Sunday, June 22, 2008

Taking Inventory as of June 22

Excluding Hole in the Head, I haven't seen that many films since May. I did see two "major blockbusters."

Contempt with Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, and Fritz Lang; directed by Jean-Luc Godard; French with subtitles; (1963)
Iron Man with Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow; (2008) - Official Site
The Ipcress File with Michael Caine; (1965)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with Harrison Ford; (2008) - Official Site
Election; Cantonese with subtitles; directed by Johnny To; (2005)
Triad Election; Cantonese with subtitles; directed by Johnny To; (2006)
Exiled; Cantonese with subtitles; directed by Johnny To; (2006)

Hole in the Head
Tokyo Gore Police; Japanese with subtitles; (2008)

The Johnny To films are part of a retrospective at BAM/PFA (Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives). I ended up buying a membership. It saves me $4 per film. I'll have to see 13 films in a year to make the membership pay off. It'll be difficult because I don't get over to Berkeley often but I get a tax deduction and am supporting their worthy cause. From their website:

The Pacific Film Archive was conceived as an American version of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris—a center committed not only to exhibiting films under the best possible conditions, but also to increasing the understanding, appreciation, and preservation of cinema through its study center, collections, and publications.

I've seen two To (pronounced Dough) films previously - Running on Karma at a IndieFest a few years back and Breaking News at the Balboa a couple years ago when it was still a rep house. At the time (I saw Breaking News after Running on Karma), I didn't realize the two films were directed by the same person. In fact, Johnny To wasn't known to me at the time. Now that I've seen three more films by To, I realize that these earlier films were different from his later works. Running on Karma was a comedy with Andy Lau in a rubber bodybuilding suit. He plays a disgraced monk working as a male stripper. He crosses paths with a female cop and then things become metaphysical. Breaking News was about a hostage situation where the police and the criminals use modern technology and today's media culture to manipulate the public's opinion of the situation. Having seen these films, I wasn't sure what to expect of these other To films. To has developed quite a reputation in the past few years so I was looking forward to them.

Election, Triad Election and Exiled inhabit the world of Chinese gangsters. Triad Election is the sequel to Election and tells the story of the rise and fall of a Hong Kong gangster. In this tale, Chinese triads elect their "Chairman" for two year terms without the possibility of re-election. It seems unlikely that gangsters would voluntarily cede power after two years but that is the premise. In Election, Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka Fai are vying for the top spot. Simon Yam's character wins the election but Tony Leung won't abide by the results. Leung's actions are unprecedented and threatens to destroy the delicate balance between the rival gangs. The key to holding power is a baton that signifies the power of the Chairman. After the election, Yam and Leung send their henchmen out to retrieve the baton - Yam to consolidate his power and Leung to give validity to his contesting the election. Ultimately, Yam gets the baton and he forges an uneasy truce with Leung...until Leung suggests that they be co-chairs. Although there is some violence, this film is about setting a mood. In that sense, it is not unlike The Godfather - a lot of men adhering to the customs of their community which includes violence.

Triad Election was my favorite of the three To films I saw in June. Set two years after Election, Yam's term is about to expire and he is seeking to break with tradition by running for a second term. Standing in his way is Jimmy Lee (portrayed by Louis Koo). Lee is a successful businessman with barely concealed triad roots. When his highway project is derailed, he is forced by circumstances and a shady Chinese government official to run in the election. This sets Yam and Koo on a collision course. This films had much more graphic violence. Koo's ruthlessness is something to behold. There is a horrific scene where he amputates the limbs from one of Yam's goons. He does it to make a point to the others that he will not let anything get in his way. The pièce de résistance was taking a meat grinder to the severed limbs and feeding the ground meat to some German shepherds. Yam and Koo deliver strong performances. Yam was the calm, voice of reason in Election who was not above using violence when necessary. In Triad Election, he has let power corrupt him and his ambitions overwhelm his discretion and better judgment. Koo is a cool-headed and cold-blooded gangster who exhibits some Yam's original level-headedness. The film sets Koo up for a different endgame than Yam so it's a variation on the familiar movie theme of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Exiled has more stylized violence than any of the other To films I have seen. It reminded me of a John Woo film - slow motion gun fights and debris flying from bullets striking wood. Anthony Wong steals the movie as one of the five gangster friends. He wears a white-wall haircut, sunglasses and a bulletproof vest and he has gangster attitude to spare. The film defies logic at times but this is really a buddy film with a redemption theme layered on top. The basic premise is that two gangsters are sent to kill one of their friends. Two other gangster intervene to stop them. Collectively, the five men were boyhood friends and they look for a way to provide for the marked one's wife and child. The rest of the film is them executing their plan with varying degrees of success.

There is one more To film scheduled - Mad Detective on June 27.

When I went to see Election and Triad Election (they were shown as a double feature), it was during the height of the Berkeley tree sitter standoff. PFA is just down the street from Memorial Stadium on the UC campus. If you are not familiar with the tree-sitters, they are a group of student/activists that have lived in some tree on the UC campus for 18 months or so. The university wants to cut down the trees to build an athletic training facility. The tree sitters want the trees to stay and the facility to be built elsewhere. They built an elaborate tree house complex and pulley system to distribute food and water to several trees. The campus police have allowed them to stay unmolested but earlier this week, police began to dismantle their treehouses and forcibly removing the protesters. There were news helicopters hovering over the campus when I cut through to get to PFA.

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