With the crazy popularity of Hong Kong director Johnnie To, it seems that the hip, cool thing to do is to poo-poo his films, almost like people are tired of him making good films. You know who you are…….
Which is why I’m going global with this declaration: I love a Johnnie To film! That’s right, I’ve said it. And one of my favorites is Election. I just showed it in a class recently, and I realized that, like any good film I like, it’s better subsequent times around!
If you’ve gone through the Young and Dangerous series, every John Woo film he made before skipping town for Hollywood, and nearly every permutation of triad-mob story-Chinese gangster movie, your expectations for seeing something new in a triad film may be low. Even if you’ve seen Johnnie To’s other triad movies (shout out to The Mission), Election gives you what you expect in a Johnnie To movie (appropriate music (yes, I’m still referencing The Mission), domestic scenes with men, mood lighting). What I think is keen about Election is the tribute it pays to old-school gangsterism. Before you had semi-automatic weapons, you had to use what was at hand. And Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Simon Yam use WHATEVER is at hand! Back when people had, to borrow a sentiment from Miller’s Crossing, “ethics.”
That’s right, I love a Johnnie To film, and I don’t care who knows it!
I used to wonder what a triad movie directed by a woman would be like, and I got my answer with Sylvia Chang’s Run Papa Run. I like the premise of exploring triad life from a different point of view, giving us something we haven’t seen before. So Chang’s subject matter of the tensions between domestic and gang life, as well as her use of direct address to the camera by Louis Koo, was refreshing. In fact, I was really liking this film until I got to the part I didn’t like, namely, how despite his best efforts, the gang life continues to intrude on the domestic life. Which would work for me as a viewer if not for the fact that this wasn’t a story where the wife didn’t know about the husband’s activities (she meets him in the police station–she’s his lawyer). She knew what she was getting herself (and her potential family) into. What did she think was going to happen? Then, the film seems to harp on the protagonist’s failure to reform and change his ways.
I don’t know about other girls, but this girl prefers her triad movies to not insult her intelligence in this fashion. This plays into the stereotypical behavior ascribed to women, i.e. oh, I can change that man. That man is a gangster, and either you are going to be like Andy Lau’s wife in Century of the Dragon and get with the program, or be whiny about how your man is a criminal. Either let gang life take its toll, or work out a compromise: upstanding citizen by day, triad boss by night. But don’t drain the film of its inherent qualities as a film on the triads to fulfill some expectation about what you think women want to see in a triad film. I like triad films because they are triad films: loyalties get tested, people get shot.
Ok, so those who know me will not be suprised that the first film in the Liang Shan Lounge is Johnny To’s The Mission. As with most films that will wind up here, I like the film…..ok, I love the film. I love it because it is not like other triad films. Sure, you have hitmen hired to do a job for a gangster, some gunplay, and somebody who messes it up for everyone else. But the film is very…..quiet. It’s great because it assumes you’ve seen so many triad films, and it’s going to show you something different, or at least not show you what you are expecting.
I showed this film to my class, and after seeing A Better Tomorrow and Infernal Affairs, I guess they were expecting something super-spectacular. About 20 minutes into the film, I thought they were going to riot. You see, I told them that The Mission is probably one of my favorite Hong Kong films ever. As I watched it with them, for a moment I wondered if I had unduly persuaded myself that this was one of my favorite films ever. Then it happened. That scene were Anthony Wong pays a visit to a low-life whose bothering Francis Ng so much he can’t do his bodyguarding duties correctly. THAT is when I was like, oh yeah, this is why I like the film. You just don’t see it coming, and if you blink, you might miss it when it happens. Then my class understood why I liked the film so much. Yeah, I need a hairdresser like Wong.
The Mission probably initiated my love affair with To films; I like his aesthetic. I don’t know what Simon Yam and Suet Lam have on him, because they’ve been in practically every To film I’ve seen, but that’s ok. I love the Mission, right down to its cheesy theme music!
You know, I’m tired of the people who market Asian films to solely to men. They act like only men, especially men in the golden demographic of 18-35, matter. I got news, people…….women watch Asian film. And not just the fluffy romantic comedies or coming-of age, angst-ridden teen dramas. I’m talking serious triad and revenge-laden fare. The recommendation for me to watch Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy came from a Korean-American woman. So what’s up with that? Why do women like the genres of Asian film distributors and critics alike claim as the purview of men?
Well, I can’t speak for all the ladies, but I can tell you why I love films like Johnny To’s The Mission (See the Liang Shan Lounge this month), John Woo’s heartbreaking Bullet in the Head, and the Young and Dangerous series. I like the idea of brotherhood, that is, I get it. It’s not just for men. The idea that you have someone, or a group of people, who have your back. However, in most posse dynamics, there is always somebody who has to muck it up. What do you do? Well, you could whack them, or the sense of loyalty could be so strong that you are willing to overlook such, um, indiscretions. I like that tension that occurs when loyalty is one the line. Who do you trust? And who are you going to have to take out? Decisions, decisions.
Of course, there are women who just like to see people get messed up in the worst way. Me, I’m trying to cut down on the superkinetic violence found in films directed by the likes of Takashi Miike. But women are watching them. Be afraid, be very afraid.