Friday, May 09, 2008


Whenever I come up against a genre I'm not too familiar with—especially from an Asian director—I need research no further than Twitch. With the Pacific Film Archives poised to launch their Johnnie To retrospective "Hong Kong Nocturne" May 29 through June 27, 2008, I've decided to focus on what my colleagues at Twitch have to say about Hong Kong's favorite son and—though they comment on only five of the nine films in the PFA retrospective—they cover the most recent. Hopefully, the Twitch readership will comment on the rest. I've never seen a To film. I'm not exactly sure why I've resisted other than general comments I've heard about the limitations of the genre. I'm hoping to decide one way or the other what I think about To's films come July.

Yau doh lung fu bong (Throw Down, 2004)

PFA's Jason Sanders writes: "The spirit of Akira Kurosawa lingers in To's loose-limbed, light-hearted update of Sanshiro Sugata. Perversely refusing to update that 1943 film's judo-obsessed plot, To assuredly creates a current world where judo is still the hottest thing in Hong Kong's nightclubs, arcades, and triad dens. Ex-judo champion Szeto has exiled himself from the frenetic high-powered judo world, whiling away his nights in a drunken stupor until a chance for redemption arrives in the youthful forms of feisty Tony ('I'm Tony; I want to fight,' he chirps) and aspiring singer Mona. A few hundred judo fights later, and nearly everyone is still left standing, albeit with their arms in slings. Taking the usual gangster milieu and lightening it up until it's nearly parodic ('the gentle way' is the Chinese idiom for judo), Throw Down is arguably To's most pleasurable, accessible film, a tribute to the kind of old-fashioned storytelling in which tales of outlaws and drifters still have room for redemption, humor, and sentiment."

Opus included To's Throw Down in his write-up from the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival. His response was somewhat exasperated. "I've really, really tried to get into To's films," Opus explained but concluded that—at their very best—To's films "exhibit flashes of brilliance, but they always fall flat for me by the end and leave me confused as to why this guy is so revered in some circles. And at their very worst, they're, well, really bad." He situates Throw Down in the latter camp. "[F]or the life of me," Opus admits honestly, "I can't understand why I continue to watch his films. They always dangle a little carrot in front of me, promising something cool and exciting, but they almost always disappoint me in the long run. Throw Down just continues the streak, only moreso."

Hak Se Wui (Election, 2005)

"It's politics as usual, literally," Jason Sanders writes for PFA, "when a triad society attempts to nominate a new boss in this slow-burn, atmospheric gangster thriller that starts off like a near-documentary study and winds up on the far side of Shakespearean tragedy. Two men vie to become the new leader of the Wo Shing Society, with the becalmed, forward-looking Lok (Simon Yam) the front-runner over loose cannon Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who looks and acts like he stumbled out of a Kinji Fukasaku film. Neither can truly be boss, though, without the gang's symbol, a centuries-old baton hidden in China. Both men send their minions to find the baton, but must contend with other gangsters angling for their own means. As fortunes rise and fall and allegiances shift (sometimes in the middle of one cell-phone call), Election moves from gangster film to tragicomedy to political satire, and boasts a finale that puts politicians' claims of being 'family men' and 'fishing buddies' to an alarming end."

With Election and Triad Election—which Opus watched in tandem—he experienced an aesthetic turnabout. Reiterating his initial complaint that To's movies are often "full of poorly-realized, unsympathetic characters, storylines that end up going nowhere, and flashes of absurd humor that feel more forced than anything else (and certainly aren't very funny)", Opus conceded that with Election and Triad Election all that "completely changed." Both films "delve directly into the heart of the Hong Kong Triad culture and then proceed to drive a stake through it" and—when viewed as one long epic—the two films become "a perfect blend of To's excellent sense of style, fully-realized characters, and a plot that ends with several gutwrenching twists." Further, Opus notes the films are not just about the Triad world, but comment pointedly on China's problematic relationship with Hong Kong, especially in Triad Election wherein the Chinese are cast in almost as bad a light as the Triads themselves.

Todd—who caught Election at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival—echoed Opus's conversion. Likewise frustrated with To's earlier work because of its "unfortunate tendency to favor flash over character", Todd kept returning to To's work "in the hopes that one day he'd put all the pieces together, that he'd find some content to fill out the form, believing that when that day came he'd turn out a masterpiece." For Todd, Election is that masterpiece. A scathing indictment of the honor system of the Chinese triads, To examines their "shifting loyalties, the betrayals, the corruption and greed, the gap between their noble roots and current realities." "With its focus on character and the corrupting lust for power over action it deserves comparison to some of the world's great crime films, The Godfather included."

Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai (Triad Election, 2006)

Triad Election, aka Election 2, is a "black-hearted sequel" according to PFA's Jason Sanders who writes that the film "finds nattily attired younger henchman Jimmy, who attends both shootouts and economics lectures, now being browbeaten into running for triad boss during the new 'election.' In addition to a familiar threat (the current head of the triad, who's not about to relinquish power), Jimmy must also contend with corrupt mainland Chinese officials, and soon his Brooks Brothers suits are getting a bit stained with human blood. Reinvigorating the triad genre the way The Sopranos did for the mafia, Triad Election seems hyperrealistic in both its concerns (the gang members spend more time politicking and jostling for money than killing one another) and aesthetics (when the fighting does occur, it's with clubs and knives, not guns, and death is certainly not easy). A portrait of twenty-first-century Hong Kong and China so attuned to Darwinian capitalism that it could be Mao's worst nightmare, the film was suitably banned in China, and all publicity materials seized and burned."

Likewise catching Triad Election at TIFF06, Todd observes that "Singly either one of these films are a stinging slap in the face of the triads, together they make for a fascinating study both of triad culture specifically and of the corrupting and degrading nature of power in general. There is no doubt about it," he concludes, "these films are To's master works."

That praise seems to have carried uniformly across the board. Logboy likewise found the sequel "thoroughly captivating" with its "astonishing violence, primarily impressive because of its tangible sense of tension and fear, likely to leave many shaking or shocked at the end." Twitch likewise referenced interviews with director To at Coming Soon and Cinema Strikes Back. When both films screened at the Film Forum, the critical wake was nearly jubilant. At the New York Times both Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott weighed in favorably. Scott, in fact, twice.

Fong Juk (Exiled, 2006)

By the time Exiled rolled around, To's fanbase had expanded exponentially. Sanders synopsizes: "A gang of hitmen descends on the former Portuguese colony of Macao in Exiled, a leisurely tribute to the bullet ballets and male-bonding reveries of Sam Peckinpah that finds To slowing down to enjoy the talents of his cast. Reuniting such familiar faces as Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, and Lam Suet, To presents the simple tale of 'retired' gangster Wo whose hope for a new life with his wife and baby is about to be thwarted by the appearance of other hitmen, two of whom are there to kill him, the other two to protect him. In the standoff that ensues, the hit men forget to hit, and become mere men: dinners are cooked, homes restored, and memories savored, but gunplay is never far away. An engrossing portrait of gunmen as ordinary individuals (give or take their great fashion sense), Exiled excels through its appealing cast, whose easygoing camaraderie gives the film a joy all its own."

At this point the Twitch team were warmed by To's "hot streak" and only too happy to post the film's trailer. Todd caught Exiled at the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival, dispelling the rumor that Exiled was a sequel to To's The Mission. More, it was a reunion of The Mission's cast playing different characters. As far as Todd was concerned, Exiled had everything going for it: cinematography ("a seemingly endless stream of iconic images"), action ("there are shots in this film that will leave your jaw on the floor for their sheer inventiveness and style"), script ("the plot line clever and engaging while never losing site of the people that drive it"), and cast ("feels like nothing so much as a group of old friends getting together to play and having a simply fantastic time while doing it").

Mack, who caught the film at the 2006 Toronto International, "highly recommended" it: "It completes a perfect blend of humor, action and heart as it spins its violent tale." He observes that this "Eastern Western" is redolent with the lone, sad guitar solos of Guy Zerafa's musical score. Opus, in turn, though occasionally fearful that To was going to drop the ball with Exiled, pulls it off by "brilliantly bringing about an already-satisfying film to a fitting conclusion."

Sun Taam (Mad Detective, 2007)

"The laconic Lau Ching-wan," Sanders writes, "Hong Kong's answer to Robert Mitchum and reigning Best Actor of the Year in the Hong Kong Film Awards, returns to Johnnie To's side after a seven-year absence with this bizarre tale of a 'mad detective' whose psychotic visions enable him to solve crimes. Inspector Bun (Lau) puts himself in the victim's place, literally, to find criminals; whether zipping himself into a suitcase and being tossed down the stairs or repeatedly stabbing a dead pig, he's rather unorthodox, yet successful. Years later, Bun has retired, but a new case emerges that requires his unique gifts. Bun's hallucinations provide perfect excuses for To's visual inventions and madcap stagings, most notably Bun's multiple personalities that are pictured as actual separate characters. Part police thriller, part surrealistic black comedy, with an homage to Welles's Lady from Shanghai mixed in, Mad Detective 'reaffirms To's status as an action master' (Manohla Dargis, New York Times)."

In his review from the 2008 Udine Far East Film Festival, Todd confirms To's continuing hot streak. Mad Detective is "an entertaining, surprising piece of work anchored by a powerhouse performance from Lau." "Compared to the fire that drove the Election films and the pyrotechnics of Exiled," Todd writes, "the far more character oriented Mad Detective can feel much smaller than it really is. The emphasis here is not on style, camera tricks or action—though there is a healthy dose of that—but on the portrayal of a man lost in his own mind and taken on those terms Mad Detective is a resounding success." Twitch provides the film's trailer.

Judging from this assessment, the first half of the Hong Kong Nocturne program suggests attention should be paid to the ground work set for the successful heat of To's later works. If anyone has thoughts on The Mission (1999), Fulltime Killer (2001), Running on Karma (2003)—which one friend has told me is the one To film not to miss—and Breaking News (2004), I'd love to hear from you.

Cross-published on Twitch.


girish said...

Michael -- To is one of those filmmakers I've been meaning to dive into for ages but haven't, for no good reason. Brian left a comment on my blog a couple of years back, saying that A Hero Never Dies was his favorite To.

Michael Guillen said...

Unfortunately, that's not part of the series. If I haven't had enough To by July, I'll add it to my rental queue, if available.

Anonymous said...

I've written about a few To films on my site. Definitely recommend Exiled as To's best. I also liked the to Election films, and Breaking News. Of films not listed, I would recommend Running out of Time and Heroic Trio with the wonderful cast of Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, and my beloved Anita Mui. I didn't like Running on Karma too much, and my feelings towards Fulltime Killer may have been stilted from trying to watch the film on a little screen on a Swissair flight from Zurich to Tel Aviv.

Michael Guillen said...

Well, that will do it, I think. I mean, I run into that problem every time I commute between Zurich and Tel Aviv.

Thanks for the recommendations, Peter.

Anonymous said...

Exiled is my favorite of To's films, most likely because it's the only one that I've seen in a theatre which always defines a personal cinematic experience for me. Amid all the stylized violence and political metaphor was a heart to these characters. The last shot in which you see an old group photo of the assassins cheeringly grinning together for the camera or the scene in which a brutal gun battle is cut short to eat noodles was just wonderful.

Michael Guillen said...

August, thanks so much for stopping by to comment. I'll make note of the images you've singled out.

The comments section in the cross-posting at Twitch has been quite vociferous. I feel well-armed now to sample the retrospective.

Further recommendations still encouraged.

Sachin said...

I love both the Election & Election 2 films. Intense and perfect. In fact, one can see a cyclic pattern in both films, like the Godfather movies where while trying to cause change, an individual becomes the very person he tried least to be (will make sense after seeing the films).

Exiled has some gorgeous shots -- the opening & final gun fight sequences are pure poetry.

I actually liked the idea of Breaking News and how the gangster and cops play a cat/mouse game by using the media. But the movie sort of tapers off near the end.

An older To movie that I enjoyed was P.T.U -- a series of events that unfold in a single night when a cop loses his gun. A lot of the elements in that movie have found their way in other To movies, even in a tiny portion of Election.

Running on Karma is one of those To movies that I least liked. An attempt at comedy which I didn't enjoy as much.