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February 24, 2006

Two by To


Running on Karma/Daai Chek Liu
Johnny To & Wai Ka-Fai - 2003
Mei Ah Entertainment Region 0 DVD


Election/Hak Seh Wui
Johnny To - 2005
Panorama Entertainment Region 0 DVD

Johnny To is one of the handful of Hong Kong filmmakers I am trying to get better acquainted with. The first of his films that I saw was The Heroic Trio which starred Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and the late, wonderfully hilarious Anita Mui. To's filmography lists both films on which he received solo director credit as well as those films where he shared credit. Based on what I have seen so far, To's solo films are consistently better.

Whether working solo, or in collaboration, To is esteemed in Hong Kong, where his films very consistently are nominated for the Hong Kong Film Awards as well as Hong Kong critics prizes. Election has been nominated for several Hong Kong Film Awards (disregard the typo on the year). While To is working with familiar subject matter, the Hong Kong Triads, the film is stylistically very disciplined and muted. The change in style is announced immediately with the guitar score by Lo Tayu. Beginning with the guitar solo, To presents a very domestic scene of older men sitting around talking, while their wives are playing mah jong in the background and children are occassionally running around. It isn't until the police enter to arrest the men for suspected Triad activity that one gets the first clue that Election is about gangsters.

What makes Election even more interesting is the context. The film is an indirect criticism of the handover of Hong Kong to the Peoples' Republic of China in that while self-rule has been curtailed in the Hong Kong government, the Triads have made a point of having elections of their chairmen for about one-hundred years. One could say that when elections are outlawed, only outlaws will have elections. To focuses on a Triad facing internecine conflict when Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) attempts to undermine the election of Lok (Simon Yam). To concentrates more on the relationships between several generations of leaders within the Triad, and the twists and turns in expressing loyalty to certain people as well as the group in full.

While the film does have scenes of violence, To either films it from a distance or darkly lit. This choice is to keep Election more cerebral than visceral, to keep the viewer from easy identification with the characters. As the film progresses, one sees that To is critical of the Triads and the ideals they claim to represent, especially in regards to "family". Election is a very smart, character driven film.

Running on Karma is somewhat similar another film To made with Wai, My Left Eye sees Ghosts. In the newer film, Andy Lau is a former Buddhist monk with the ability to see peoples karma. By literally bumping into an escaped killer, he gets involved helping policewoman Cecilia Cheung catch some criminals. Lau feels conflicted about how to save Chueng after seeing her karma several times. Although he won a Best Actor award, Lau goes through most of the film wearing a bulked up body suit. Adding to the distraction of seeing Lau appearing with an outsized physique, are several nude scenes showing off his fake body. The concept of karma and references to Buddhism are relatively generic here. As a Buddhist, this kind of stuff is admittedly of major interest to me. Even within the context of the film, some parts of the narrative don't make sense. The best parts of Running on Karma involve a contortionist killer who can hide in very small spaces. In other words, what is requested here is the suspension of disbelief.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 24, 2006 06:23 PM