If you’re well-versed in Hong Kong cinema, then the name Johnnie To will carry a great deal of weight. Among those who know, his films like A Hero Never Dies (1998), PTU (2003), and Election (2005) exemplify the Kong Kong cinema style: as electric as they are violent. With far fewer resources than Hollywood productions, HK films are often more creative in the ways they push boundaries, inspiring generations of future filmmakers in the process. To’s 2004 genre-hybrid Throw Down embraces the conventions of HK cinema while circumventing them in the process, making it a perfect selection to join The Criterion Collection as Spine #1092. Given a 4K digital restoration and loaded with special features, Throw Down is ready to rouse a whole new generation with its unconventional tale of love and redemption.
The story of Throw Down is both simple to explain and excruciatingly difficult to narrow. Put simply, the film follows three people: Louis Koo’s Szeto Bo, the owner of a music lounge; Cherrie Ying’s Mona, an aspiring singer; and Aaron Kwok’s Tony, a Judo fighter who travels the land in search of competitors. Their lives intersect in such a way and at a such a specific time that none are the same from the meeting.
Straight up, Throw Down is my entry point into To’s work and, after hearing so much about his films from others more versed than I, I’m now prepared to go down a rabbit hole. Written by Yau Nai-hoi (Election), Yip Tin-shing (Election), and Au Kin-yee (PTU), Throw Down isn’t at all what one might expect from a film with that title from a director known for his action. The action is absolutely there with action coordinator Yuen Bun (Once Upon a Time in China III & IV) developing stunts that not only feel real in the execution but ones that beautifully convey the mindset of the characters in the process. What one doesn’t realize is exactly how much Bun and the writers communicate about these characters until the actual end of the film and, even then, it may require a second or more viewing in order to fully grasp the tale To has set forward due to the film’s delightful lack of needless exposition or flashbacks. But what isn’t up for debate is the skilled manner in which the cast, especially Koo and Kwok, present characters on different trajectories whose intersection changes them for them better. What certainly helps to captivate is how To presents each scene of the film between cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung’s (Ip Man 4: The Finale) capturing the look of their world behind the known world and art director Tony Yu Hing-wah’s (Election & Election 2) beautiful sets whose colors and costumes enhance the subconscious elements of Throw Down. There’s only so much talking about Throw Down one can do without getting specific, so allow me to say this if you’ve never seen the film before: remove all expectations of what you think a film titled Throw Down might be. It sounds like it might involve a tournament, revenge, or some other form of outward motivation spurning on internal change. This is not that movie. It’s hilarious and sweet, at times violent and uncomfortable, and entirely unexpected at near every opportunity. This may frustrate audiences looking for or used to the common tropes of action films and it will absolutely delight anyone with an open enough mind to experience something fresh and new from one of most revered directors in HK cinema.
Quick heads up that the following paragraph does include a spoiler for the narrative. So if you haven’t seen Throw Down yet, keep this in mind. I will include a second warning ahead of the spoiler.
In terms of special features, this restoration includes two materials from 2004 — an interview with To and a “Making Of” documentary with To, Koo, Kwok, Ying, and actor Tony Leung Ka-fai — and four brand-new interviews with co-screenwriter Yau, composer Peter Kam, and film scholars David Bordwell and Caroline Guo. In cases where concepts of a film might be missed by audiences, special features offer the opportunity to dig deeper with a guide making the assist. For example,
(and here’s your second spoiler warning)
I didn’t realize that Koo’s Bo was blind and nothing in the film made that clear to me due to the various distractions To set forth. The clues didn’t look like clues, they looked like tropes, which makes the film all the more brilliant in its execution. How did I finally realize this? The “Hidden in Plain Sight” featurette from Bordwell who addresses this particularly aspect in great detail, among other things. Once this bit was confirmed, I could feel other aspects of the narrative clicking into place. Guo, too, approaches the film via its themes through the examination of the look and execution of certain scenes. For instance, the fact that the big fight between Bo and Tony, two friends (by this point) literally using their skills as Judo fighters to address a perceived slight, can be viewed through the philosophical lens of the martial art as an extension of the notion that, in life, things happen over and over and that life continues on even when we want it to stop. It takes the engagement of the two flipping one over the other, rolling on the floor, and again from a basic narrative conflict and highlights an aspect of the greater theme To plays with throughout Throw Down. End of spoilers.
For those interested in the technical aspects, the liner notes of the home release state that Fortune Star handled the new 4K digital transfer. They used the original 35 mm camera negative to create a digital transfer using an ARRISCAN film scanner at L’Immagine Ritovata Asia in Hong Kong which enabled them to create a remastering in the original 2.35: 1 ratio. Additionally, the original audio is remastered from the 35 mm optical track using both Avid’s Pro Tools and iZotope RX. For those less technologically inclined, the remaster looks and sounds incredible. You’d have no idea that the film is from 2004 based solely on the reproduction of image and the audio. One can see where the filmmakers of today’s American-based action cinema have cribbed To’s work from this film alone based on its beauty and use of sound.
According to both Bordwell and Guo, To’s Throw Down is entirely unique to the rest of his vast catalogue of work. Given how fresh and convention-breaking the film is in its total storytelling, this is both exciting to learn and a little sad. On the one hand, a film like Throw Down incites a desire to travel down To’s collection to see more of what the film possesses. On the other hand, with their being such a unique experience with this film versus the others, one might be setting themselves up for disappointment. That said, there is nothing to be sad or disappointed in with Throw Down whether you’re a veteran fan or a newbie.
Throw Down Special Features
- 4K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Interview from 2004 with director Johnnie To (40:06)
- Filling in the Blanks, new interview with co-screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi (11:10)
- Finding the Pulse, new interview with composer Peter Kam (11:15)
- Hidden in Plain Sight, new interview with film scholar David Bordwell (21:04)
- Kicking Conventions, new interview with film scholar Caroline Guo (12:38)
- Short making-of documentary from 2004 featuring To and actors Louis Koo, Aaron Kwok, Cherrie Ying, and Tony Leung Ka-fai (10:57)
- New English subtitle translation
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Sean Gilman
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection September 21st, 2021.