Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 07, 2006 2:06 pm 
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Bloody game: an elegant repetition of an old routine

It may seem odd for the selective New York Film Festival to include what in many ways is a fairly standard Hong Kong crime movie, working in the familiar genre of Triad gang stories. What is new here, perhaps, if it is really new, is that not only does the main character make his choices in order to create new relationships with the Chinese mainland, but he also dreams of becoming a pure businessman, and wants his son not to be a successful gang leader like him but an attorney. Even if we didn’t see the original film of which this is the follow-up, we soon learn that the Wo Shing Society undergoes leadership changes every two years by a vote of its key members, and current leader Lok (Simon Yam) is about to finish his term. As the time comes though, Lok wants to hold onto his power, which leads to a personality change. He turns very nasty. But Jimmy turns even nastier.

Lok has to select a potential candidate amongst his 5 godsons, and Jimmy (Louis Koo) already rich from pirated porn sales, seems the best qualified to bring in new business for the Society. However, his interest is only in making money, initially that is, until he's seduced by the fact that with power, the mainland Chinese will give him more respect, and with that, the potential for more business. In fact a key mainland player tells him he cannot come back to deal with them unless he is president of the society. It is only in the hopes of becoming more a businessman that Jimmy accepts the idea of a two-year term as Wo Shing leader. But he must fight for that, because of Lok’s change of heart.

The irony is that after Jimmy succeeds, he finds he has fallen into a trap.

To what extent this has anything to do with actual events, or is a reference to the new relationships since 1997’s changeover to mainland control of Hong Kong, is uncertain. But the kernel idea of the film according to To was a police commissioner's remark to him that the criminal class would be important to the stability of the new Hong Kong. To feels that the Triad system is dying, perhaps also as some Italians feel the Mafia’s glory days are over. But as an old Arab proverb says, “Evil is ancient.” And in keeping with this principle is director To’s notion of the role played by destiny in life, which relates to Jimmy. Jimmy’s destiny comes from his birth. His father was a criminal, and he is a criminal. His plan of eventually becoming merely a successful businessman is therefore doomed, because it is not his destiny, nor will it, most likely, be his son’s.

This film was entitled Triad Election as presented, but the international title Election II is more accurate, given that this is a sequel, with the same main characters, to Election. Apparently this newer film was issued in a “sanitized version” which dwelt more on the political machinations than on the usual violence. In the version shown at the NYFF the violence was restored, and it is some of the most horrific imaginable, including as it does men chained to mad dogs (was Abu Ghraib an inspiration?) and a man who is beaten to a pulp with mallets and then dismembered with knives, his severed limbs run through a meat grinder and fed to the dogs. There is a scene in the new Scorsese The Departed where Jack Nicholson smashes Leonardo DiCapro’s already broken hand, and another when he appears with his shirt disheveled and covered with splattered blood. But that’s nothing compared to these Hong Kong Triad tortures, which are shown in vivid detail. Unlike the showy acting in The Departed the characters in Triad Election tend to speak in quick monosyllables. Then of course, Chinese is a monosyllabic language. But there are no caressing poetic effusions, no love scenes, only politics, a few hugs, and the nihilistic isolation of ultra-cruelty. Even the ganglords' wealth is shown only by their riding in big dark expensive cars.

The film begins boringly, as such films often do, with a meeting outdoors between syndicate members and officials. It is only as time goes on that the violence begins and we get the juice and momentum of a real crime movie. That also includes throwing an old man down many flights of stairs to kill him. All this is elegantly filmed; the often chiaroscuro wide-screen cinematography is impeccable, and Louis Ko as Jimmy is as handsome as the young Alain Delon. The acting is of uniformly high quality, as are the other aspects. But despite that the experience the film provides is rather routine. Godfather-esque moments notwithstanding, there is here none of the powerful characterization, the moral content, and the fierce forward momentum of John Woo. What we have here is an homage to the peak performance of a genre artist – except that by reports Election, the first film, is superior. It’s not likely that this film will make many new converts to the genre or the director.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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