Thursday, March 10, 2011

Johnny To's Triad Action Cinema

Hong Kong's Johnny To is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today.  He works in a wide variety of genres, but he is perhaps best known for his action and triad-themed films such as the ones discussed in this entry.  He and his Milkyway Images production company came to the forefront of the Hong Kong film industry after British handed Hong Kong over to Chinese control in 1997.  While other Hong Kong action filmmakers such as Tsui Hark and John Woo found work in Hollywood when the Hong Kong industry seemed to be moving into a decline, To made a name for himself with films like The Mission and Running Out of Time (both 1999).  A good survey of To's career and a discussion of his status as an auteur can be found at the Senses of Cinema website

To has claimed that his strategy to keep Milkyway Images vibrant was to alternate between making films for the public and making films for the critics.  The films below are a good starting point for those interested in the films that seem to be made more for the critics and the international film festival circuit.  But I encourage you to also look at his films in other genres as well; doing so will often help shed a different light on his action films.

Mad Detective (Johnny To & Wai Ka Fai, Hong Kong, 2007, 89 minutes)
Netflix: Though Inspector Bun (Ching Wan Lau) was forced into early retirement because of his psychotic tendencies, his brilliant second sight is such an asset that he's asked to help find missing cop Wong (Kwok-Lun Lee). But the edgy Bun understandably has a hard time getting into the mind of Wong's partner, Chi-wai (Ka Tung Lam), a schizophrenic with seven personalities. Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai directed this unusual Hong Kong actioner. Netflix link.

An interesting To double-feature would be to match this film with a To film in another genre that has some similar plot elements, Running on Karma (2003).  What they have in common is a character who appears to have second-sight, but the films diverge a great deal in terms of tone and style.  Running on Karma has a wide variety of tones (from broadly comic, to romantic, to quite violent) which to a degree is typical of To's general audience films (and Hong Kong popular cinema in general).   Mad Detective, on the other hand, takes the second-sight plot device more seriously and gives it more psychological dimensions.  It's also interesting that both films were collaboratively directed by To and Wai Ka-Fai, which creates another ripple in the notion of authorship in the cinema.

Election (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2005, 99 minutes)
Netflix: With the Wo Shing Society, Hong Kong's oldest triad, on the verge of electing a new chairman, the stage is set for an all-out battle between the two leading contenders, the highly respected Lok (Simon Yam) and the hotheaded loose cannon known as Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai). When Big D suspects that he'll be passed over for the position, he threatens to start his own triad and launch a war against the Wo Shing Society. Netflix link.

Triad Election (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2006, 92 minutes)
Netflix: Hong Kong triad member Jimmy (Louis Koo) wants to go legit. But authorities ask the reluctant gangster to run for chairman and spend two years helping broker peace between the triad and the government. Now, Jimmy must become the leader of the organization he hates in order to make the life he wants for himself. Johnny To directs this stylish crime drama, which premiered at Cannes and was a hit on the international film festival circuit. Netflix link.

The Election films are truly great triad films, but you should be prepared for some intense violence, particularly in Triad Election (which is the North American release title for Election 2).  Interestingly, the films do not feature gun violence, but instead they display a far more brutal, physical brand of violence. That did not prevent the American distributors from photoshopping guns into the hands of the characters in the American poster for the film, in order to adhere to American gangster genre expectations; compare the original here with the American version here.  But the violence here has a more blunt psychological effect, beyond the spectacle of violence seen in most triad/gangster films.  Ironically, this kind of violence might actually turn off fans of the genre.  It would be interesting to read comments from genre fans in relation to this, and from people who usually avoid this genre because of the conventional use of violence as spectacle. 

Perhaps what I like best about the films taken together is that they present an epic view of the social and political changes within triad subcultre and Hong Kong culture at large while at the same time creating very vivid individual characters who evolve and change over the course of the two films.  To a degree the audience's allegiances change from the first film to the second film, and off-hand I can't think of another sequel in which we have such a different view of the key character remaining from original film.  The political commentary gets even more overt in the second film, as mainland Chinese interests begin to exert more control over the previously autonomous triads.  Ultimately the plot is very satisfying as it clearly explains how characters are punished for breaking long-established rules, but also punished for following the rules in an era when the rules are in constant flux. 

Exiled (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2007, 109 minutes)
Netflix: Set in 1998 in the former Portuguese colony of Macao, this stylish thriller from Johnny To blends spaghetti Western conventions with Hong Kong-style bullet ballets in a story about the long reach of the mob. When two hit men appear at the house of a former colleague, they encounter two ex-associates who've been sent to kill them. A shoot-out ensues -- and then the old pals sit down to dinner. Rest assured that's not the end of it. Netflix link.

Vengeance (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2009, 108 minutes)
Netflix: Today, Costello (French music and film icon Johnny Hallyday) is a skilled chef. Twenty years ago, he was a cold-blooded killer working for the mob. But when a horrific tragedy befalls the family of his daughter (Sylvie Testud), Costello returns to his old ways. Journeying from France to Hong Kong, our culinary hero prepares to serve up revenge on a host of bad guys in this bloody tale from acclaimed action director Johnnie To. Netflix link.

Exiled and Vengeance would also make a good double-feature, as they both contain plot elements that play off of each other in interesting ways, and they also demonstrate some of the consequences of international co-productions.  Unlike the Election films, here we are back in the domain of genre conventions of violence as spectacle.  The difference between these films and their American equivalents is that here we have the violence portrayed with a formal rigor and stylistic audacity that is at times exhilarating (even if you usually don't like screen violence).  Exiled in particular has some fantastically inventive sequences, so that while the plot may be seem all too typical, the stylistic flourishes keep surprising you.

The casting of the French star Johnny Hallyday and the use of English in Vengeance are consequences of To moving into the world of international co-productions.  The effects of these changes are not always for the better, but they make the film fascinating to watch especially if you have just seen Exiled.  The presence of a leader and a star (Costello, played by Halliday) significantly alters the group dynamic, but a leaderless group dynamic is essential for the success of Exiled.  I'd be curious to read comments from viewers about the differences between the two films, despite their surface similarities.

I look forward to your responses and feedback in the comments section.  --JLK

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