Monday, March 13, 2006

Movie Week for 3/13/06

I got a huge shipment of Asian films this week. My review of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is up on my web site. A bunch of Johnny To movies are in the stack too, including two recent offerings.

Rumor has it that Johnnie To’s Election (2005) was cut down from a three hour running length and that it is the first installment of a trilogy. One can feel a more expansive narrative in the negative spaces of the movie and I can’t help but wonder what To might have had in mind for a longer film. The movie seems like it was made on a bet: “Can you make a triad movie without any guns?” The answer is yes, of course. Don’t be deceived by the lack of firepower, though. There’s plenty of violence in this movie. What we have here is a study in power politics among the underworld, centered around the election of a new triad chairman. The obvious comparison is The Godfather (or The Godfather Part II, given a final scene that recalls the murder of Fredo). Like those movies, Election presents a conflict between the traditional, highly ritualized (and highly self-deceiving) ways of organized crime, and the new, more impersonal, ruthless, corporate style of crime. Beyond that, though, I don’t think the analogy holds up. The Godfather movies don’t necessarily distance themselves from the gangsters they depict. They like them just a little too much. To doesn’t like ANY of his gangsters. A closer analogue would be Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity films, which Election also resembles. This is a generally somber movie, filmed in deeply shadowed spaces even during daylight hours, but in spite of that, To’s own playful cinematic anima comes to the fore. There is a long chase at the center of the movie, in which the baton that symbolizes the power of office is sought by both sides of the conflict. During this chase, the allegiances of the players change, then change again. It culminates in one of the director’s drollest set pieces, in which both combatants are interrupted by cell phone calls from their respective controllers. To loves cell phones, and this scene compares favorable with the cell phone scene in PTU. The ending of the film annihilates this (much like the ending of Running on Karma turns THAT movie into something much darker than its playful nature suggests). There is no “play” in the final sequence of the movie. It plays for keeps. To sets up some expectations with Simon Yam’s character, who is exactly the sort of charismatic criminal that might be an anti-hero in another movie. The ending obliterates this notion. This is To at his most black-hearted.

Like any self-respecting auteur, Johnnie To never throws anything away. There are echoes of To’s other movies in each subsequent offerring. Running on Karma, for instance, takes the absurd sight of Andy Lau in a muscle suit from the equally absurd sight of Lau in a fat suit in Love on a Diet. In Yesterday Once More (2004), we see the influence of To’s crime films on his romantic comedies. (Note: interested parties are advised to read no further). The film has Andy Lau and Sammi Cheung playing husband and wife jewel thieves. Like all international jewel thieves, they live a life of luxury, treating their careers as an elaborate game. The game becomes even more elaborate after they divorce each other over the split of a diamond robbery. A year later, when Cheung’s character threatens to remarry, Lau, in the best tradition of Cary Grant, re-enters her life to disrupt everything. Confounding everything is the ambition of Cheung’s would-be husband (the Ralph Bellamy character, if that means anything to you) and his meddling mother, who, it seems, is herself a thief. This sets up a curious echoing effect in the plot as scenes double each other, then double each other again. On the surface, this film is a frothy, caper film a la To Catch A Thief crossed with My Favorite Wife, but underneath, we have a variant on Running Out of Time. The final montage includes the unexpected lowering of a casket into a grave, a sight that turns the frothy comedy into a darker, more bittersweet movie.