but Sze has enough trouble remaining conscious let alone take part in a tournament. If that isn’t bad enough he’s already busy dodging the attentions of Tony (Aaron Kwok) a talented Judo fanatic determined to face the former legend and Mona (Cherrie In) a wannabe pop-starlet looking to kick-start her career by singing in Sze’s club. Finally, when his life couldn’t get any more hectic, up pops Kong (Tony Leung Kar-fai) a brutally efficient Judo machine looking for a rematch with Sze, who failed to show for their initial meeting 2 years ago.
You’ll have to forgive my rather sporadic synopsis but Throw Down is a fiendishly difficult film to define. On the surface it appears to be a generic tournament film, but there are no tournament fight scenes to be found. Every time you think a conventional plot is about to kick in To throws a curveball. He is not interested in telling a story, just delivering a simple message, a personal ethos: If you get knocked down you must get back up, perseverance is the key to happiness and success, with Judo being the medium through which it’s conveyed. To do this effectively he has created an infectiously surreal world where everyone has a modicum of Judo ability and the worst injury you can pick up is a dislocated arm. It may seem a little frivolous, but it’s all realised with such effortless style that you may not care. From the neo-noir lighting that basks only the relevant parts of the frame in spotlights to the quirky vignettes that express the simple charm and magic of the character’s lives, there’s an abundance of creativity on display. The fight scenes are also suitably flamboyant. We have drunken bar brawls that descend into slow motion Judo ballets, playful challenges in the street and a showdown in a tall grass field that’s smack bang in the middle of the city. Action coordinator Yuen Bun’s tight editing and strict adherence to the technical essence of the noble art combines well with To’s keen visual sense and fanciful locations to provide Judo sequences with a cinematic grace that only a few recent action films can compete with. Yes the fights are short, but when they look this good and mean so much to the theme, who cares?
So we know there’s a lack of story here, but what about the characters? Well they are a little simplistic, but scratch the surface and you’ll reveal an abundance of subtleties that define each character perfectly. Sze is fleshed out not so much by his actions, but through his interaction with the characters of Tony and Mona. They represent the two ideals he ultimately aspires to. Tony has a pure love for improving himself and mastering his art and believes he can do this through interaction with others, by challenging people better than he is. Mona on the other hand has a thirst for recognition and tremendous tenacity, refusing to give up on her dream of becoming a singer no matter how talentless she may be. She’s always hoarding items, be it free cigarettes, a fake gold ring, dropped shoes or piles of cash that Sze has recklessly gambled away. But it’s not about greed, rather that you should never let go of something that can be of use later. The friendship these three characters form imbues new life into all of them, most of all Sze who slowly but surely finds the courage to embrace his former self and develop his Judo abilities once more. There are so many magical little scenes that convey the developing bond between the characters that it’s hard to pick out a favourite, but one highlight occurs after Mona’s aforementioned theft of the gambling money Sze wasted. They’re running from the irate owners when Sze reaches an epiphany observing Mona desperately trying to cling onto the cash and flee at the same time. He in turn makes his first proper confrontation of the film and flings himself at the pursuers, taking a vicious beating to save his friend; she then returns the favour by running back to grab a shoe that he left behind. It expresses so much about them with no dialogue, just the actors and Peter Kam’s excellent score.
Considering how much visual flair the film has To might have been forgiven for not concentrating on his cast, but the acting all round is pretty strong. Louis Koo isn’t the greatest thespian in HK and may seem a little wooden, but when you take into account how Sze is characterised it’s not important how expressive he is but that he bounces off the supporting players well and this he does. In the early stages of the film he’s almost a blank canvass, but as the film progresses he subtly breathes life and reaction into the character. Aaron Kwok is probably lumbered with the simplest role but he puts in such a heartfelt and playful performance that Tony becomes the easiest character to relate to. Cherrie In is an absolute delight as Mona, bringing a child-like exuberance and non-chalant defiance to the character that really sells her ability to inspire. Special mention must also go to Tony Leung Kar-fai, who is the epitome of controlled power with just a hint of warmth underneath, like giving Tony a sly wink after he’s decimated an entire street brawl. Last but not least though is Cheung Siu-fai, who steals every scene he’s in as Brother Savage, an over-competitive but generous Triad boss who spends most his time muttering random comments under his breathe and challenging all-comers at the local games arcade.
Ultimately the minimalism does affect some aspects of the film. For instance the reason for Sze’s self-retirement and decent into the abyss is at first implied, but so vaguely that it’s very easy to miss, and when Sze finally reveals his reasons he does so in a manner that feels like an off-hand joke. Perhaps a more accomplished character actor could’ve conveyed this better than Louis Koo, but most of the blame must lie with the director. Sometimes he focuses too much on the scene at hand and either forgets to build up and establish elements that will come to the fore later on, or just doesn’t care, expecting the audience to pick up on the subtleties with subsequent viewings. It’s a problem you can see in various films throughout his career but here it’s just a minor irritant because it’s clear he wants people to revisit the film and get something new out of it each time and with that he’s succeeded because Throw Down is so infectiously upbeat that if it does strike a chord, you’ll find yourself watching it over and over again whenever you need a feel-good pick me up. Now that’s the true magic of cinema.
PresentationHK distributors love their slipcases so Panorama have provided a rather bland but sturdy cream cover for this release. Inside there’s the usual digipack and a rafter nifty 16-page booklet which features liner notes from the director, film synopsis, and a brief Johnnie To biography and filmography (all in Chinese and English). The rest is taken up by film stills and character profiles (in Chinese only this time).
Presented Anamorphically in its original 2.38:1 ratio most of the film is set at night in dark back alleys and smoky nightclubs, which the DVD handles reasonably well. Brightness and contrast is pretty much spot on, the colour scheme is sharp and vivid and the image is reasonably detailed with no noticeable Edge Enchancements. Compression could’ve been better, there's some digital grain present at times and low level noise creeps into the darker areas but otherwise it’s a relatively clean transfer with only the occasional film artifacts popping up. As per usual for HK DVDs the transfer is interlaced.
There are 4 audio tracks crammed onto the disc: Cantonese 2.0, DD5.1, DTS and a Mandarin DD5.1 dub. I doubt many will be interested in the 2.0 track but for a no-frills audio experience it does the job. For the purpose of this review I primarily listened to the DTS track and was pretty impressed by the aggressive sonic experience. Dialogue remains clear and audible throughout, the Judo sequences have plenty of oomph and Peter Kam’s brilliant score is delivered with panache. The DD5.1 track is also suitably impressive, but isn’t quite as rich as the DTS. Still, those without a DTS set up will find plenty to enjoy.
As for subtitles there’s a choice of Traditional or Simplified Chinese and of course English, which is one of the better sub jobs Panorama have done because I didn’t spot any grammatical or spelling errors.
ExtrasThe main extra on the disc is the 40 minute Exclusive Interview With Director, presented in 4:3 with optional English subtitles. Johnnie To proves to be just as articulate in front of the camera as he is behind it and gives a fascinating, comprehensive discussion on the origins and goal of the project, how he gets the most out of his actors and the influence of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa.
Next up is a 11 minute Making of Documentary, presented non-anamorphically at 1.73:1. It's the usual fluff featurette, featuring interview snippets from the cast and crew and some brief behind-the-scenes footage. You do get a good look at how much of the fighting and falling the actors did themselves though and they did quite a lot it seems. Again this featurette has optional English subtitles, but it's the final extra on the disc to do so.
The rest of the extra material is taken up with TV spots, Film Teaser, full Theatrical Trailer and On Judo, a brief article about the origins of the fighting system (In both Chinese and English).
OverallJohnnie To has finally delivered an uplifting feel-good movie that remains part of his richly developed personal works without relying too much on crass commercial conventions. Some may feel that the story is too slight, others may get annoyed by the twee tone, but if you don’t expect an involving character drama or gripping action thriller you may find yourself drawn in by the quaint charm of it all. Panorama have given the film a fine DVD release, with the inclusion of English subtitles on the extras being particularly commendable.
Last updated: 26/06/2018 00:45:05