Sunday, January 16, 2011

Netflix Queue: "Election/Triad Election"

Three thoughts about Johnnie To's Hong Kong gangster duology, "Election" and "Triad Election," coming up after the trailer...

* If you have ever been a lover of American ganger movies of the last 40 years — the "Godfather" movies and/or the work of Martin Scorcese — you will find much to admire here. Certainly To, a director whose work goes back to the Shaw Brothers days, is a fan of those movies. You can spot homages throughout these two flicks: A fishing trip that ends in murder, Moe Greene-style broken glasses, a "Casino"-style burial in a field, as well as lots and lots of ritual. But these movies take place in a very Hong Kong-China context, and some of the themes that To wrestles with are an ocean away from what you're used to.

* These movies are also very different from each other. Both concern the war for leadership in a Hong Kong "triad," but each is show differently. In the first, the war becomes a race to see who can first get their hands on the Dragon Head baton -- signifying leadership of the triad -- turning "Election" into a kind of "Ronin"-style chase movie. The characters don't matter so much as the action, which is muted but intense. The winner of the war, Lok, only begins to reveal his the character beneath his calm at this end of the first flick. "Triad Election" reveals how power-hungry he has become -- but like "Godfather III" concerns itself primarily with the character of Jimmy Lee, who wants to go legit, but can't.

* The key to a gangster movie, of course, is violence. What's remarkable about these movies, though, is how ugly the violence is. We're not presented with the grand opera and beautiful assassinations of American gangster movies. Death is blunt, tactile and messy in these films. One scene in "Triad Election" -- one of the most memorable in all of cinema since the woodchipper scene in "Fargo" -- features Jimmy Lee literally doing his own butchery. (Literally.) If there is a moment of beauty mixed with violence here, it comes when a doomed gangster watches his son literally flee from him and the violence he has brought into their lives: I got a bit verklempt there. 

These movies deserve to be watched back-to-back. America hasn't been graced with a truly great gangster film, probably, since "Goodfellas." Taken together, "Election" and "Triad Election" are probably the first great mob movies of the new milennium. 

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