Throw Down 

Shot in 2004 by Tarantino favourite Johnnie To, Throw Down is a visually stunning and idiosyncratic homage to the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It’s highly unusual for a Hong Kong movie in that it focusses on judo and the action might not be as spectacular as that seen in kung fu or wuxia films, but Johnnie To captures his fight scenes brilliantly. His cast underwent rigorous training before the shoot and To avoided the use of special effects and stuntmen. Hallelujah.

It’s also unusual in that the fights have nothing to do with just knocking an enemy senseless. Arguably, they’re not even about winning, the combatants being more concerned about taking on and learning from a worthy opponent. This echoes the beliefs of Kanō Jigorō, the idealistic founder of judo, who insisted that his sport should not be viewed as just a technique for self-defence and that personal enlightenment was as vital as technical proficiency.

Throw Down tells the story of a very highly regarded ex-judo champion Szeto Bo (Louis Koo), who owns a bar called After Hours (likely a nod to the Scorsese film of 1985). His life now completely lacks the discipline required of a top-class athlete.

After Hours in Throw Down

Rather than visiting the dojo, his time is spent downing pint after pint of San Miguel. And when he’s not drinking himself into oblivion, he’s likely visiting gambling dens where he bets high stakes hoping to win enough to pay off his debt to local moneylenders.

Slowly, we begin to learn why Szeto has likely ended up such a mess. Spelling it out here would be a massive spoiler here, so I won’t.

Luckily two people come into his life who do believe in him. One is Tony (Aaron Kwok), a carefree and cocky young judo enthusiast who dreams of taking on Szeto, a fighter he has always admired. The other is a young Taiwanese woman Mona (Cherrie Ying). A wannabe entertainer and material girl, Mona shows up at After Hours to audition as a singer. Both attempt to help Szeto pull himself out of his current stagnation and reignite his lust for living. This isn’t going to be an easy task.

Aaron Kwok and Cherrie Ying in Throw Down

The film does threaten to veer into sentimentality at times, but there’s much to enjoy including a highly complicated sequence with the camera darting across four adjacent tables with a host of characters in conversation at the same time. This ends with the kind of bar room brawl that would put anything in an old Hollywood western to shame.

Look out too for one of the best ever chase scenes in any movie – a near magical sequence with Szeto and Mona making their getaway through the neon drenched streets of Hong Kong, a gang of thugs in pursuit. Mona has just stolen the money lost by Szeto and as she runs, notes fly from her grasp, the thugs stopping every few strides to help themselves to the stray cash as it lands.

There are flashes of humour too such as the scene with Szeto and Mona hiding together inside a toilet cubicle and I liked Brother Savage (Cheung Siu-fai), an unconventional gangster who can be childish one minute, chilling the next.

Louis Koo in After Hours

A film about redemption, To is very proud of Throw Down, even if it divided critics. Maybe more than any of his works, it best expresses his philosophy that despite any setbacks, life is always full of hope.

Throw Down is now available as a blu-ray on the Eureka Masters of Cinema imprint. Special features include a new and exclusive feature-length audio commentaries by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) and Ric Meyers; a lengthy interview with director Johnnie To (40 mins); a Making of Throw Down featurette and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film.

For more on the release click here.