The Production of Hong Kong Crime Film
- Three

Another masterpiece of Johnnie To, famous Hong Kong director, has come out. After PTU, Breaking News and Drug War, Johnnie To continues to tap into the crime films of Milkyway Image. Most of the film is shot indoor, as it is set in the hospital and operating rooms. They not only invested heavily on medical equipments, but also made innovation in terms of characters setting and shooting skills.


Johnnie To’s film Three gained inspiration from his interest in shooting scenes of operating rooms. The initial idea of the film focused on several operations and then the story expanded to cover the entire hospital and the characters appearing in the film.

The biggest difference between this film and Johnnie To’s previous works lies in that the whole story happens in a hospital, thus this film is shot all in studio, with intriguing plots. In fact, Johnnie To has featured doctors in his earlier film, Help. This time, Three proceeds with crime theme, which the Milkyway Image is the most skilled at, and targets the conflicts of human nature in crisis.


Build a hospital studio from scratch with doctors supervising on the spot

To achieve the best effect, the film crew built a two-storey Victoria Hospital at a production cost of millions of dollars as the main scene in Panyu, Guangdong Province. Though used merely as film settings, the staff pursued excellence by adopting real medical equipment, from large instruments such as the operating tables and magnetic resonance facilities to small ones such as scalpels and medicine bottles. All are presented with a sense of reality. In this way, the crew built a modern advanced hospital from scratch.

The scenes of medical treatment are not common in Chinese films, especially Three involves a complicated brain surgery. In order to faithfully present the process of the surgery, the crew invited registered doctor, Li Shiwei, as the field consultant. Vicki Zhao and Cheung Siu Fai, who played the roles of doctors, and other anesthetists as well as nurses in the film, received two-week training in medical science. They learned about the whole process of cerebral surgery. Every basic gesture and technical term had to receive the approval of the field consultant. The film is so vivid that it can be compared with medical documentary. Such elaborate arrangements are aimed at enabling the audiences to be immersed in the tense atmosphere of the surgery.


An epitome of life at the moment of critical decision

The film Three, as its name implies, centers around three person, the cerebral surgeon Tong Qain, played by Vicki Zhao, the robbery criminal Zhang Lixin, played by Wallace Chung and the Chief Inspector of the Crime Section Chen Weile, played by Louis Koo. With different standpoints and divergence of them, a wrestle with human nature is triggered. Similar themes exist in Johnnie To’s prvious works, such as the protection of big brother in The Mission, loss of gun by the policeman in PTU and the fight between the thief and the police in Breaking News. The stories all began with an accident and proceed to explore human nature. In Three, with all characters trapped in a small hospital, the conflict is more intense. As Johnnie To said, “it is attractive and challenging for the filmmakers to present the film in a depressing environment as small as a hospital or sickbed.”

Life is like a drama. In this film centers around the police, the criminals and the doctors, the atmosphere grows intense due to a medical incident. Other people in the hospital cannot stay immune. The hospital, with people coming in and out every day, stages the joy and sorrow of life. For example, the patient played by Jonathan Wong become bedridden due to medical negligence; the old patient played by Lo Hol Pang who grows cynical of life and treats it as a game; and the old couple played by Tam Yuk Ying and KK Cheung, who are faced with the issue of life and death. Together with the agents played by Suet Lam and Stephen Au, as well as unidentified men played by Michael Tse and Raymond, all people are implicated in the dispute occurred in the hospital, which is a reflection of the society and life.

A film is an epitome of the society, in which each character has his standpoint and viewpoint. Being in an intricate interpersonal network, a small mistake might change the overall situation. As Johnnie To said, “when the story is set in one scene, to move forward the story, it requires a lot of characters and incidents to form connect with each other and enrich the content, as is the case in Expect the Unexpected, The Mission, PTU, Exiled and Sparrow. I prefer to have a group of people to develop one plot, as when they gather together, there will be different perspectives. Three depicts the story where three people with different responsibilities or intentions come into conflict with each other, as well as how they make decisions when crisis break out.


Spontaneous performance and long take

Johnnie To has always favored inspiration gained on the shooting sites and the interactions between the actors and actresses. Therefore, before shooting starts, only a story outline is available, instead of the complete screenplay, which can be quite challenging for the actors and actresses, as it calls for a high level of spontaneous performance. As the successor of Milkyway Image, Nai-Hoi Yau, executive producer of the film, should not only coordinate the shooting, but also ensure every scene reaches the highest standard. As an old partner of Johnnie To, he knows full well such shooting technique and can grow with the story and characters, presenting persuasive scenes to the audiences.

Another key scene in the film is the explosion and gunfight in the hospital. This time, Johnnie To tried a ten-minute long take and slow motion of the actors and actresses in shooting. Such innovative techniques posed big challenges for the performers and the shooting crew. Compared with the long take in prelude of Breaking News, this time the task is more complicated and difficult. As the scene involved about 200 people, all actors and actresses received body training in advance so as to coordinate with others in real shooting. Among them, major actors and actresses including Louis Koo, Vicki Zhao, Wallace Chung, Suet Lam, Stephen Au and Cheung Siu Fai, as well as the staff behind the scene rehearsed four days. Taking advantage of the wire, tracks and other professional shooting equipment and skills, the crew successfully completed the shooting, which once again demonstrate the courage and originality of Hong Kong filmmakers.


Interpretation of characters in Three

Tongqian played by Vicki Zhao


As an eminent brain surgeon, she comes to Hong Kong to study medicine at the age of 17 and gradually makes her way to the deputy dean of the department of cerebral surgery. Being persistent and proud, she has bad interpersonal relationships. From the professional perspective, she insists that the criminal be performed an operation immediately; yet the operation was repeatedly thwarted by Chen Weile, the Chief Inspector of the Crime Section on the ground of investigation. Thus the two often enter into dispute. To follow her principle, she even challenges medical ethics.


Vicki Zhao – “A stubborn and ambitious woman as she is, Tong Qian does not yield easily. Such personality enables her to become a good doctor, yet on the other hand, she is prone to go extremes.”

Johnnie To – “Tong Qian’s duty is to save the patients. As a doctor, she is expected to be calm in handling emergencies. However, people’s mood has ups and downs, and when things get out of control, we are easily to be trapped in bad mood. It is a severe test for the doctor to strike a balance.”


Zhang Lixian played by Wallace Chung

A wise criminal who is shot in the head, to escape, he puts his life at stake by making use of the conflicts between Tong Qian and Chen Weile to create favorable opportunities for himself.


Wallace Chung – “The director intended that the character should speak intensely, so I took away all the punctuations on the screenplay to make the lines sound intensive.”

Johnnie To – “In the creation of the story, we defined the character as highly intelligent and informed. As he has to lie on the sickbed most of the time, he has to intensify the personality through such powerful dialogues. It is a quite challenging character.”


Chen Weile played by Louis Koo


As the Chief Inspector of the Crime Section, he is steadfast and unyielding. When trying to arrest the criminals, he orders his colleague to shot Zhang Lixin. Zhang is then sent to the hospital. But Chen insists on finding out and capturing the accomplices, so he refuses to allow Zhang to be performed an operation under anesthesia. With such persistence, he unconsciously steps into the grey zone and goes the wrong way.


Louis Koo – “What leaves the deepest impression on me is that there are few lines for the character. Especially when I finished one third of my part, I still hadn’t say any word. It reflects that the character is in a tense state.”

Johnnie To – “My perception of the police is that they are more easily to commit crimes than the average people. They are often near the fine line of black and white and can fall from paradise to the hell just for one idea.