The Reeler


April 25, 2007

Election and Triad Election

Double trouble for fans of Johnnie To's revisionist gangster genre vehicles

Johnnie To cranks out fine-tuned action films with the regularity and gem-like precision of a Hollywood studio-era craftsman. Since forming his own Hong Kong production company in 1996 (Milky Way), To has focused on reenvisioning the gangster film, creating swiftly-paced, self-reflexive (and reflective) genre vehicles. Film Forum will be showing two of his best beginning on April 25th: 2005’s Election, and the 2006 sequel Triad Election (a k a Election 2). Another 2006 To offering, the superb Leone/Peckinpah homage Exiled, will be released later this year by Magnolia.

Election, the first part of the diptych, is a propulsive relay race of a thriller, set off by political infighting after a new chairman of Wo Shing -- one of the oldest Triad gangs -- is elected. Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), the flashy clotheshorse, bribes and cajoles for votes, while Lok (Simon Yam) opts for business casual dress and humble glad-handing while ladling on back-to-tradition rhetoric. The latter’s flattery convinces, and once awarded with a two-year term, he awaits the dragon inlaid baton that symbolizes his power. The bitchy D absconds with it, however, and the race is on for its retrieval, while the police and the gangs try to avoid a full on turf war. It’s a master class in parallel editing, with cutter Patrick Tam (a noted director in his own right), bouncing between the two sides with grace and impeccable timing -- most notably in a jailhouse scene during which he contrasts how each perp sheds his clothes (and reveals his personality).

As the baton switches hands from thug to thug, loyalties shift, the pace quickens and the wit sharpens (peaking during a long beating where dueling cell phone calls broker a truce). The film is all tension and no release; the fear of violence stays everyone’s hand, a Triad version of mutually assured destruction. Everything explodes, however, with the emergence of Jet (Nick Cheung), the quiet underling of Lok, whose snagging of the baton unleashes a stunning knife-fight set piece in the streets of Hong Kong. To has a preternatural feel for where to place the camera; every angle is conceived to dispense the maximum amount of information with the least amount of flat foot (to paraphrase the great film critic Manny Farber on another precise genre worker, Howard Hawks).

Triad: Election is its predecessor’s mournful twin brother. Where Election posits a continuity with the Triad societies of the 17th century, Triad: Election exposes that organization as completely decayed, corrupt and essentially controlled by mainland Chinese business interests. The film’s tone reflects this shift, announced by the astounding violence that ends the first Election. Rather than facilitate the narrative with crisp cross-cutting between multiple characters, Triad Election coagulates around the figure of Jimmy (Louis Koo), a minor player in the original, who is shown taking business classes. School has paid off, for in the opening shot of Triad, the camera pulls back from the flooded landscape of Guangzhou and cuts to a blueprint in Jimmy’s hands, who, along with his pirating operation, has become involved in Chinese land development. The line between economy and crime has become irretrievably blurred -- a moral morass that soon draws Jimmy under.

Convinced by a Chinese security official that Triad leadership would aid his business goals, Jimmy aligns himself against Lok and runs for the chairmanship. The blood spills with impunity as both men abandon any notion of tradition to get the top spot; elders are beaten, enemies are tortured and betrayal is the coin of the realm. To utilizes more long shots to emphasize the characters’ isolation, framing them against a calm brook or lingering restlessly in a restaurant. The laughs are bitter and surreal, with the portly Lam Suet donning a clown mask and getting stuffed into a coffin for being distracted by his girlfriend. Morbidity abounds so that when horrors really ramp up as the election approaches, they land not with shock, but rather the burnt-out resignation that this is the way things are done now.

The film ends with a trio of partings, both physical and emotional: between Lok and his son, Jimmy and Jet; and more subtly, Jimmy and his wife. All three involve a precise choreography of turned backs and rejections inside the widescreen frame, shutting the characters off from the society that educated and nurtured them and loosing them upon a mercenary world that will likely devour them.

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