by HELEN GEIB
The Indianapolis International Film Festival came through in a big way this year with a Johnnie To triple feature: Election; Election 2; and Exiled. There are many reasons why I go to the movies every week. One of them is that very occasionally, every once in a while, I leave the theater energized with an overwhelming feeling of physical and spiritual well being. You’ve heard of runners’ high? I experience moviegoers’ high. I walked out from the triple feature last night on a movie high and I haven’t come down yet.
To has long been my favorite director. My love affair with Hong Kong cinema began in 1999 when I saw his A Hero Never Dies, The Mission and Where A Good Man Goes in Chicago at the Siskel Film Center’s annual Hong Kong film festival. In subsequent years, the festival gave me screenings of Love For All Seasons and Fulltime Killer. This year I saw Election and Election 2 (and if I’m offered a third chance to see them in the theater, you can believe I’ll take it). Movie high? Every time.
Like most successful Hong Kong directors, To is prolific. Unlike most, his work has attained an astonishing level of consistent excellence. Festival screenings and DVD releases have given me the opportunity to see all but two of the more than 20 films he’s made over the last ten years, and it’s a nearly unbroken string of wonderful movies. He’s equally adept at action, triad drama, suspense, heroic bloodshed, romantic drama, comedy and romantic comedy.
Election and companion work Election 2 are essentially two parts of a single film. The titular election is held by a powerful triad organization, whose “bosses” convene every two years to elect a leader from among their group. Election focuses on one hotly contested race between two bosses, Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai). This is Hong Kong and the triads; the campaigning is corrupt, vicious and bloody.
Election is an exciting movie about the power struggle between Lok and Big D and the shifting alliances and conflicting loyalties swirling around them. It’s a fast-paced story about outsize personalities and colorful rituals, with dynamic performances, impressive action set pieces and dark humor. It is also an incisive examination of organized crime in contemporary Hong Kong. Election powerfully de-mythologizes triad culture through its story and imagery.
Election 2 begins two years after Election at the start of the next election cycle. Lok and the other bosses take a secondary role in Election 2, which focuses on the up and coming, younger generation of triad leaders, characters who played important supporting roles in the first film. Principal among them is Jimmy (Louis Koo), who represents the new face of organized crime. He joined the triad to make money and wants to take his business legit. He has intelligence and aspirations, and that makes him useful to the organization – and the Chinese “security” forces that operate in the shadows and may ultimately be the puppet masters.
The story and themes of Election are continued in Election 2, but with a different emphasis. Election puts a triad organization under the microscope. Election 2 pulls back to look at the triads within the larger context of a modern Hong Kong inextricably linked – politically, economically and socially – to China. The old autonomous days are gone. People who can’t recognize that, who cling to the old ways, will die with them.
The character drama is the heart of Election 2, and Koo anchors the film with his remarkable performance. The periphery is filled with suspenseful, thrilling and darkly comic incidents. All of the acting is stellar (a hallmark of To’s films), and the many characters fully realized. The music is effective and memorable. Election 2 is an even more powerful film than Election, and brings the story begun in the first film to a deeply moving conclusion.
Exiled is an equally exhilarating, but very different film. Although the principal characters are again triad members, the film shows little interest in the political themes at the center of Election/Election 2. It is instead an ultra-contemporary re-working of the heroic bloodshed film, the indigenous Hong Kong genre best known to Americans through the films of John Woo.
The story concerns five men, childhood friends and former triad “brothers”, who reunite for a few days under strange circumstances in Macau. What happens next is surprising, dramatic, exciting and funny, sometimes all at once. Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung, Lam Suet and Roy Cheung star. Simon Yam plays the triad boss. Josie Ho co-stars as Nick Cheung’s wife.
Exiled features intricately choreographed and increasingly spectacular gunfights that put the virtuoso movie making skills of To and his production company on full display. The gunfights are stunningly beautiful and heart-pounding exciting. I can’t find any way to describe them without falling into effusions. Marvelous as the action is, Exiled is never just about the guns. The gunfights alternate with intimate, character-driven scenes characterized by evocative, delicate gestures and spare dialogue. The performances are excellent, especially Wong and Ng’s. The emotional drama is potent.
I can’t do justice to the splendor and bravura of the filmmaking and performances in these films. This triple feature was a wonderful moviegoing experience, one I never thought I’d get in Indianapolis. Thanks, IIFF!