Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Johnnie To's Election, which has little in common with the U.S. presidential election

Posted By on 10.30.12 at 12:49 PM

This looks so much more badass than my polling place.
  • This looks so much more badass than my polling place.
If you feel cynical about cutthroat politics undermining the U.S. presidential election, perhaps you'll feel better about our system after watching Johnnie To's Election (2005), in which rivals literally cut each others' throats. The film concerns a long-standing Hong Kong triad whose chairman of 30 years is about to retire; according to organized crime tradition, this means the high-level bosses must elect a new chairman from among their ranks. The election goes smoothly enough: To depicts it as a peaceful process, closer in nature to a dinner party than an impersonal poll. (It's one of many pleasant meals in this director's body of work.) The problems arise afterward, when it's announced that nice gangster Lam Lok (To regular Simon Yam) just barely won the vote over the hotheaded Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai). The latter then instigates a gang war, which halts all triad activity and leaves a number of men dead or in jail. Feel free to insert your own Bush v. Gore joke here.

Compared with Sparrow (2008) or Life Without Principle (2011), which play at the Gene Siskel Film Center in a few weeks, Election is one of To's more subdued films. Much of the action takes place under heavy shadow, and the director minimizes his use of balletic camera movement, for which he's justly revered. The emphasis is on gangland ritual as opposed to action (though the second half has a fair amount of the latter too), so that one comes to understand the rivalry between Lok and D in societal rather than interpersonal terms. Near the end of the movie, To stages a sequence roughly 1,000 years in the past to show where and why certain triad traditions originated. It's an audacious moment, as it stops the narrative momentum just when it's cresting to ensure the viewer recognizes the historical legacy that's threatened by infighting.

How often does this sort of thing happen during a U.S. presidential election? So much campaign rhetoric focuses on the future of the country rather than its past. I wonder if Americans might think about voting differently if they were forced to read about, say, the Revolutionary War or the Constitutional Convention of 1787 at least once during the campaign season. Or if it were mandatory that everyone read Whitman's "Election Day, November 1884" before casting his or her ballot. Familiarity with shared history doesn't stop To's gangsters from going to war, but it provides them with a deeper sense of purpose than maintaining or disputing the current leadership.

Read more from Election Flashback Week, this week's Variations on a Theme:

"Screw this election—let's talk about past elections all week," by Tal Rosenberg
"And in this corner, the Rainbow Coalition!" by Kate Schmidt
"Remembrances of election past—the throbbing heart of freedom," by Michael Miner

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