Throw Down (2004)

Directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Yau Nai-Hoi, Yip Ting-Shing & Au Kin-Yee
Producers: Johnnie To & Stephen Lam
Starring: Louis Koo, Aaron Kwok, Cherrie Ying, Cheung Siu-Fai, Jordan Chan, Lo Hoi-Pang, Calvin Choi & Tony Leung Ka-Fai

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Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2005:
Best Action Choreography (Yuen Bun)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2005:
Film Of Merit

Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2004:
Best Original Screenplay (Yau Nai-Hoi, Yip Ting-Shing & Au Kin-Yee)

Nomination at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2004:
Best Supporting Actor (Cheng Siu-Fai)

Jazz club owner and guitarist Sze-To (Louis Koo) is on the downward spiral of life. Once an acknowledged judo master, he now gets relentlessly drunk every night and has built up sizeable debts with various underground characters in town. Tony (Aaron Kwok) is a young judo talent anxious to fight the once great master. When seeing how the mighty has fallen, he sticks around along with aspiring singer Mona (Cherrie Ying) to help Sze-To rise up from the ashes...

Johnnie To openly acknowledges his latest foray into cinema a la The Mission and PTU as a tribute to Akira Kurosawa. Excellent. Such tribute never gets old but I wish I could say I'm a seasoned Kurosawa scholar. Rest assured, you don't have to be to appreciate Throw Down. You probably do have to be a Johnnie To fan however as this follows in the evolving footsteps of mentioned prior works.

Many expectations comes to light when it's revealed that Throw Down is what I always call a real Johnnie To movie. One of my initial concerns actually was again the echoing of styles set by The Mission and continued in PTU. The slow, methodic, quirky and subtle storytelling style that is. While Throw Down technically does resemble PTU as cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung once again shoots Hong Kong night in particular in a very dreamy way, the storytelling and characters immediately sets a different tone than before. First of all, everyone talk their hearts out but To still injects all his trademarks into this martial arts/comedy/drama.

Yes, it's another mood filled night at the movies with the noir aura being etched in stone right from the getgo. If it wasn't for the fact that To is so god damn good at creating this atmosphere, it would've gotten old already in PTU! The scope frame filled with strong colours and contrasts is as ever thoroughly captivating, created by Milkyway's in-house cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung. Giving us quirky comedy with pratfalls, toilet humour and the likes, you might think that To has gone astray. Wrong. His eye for comedy is still about extreme quirkiness and low-key delivery of either physical or verbal gags. It's wonderfully funny in either case and never cease to amaze.

What can be argued against all this is the fact that To does self indulge in his quirkiness, sacrificing the need to move forward in a few instances but again, if it weren't for the fact that it's so funny, immersing and unique within the realms of Hong Kong cinema, I would mind. Now I wish that the arcade hall sequence could've run 20 minutes longer as I believe To could've pulled it off with ease.

All is entertaining to the max but Throw Down isn't mainly about either things I described. Using the art of judo as a metaphor for fallen characters in need of getting up again, To largely transforms the movie into a sad portrayal of addiction to depression. Louis Koo's Sze-To is one that neither is comfortable with lying flat on the mat symbolically but has given up doing something about it. It's the conduits in the form of Tony and Mona that begins his upwards journey and while the atmosphere set may not suggest it, Johnnie To brings a rousing uplifting spirit to Throw Down. It does build all the way but if you'd had to knock To for anything it is the fact that we do figure out the basic outcome a fair bit in advance. It is as always about execution and when To is in this mood, he's virtually an unstoppable force. Neither nihilism or evil exists in this world, especially given the fact that certain prior Milkyway productions have reveled in blood, guts and downbeat sentiments. Maybe all those fluffy romantic comedies finally brought out a sweeter side in Johnnie To that could fit into his preferred non-commercial style?

Portraying these characters who in their own way live aimless and endless existences is a trio of not so seasoned Milkyway performers. That's right, not even Lam Suet is cast! Louis Koo furthers himself greatly here under the direction of To in a performance that feels nailed for every mood that To employs. Sze-To's relentless irrational behaviour, both funny and dark, to a realization that Judo goes hand in hand with his crucial journey, Koo churns out a career best act here. Low-key has been an aspect to acting in To's movies. Koo's response is immediate and a success.

Aaron Kwok will probably never grow into much more than what The Barefoot Kid showcased back in the 90s (also directed by To) but his easy going charisma and warmth becomes fitting attributes for Tony's character, one we're not quite sure has an agenda or not which is another strength of Throw Down. Cherrie Ying looks beautiful as always and definitely is no flaw in the framework. Her character is ever so slightly given a traditional character arc though but nonetheless she gets to be part of Johnnie To's unique touches in order add weight to arcs. It's almost like working with Milkyway and To automatically brings out the utmost, even if it won't rival the greats. Cheung Siu-Fai is terrific as a triad boss with an abusive, competitive edge while playing video games. None is spared his taunts, not even little children. Tony Leung Ka-Fai also logs a dead cool supporting act as the ultimate judo opponent of Sze-To.

Finally, with an emphasis on Judo, action director Yuen Bun's work should be discussed. Throw Down certainly isn't a film that's all about the action but it works as an aspect responsible to provide impact and weight to the overall journey. For what it's worth, and I don't know if there lies a difficulty to make Judo on-screen compelling, Yuen Bun and crew makes it an integral and compelling part of To's vision. Being both quick-cut and allowed to roam free in longer takes, we're given a solid look at the details including the fact that the actors involved did put in training.

In this final paragraph, I think it's more suitable to let Johnnie To himself speak of the film as it perfectly summarizes the best film out of Hong Kong cinema 2004:

"When you fall down, you should find the courage to get up again. No matter what the outcome is, give everything you have and leave no regret behind. I believe this is the spirit of Judo. This is also the way of life."

I couldn't agree more.

The DVD:

Panorama presents the film in an anamorphically enhanced 2.40:1 aspect ratio approximately. A few nicks on the print turn up but it doesn't degrade an otherwise sharp, detailed and colourful presentation.

Still being on a 2.0 Pro Logic setup, that Cantonese language option is still an immersing experience. The front are mainly used but are dynamic both in terms of music and effects. Dialogue is also crystal clear. A Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 in addition to the Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 dub is also included.

The English subtitles are excellent and feature no spelling errors or inaccuracies whatsoever. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Panorama makes no secret about their inclusion of 70 minutes worth of extras but furthermore they also openly announce that English subtitles are included even for that section of the dvd (in addition to traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles). Clearly someone has gathered that an market outside of the Cantonese speaking crowd exists. Big ups!

We start with Exclusive Director Interview (40 minutes, 2 seconds). 6 different selections for different subjects discussed are available but thankfully also a Play all option. Johnnie To enthusiastically covers a lot of ground in this program, ranging from the Kurosawa influence on Throw Down and his other works, casting, working out new ways for the unexperienced cast to act, specific breakdown of scenes and his life affirming view on things. The English subtitles has a few errors but are very helpful nonetheless for this largely excellent special feature. Beware though that spoilers crop up for both Throw Down and Expect the Unexpected as part of the discussion.

Making-of Documentary (10 minutes, 55 seconds) follows the usual format closely with its mix of cast & crew interviews and behind the scenes footage. The actors presents their characters and interpretation of themes while the judo aspect of the film gets a slight examination. It's a standard program with the odd bit of solid behind the scenes look but the length doesn't allow for more sadly. Photo Gallery is an animated slideshow of 20 production stills. The stills are attractive and this extra gives them a little time to shine.

Teaser- and theatrical trailer follow and in a neat touch, the makers echo the feeling of old trailers by throwing out outrageous words as "Unstoppable courage!" and Fight on!" all over the screen. The 11 TV Spots, as opposed to the Johnnie To interview, doesn't come with a Play all option and are more like small behind the scenes spots for the most part. The theatrical trailer and these TV spots represents the only pieces of extras sans subtitles.

(Johnnie To and Tony Leung interviews, from the making of)

On Judo gives us a text based history of Judo, first in Chinese but thankfully then followed by English. A short history is given as well as the workings of the Judo ranking system in a fairly informative way.

Also included is a 16 page colour booklet with partially English information such as a foreword by Johnnie To, biography and filmography. The plot synopsis and cast & crew listing are the remaining English bits in the booklet but the attractive layout with production stills makes it worth looking through all the way.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson