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Interview: Johnny To

Revenge is a dish best served raw in Triad Election, director Johnny To’s (Breaking News, PTU) latest film and the second installment in his Wo Sing trilogy. Against the backdrop of a Hong Kong newly returned to mainland China, Mr. To has fashioned a political commentary disguised in gangster’s finery. His protagonist, Triad underlord Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), yearns to assume a place in the legitimate business world but his talent for generating cash makes him invaluable to Hong Kong’s leading crime syndicate.

Revenge is a dish best served raw in Triad Election, director Johnny To’s (Breaking News, PTU) latest film and the second installment in his Wo Sing trilogy. Against the backdrop of a Hong Kong newly returned to mainland China, Mr. To has fashioned a political commentary disguised in gangster’s finery. His protagonist, Triad underlord Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), yearns to assume a place in the legitimate business world but his talent for generating cash makes him invaluable to Hong Kong’s leading crime syndicate.

Lee initially demurs when various forces within the Wo Sing encourage him to seek the top spot in their organization. Finally, a Hong Kong police chief forces Lee’s candidacy through an artful blackmail: the young mobster can free himself from his criminal past and attain his ambitions only by agreeing to lead the triad as a political puppet for a five-year term. Over the course of the film, we follow Lee as he combines Mafia ruthlessness with MBA cunning to attain the position he dreads.

In Triad Election, To refrains from giving us the clichéd Hong Kong done to death in so many recent gangster films, that chromium-plated, neon-lit nightmare of some deranged capitalist spinning out on an opium bender. Instead, his kinetic camera spends much of the time probing the underbelly of the metropolis, a seamy, overcrowded warren, redolent of stale urine and fresh despair, of alleys strewn with garbage, of rotting fish and the stinking, sodden arm pits of laborers who work long hours for short money at jobs they are too numb to hate. He shows us a money-crazed society and confirms what we always knew: that it is the glad-handing politicians with their mediocre minds, their perverted sense of entitlement, their insatiable avarice and their power lust who are the real gangsters. They despise and envy Jimmy Lee for his artist’s soul and conspire to drag him into their gutter. They won’t be satisfied until he’s nothing more than a common thug, just like the rest of them.

I met with Johnny To over drinks (Perriers, mind you, we were both working) in a Manhattan hotel and discussed his passion for this off-beat political drama rendered into a crime story.

Richard Lally: You have a story in which a man must become more of a criminal to escape his criminal past. Was it this paradox that drew you to the material?
Johnny To: On the narrative level, I personally feel that when you become a gangster, you are a gangster for the rest of your life, no matter what else you become. You cannot escape this fact. That’s the way it is. But I also feel that there is an aspect of the film that is just ordinary life. In life, you can’t really expect what is to come. When you don’t want something, it often comes to you. That’s just the way life is.

Cultures clash in this film. Jimmy is an elegant businessman who’d rather wield a pen to sign a contract than pull a gun. His rivals are brutalists, nothing elegant about them. I noticed that the soundtrack too, often clashed with the images you presented. The music would be ethereal, some classical work, playing against kinetic, violent action. Why did you make that choice?
JT: I wanted the music to represent the theme that the government has overwhelming and yet subtle power over people which seeps through the movie, and that’s what I wanted the music to do, to seep through. So it’s never about the violence, but instead I wanted to evoke this sense of power and this sense of fear. I wanted this movie to have this mood which is dark and gloomy almost because Jimmy is facing this uncertain future, so the music had to capture that sense of fear in this age of change.  

RL: There are also brief moments of touching romanticism between Jimmy and his wife. It’s as if we receive a taste of it, a hint of who he really is, but it’s kept from us just as Jimmy keeps it from everybody else…
JT: I am glad you noticed that. This part of the film does not get much attention because the focus is about the changing times for Hong Kong, how the mainland is coming and it’s all going to change from the days of being a colony to being a part of China. Secondly, in Hong Kong, the gangster’s life is separate from their family life. So much of the time the family members are not involved at all in the gangster’s world, so that subtly contributes to the tension of the film.

RL: You show us just enough for us to know that Lee is crazy about his wife and when she does get involved in that one climactic scene in the restaurant, we feel the sense of violation, an announcement that the other side is no longer playing by the rules…
JT: That’s it exactly! It is a violation and the point of this entire scene is to see how Jimmy assumes his responsibilities. He as a gangster will sort it out the gangster way and his motive is to get the woman out of the car for her safety.

But she makes another choice, and chooses direct involvement to support her partner. And that’s a powerful moment. The emotions that pass over Jimmy’s face. You can see he’s glad the danger has ended, but he doesn’t want her so directly involved. He’s not happy about the outcome.
JT: For me, that’s a scene that also shows how human beings react. Under those circumstances, the woman, the wife, will do something out of the ordinary. Of course, the scene would be very different had she been a man because then the assassin would have been quick to kill this person. But because this is a woman, the violence is shifted.

RL: And I noticed that much of the violence in the film is suggested. We rarely see over acts of violence depicted onscreen. Some of them play like the shower scene in Psycho with flashing images, arms moving, weapons flashing, but we never see the wound open, just a flurry of activity and then blood not gushing, but oozing or the splash of blood on Jimmy’s clothes. When you use the force of suggestion, you not only have to trust the images, but don’t you have to trust the audience to get it as well?
JT: Throughout the film I wanted to show that sense of fear we talked about, fear on the part of these characters. They are lost, they are being pushed into doing things they don’t want to do and, in some cases, have never done. The violent scene involving the dog and the decapitation, part of the process for me was to actually experience the feeling of that scene for the actors involved.

During that scene, I felt like the room kept getting smaller, you know?  (To nods and laughs) And it grew hotter as the scene grew more intense.
JT: Thank you. That’s the sense of fear I wanted to portray. 

RL: Your characters’ actions also tell us far more about them than the dialogue conveys. So that even if no one has seen the earlier film, the behavior is revelatory. Jimmy is the elegant businessman but when he gets his hands bloody, his body language announces that he’s done this before, he’s at home with this even if it repels him…
JT: For me, that’s why I love cinema because that is how powerful imagery can be and I try to express as much as possible through the image, including character. I think my next film Exiled will be an even more extreme example of how much can be communicated through images rather than just words.

Well as John Ford once said, “They’re called motion pictures, for a reason.” Dialogue may be the most overrated commodity in film. Unless it’s bad dialogue…
JT: Yes, I hate dialogue (laughs) 

RL: That’s why we’re getting along. I watch a film the other day, The Red Circle with
Alain Delon, and there was no dialogue for the first 9 minutes or so and I sat there thinking, “This is great. All movies should be like this…
JT: I know that film. Very good and the opening is powerful without words.

RL: Did any American films influence you? During the murder scene on the staircase, there were echoes of Kiss of Death and the relationship between Jimmy and Lok recalls the relationship between Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, the old-time thug vs. the modern boardroom gangster,  in I Walk Alone. And the muted lighting in some scenes evoked The Godfather. Are you familiar with those films?
JT: Growing up and now, I watched a lot of American films so naturally there has to be some influence but it isn’t conscience and I don’t shoot a scene thinking of any specific film. I love many of the American films from the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties a little bit, the Nineties (laughs heartily), I just can’t really get the Nineties.  I really hate movies that have evolved into a technology.  And Sam Peckinpaugh is a director who influenced me a lot. You must see Exiled, by the way, which is a tribute to his era. And, of course, a major influence on me was Akira Kurosawa.

RL: In your film, we know that if Jimmy accepts the police captain’s terms, he is going to be wealthy and powerful and, eventually, attain the business success in the legit world that he craves. But the life he envisioned for himself and his family will be over. He must compromise. Don’t artists often find themselves in the same situation as Jimmy?
JT: You’re right. Once Jimmy accepts, his life will be over and this will haunt him like a curse. As far has artists having to make that compromise (laughing), I haven’t reached that stage yet where anyone has given me that choice, so I can’t say for sure. But, yes, obviously many creative people have to make that choice at some point in their lives. That creative drive is always there but you must find work to express it and stimulate yourself and that can involve compromise. Whether you accept that is your choice.

Tartan Films releases Triad Election exclusively on April 25th with a wider release to occur in the weeks to come.

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