Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gritty February movie discussion: Johnnie To's "Election"

Most films I know about organized crime in Hong Kong are from a very specific school of filmmaking. This is the world of John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Wong Kar Wai, the great postmodern stylists of Asian pulp cinema. Slow motion and gun-fu, dangerous stunts, and soft focus and bright lights – these all hold a special place in my heart, as I am both a graphic designer, and also a sucker for the inane. However, they didn't prepare me for a very different experience: the experience of seeing Johnnie To's Election.

Hollywood has imported a lot of these Hong Kong directors and turned them into "foreign film" icons here in the states. As they've discovered higher production values, huge teenage male audiences, and Hollywood's uncritical romanticization of Asian cultures, their aesthetics have shifted to accommodate us. I have no complaints about this, except that somewhere in my soul, I have slight pangs of guilt over how easily I'm won over by Hollywood's representations. Some part of me realizes I'm seeing an American construction of Asian culture, painstakingly repackaged for the American love of violence.

After all, even in our own movies, we automatically associate crime and law enforcement with violent confrontation, physical fights and gunfights carried out in city streets. We've only recently begun to rethink this association, as shows like The Wire and The Sopranos show us how crime might really work within the American commercial and judicial networks of intrigue. Hong Kong cinema, especially imported, has a similar affliction, having been taken over by kung fu and bloody violence. And like the aforementioned shows with American crime stories, so movies like Johnnie To's Election are finally starting to offer a different picture of violence in Hong Kong's criminal underground.

If you go into Election without being prepared, you might be surprised at how patient you need to be, and how closely you need to listen (or read the subtitles). This criminal underground isn't tagged with the classic icons of the Yakuza, like tattoos and personalized handguns... nor does it have the glorified swagger of American mobsters, who always strut around in black suits and drive vintage cars. Johnnie To's Triad members are old men, playing a boys' club game of politics. Their power is exercised through promises, loyalties, and contacts. Their crime isn't physically violent – it's financial and structural.

It's interesting to note that in the whole film Election, no gun even appears, much less being fired. Johnnie To has explained this as a concession to reality, saying "No one shoots guns. It's the way gangsters really behave." The DVD cover is actually wildly misleading in this respect, showing a cluster of modelesque gangsters, all brandishing firearms.

This is one of Johnnie To's nods to reality, along with his treatment of Triad ritual and politics, and his respect for the unstable nature of loyalty in a competitive environment. It's difficult to find, in Election, any traditional narrative rise and fall, because the characters are all clearly improvising and making subtle power plays, acting on ego, instinct, and complex risk-benefit calculations. However, once you finish the movie, you'll probably be able to look back on it and discern its trajectory. What seems to drive Election the most – what most directly dictates its conflict and its resolution – is the story of consolidation and purification of the Triad, the story of its inevitable ritual purging.

After all, what does Big D represent? He represents a lack of respect, and an alien capitalist instinct, threatening to infiltrate and restructure the Triad institution. The threat he posed by being elected was simply the danger of change, the anxiety that would come from having an upstart chairman who doesn't play by the accepted rules. However, once he's rejected, he becomes far more dangerous. The desire to split apart the Wo Shing is a poignant one for the leadership, and they ensure that everybody has a stake in the outcome. Big D is a force of disunity and instability, and right up til the end of the film, he can't neutralize his own ambition enough to integrate into the Triad structure.

The core plot development, the film's turning point, is the long chase after the Baton, through mainland China and into Hong Kong. The baton itself represents the unity of the Triad, being a pseudo-mystical, semi-phallic fetish object for the Uncles. However, more importantly, Lok wins the chase by gradually assimilating and consolidating all the support that Big D might have relied upon. He depends upon Fish Head, his loyalist, and uses his contacts to hire Kun. He also activates Jet, who has an agenda with Big D, and finally, he convinces Jimmy to hand over the baton and complete the relay. By activating this structure in his favor, Lok demonstrates the key role that diplomacy plays in the Triad power structure; by making his baton-bearers his godsons, he cements his power structure with familial loyalty.

This theme may be part of Election's "meaning," but it isn't given to us on a silver platter, or sold to us in monologues and arbitrary symbolism. Johnnie To may be a stylist, but in Election, his flourishes are subdued within the narrative. I can remember exactly three notable breaks with reality:

  1. The baton itself is just enough of a fetish that it becomes imbued with mystical significance; the film doesn't break with physical laws, but for the time it takes to get the Baton to Lok, it becomes an object of exaggerated spiritual importance.

  2. The flashback that accompanies the Triad ritual in the middle of the film is the most obvious moment of fantasy. For a moment, we're given an insight into the history that the Triad works so hard to evoke.

  3. During Big D's final moments, a massive crowd of monkeys gathers around and stares at him. On one hand, they're probably just residents of the park. On the other hand, in the context of this moment, they become silent witnesses to Lok's inhumanity. Their actual symbolic significance is debatable, but for a moment they become far more than just monkeys.
These three minor breaks with reality stand in for the multitudes of stylistic techniques that other directors rely on: slow motion gunfights, doves flying majestically into the sky during death scenes, characters bathed in hallucinogenic neon light with musical cues. Augmentation has become a rule, and few directors are really interested in trying to play a different game. We can't call Johnnie To a true minimalist, but we can definitely give him credit: he follows a strong realist rubric, and he uses his stylizations sparingly, in service of the broader themes of his work. This reservation is how you maximize the effectiveness of a film for people who are ready to give it some critical attention.

Grittiness: 7

What this movie lacks in urban stylization, drug use, and firearm violence, it more than makes up for in determined realism. The cruelty isn't as lethal as we've come to expect from crime movies, but it's often nastier and more plausible. And in Johnnie To's Hong Kong, a place of old men and intrigue, you may not get a slow-mo bullet to the back of the head, but you're definitely gonna get stabbed in the back... sometimes more literally than others.

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