Saturday, August 30, 2008

Battle Royale, Battle Royale 2, PTU, Triad Election

I've finally seen Battle rowaiaru (Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku, 2000), about a future Japan whose economy has collapsed, whose students have become delinquent, whose government has passed the 'Battle Royale' act (where high school classes are kidnapped and put on an island to try kill each other off), and it's shockingly bad. Not so much for the violence (Takeshi Kitano, who has a role in this picture, has depicted far more disturbing fare in his own films), as for the sentimentality, basically a bunch of high school kids keening over their best friends' corpses and confessing long-hidden crushes to each other--much more effective upchuck material than the various shootings, decapitations, and skewerings sprinkled throughout the picture.

More amusing are the various villains, sociopaths with generally better weaponry (they're armed at random--supposedly--from semiautomatic weapons to pot lids) who smile maniacally before murdering their fellow schoolmates. Most interesting of all is Kitano, a hunched sad sack of a man with a game show host manner (and in fact he may have been cast for that very reason) when either planting a knife in a former student's forehead, or explaining the rules of the game to his former class (the two main ones being: keep off the constantly shifting danger zones or the necklace around your neck explodes; kill each other off until one survivor is left or on the third day all necklaces explode, killing everyone). Kitano's character ultimately reveals himself to be more pathetic than everyone else and the biggest sentimentalist of all; the game (which doesn't make a lot of sense, when you think about it) less about control of the out-of-control younger generation (why the sadism? If it's meant to strike fear in their hearts, why keep it a secret?) than it is group therapy (with rather permanent results) for an emotionally repressed Japanese public.

Batoro rowaiaru ll: Chinkonka (Battle Royale 2: Requiem, Kinji and Kenta Fukasaku, 2003) is, if anything, even worse than the first movie. Yet another class is kidnapped (don't parents wise up to their kids disappearing on field trips?) and their assignment is to assault an island being defended by the survivor of the first picture, now the head of a terrorist group.

The rules make even less sense (why are they still bothering with danger zones? And what's all this nonsense about pairing them off such that if one dies, the other dies too? Don't they want the terrorists group eliminated?); the battle sequences are directly lifted from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998); the sentimentality is stickier than ever. Worse of all, they've replaced Kitano with some nondescript character who would rather chew scenery than anything else (he tries too hard to be scary, and the results are more laughable than menacing).

Johnny To's PTU (2003), about one night in the life of a police tactical unit, should go wrong in so many ways it generates its own kind of suspense--how long can one go without an actual shootout? How many clich├ęs (from the cop's stolen gun to the hostile officer from a brother agency to the furious gang lord seeking revenge for the death of his son) can be introduced and given To's unique spin on the matter, a combination of cynical visual wit and sharp behavioral observation (he's like one of those Chinese acrobats with fifteen plates whirring in the air at once)? And how much style can To generate to sustain our interest for a full ninety minutes?

One might call this an expansion of the paper ball soccer game in To's Cheung fo (The Mission, 1999), where To and his characters seem to be riffing to pass the time, only the calm is deceptive (I can't help but feel that Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985) is also an inspiration--a film about a night spent in Soho that's really a night spent in Hell). Turns out the faint air of corruption hanging in the streets (the affairs of triad and police officers are uncomfortably intertwined) affects everyone, infects everyone, moves them and motivates them in a thousand little ways; by the end of the picture very little has happened, yet somehow everything has changed. Excellent 'action' film, where the tension is in the anticipation of violence, not its actual realization.

And finally there's Johnny To's Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai (Triad Election, 2006), the sequel to his previous film, where To pretty much realizes his ambition to create a Godfather like epic set in Hong Kong.

The sequel occurs three years later, when yet another election for the new triad chairman of the Wo Shing Society (the oldest and biggest in Hong Kong, operating in the Tsim Sha Tsui district) rolls around; this time Lok (Simon Yam) wants to stay in power (sounds familiar, anyone?) and is up against one of his rising lieutenants, Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo). Lok's lines sound tired now (he tells each of his prospective candidates that they will be the next chairman, they have his support), presumably from the strain of managing his empire, and from the guilt of watching his son fall into gang influence (one wonders if the boy hadn't been seriously traumatized by past events). Jimmy, however, has his own drama: he wants to go legitimate, and establish a substantial foothold (in his case a gigantic housing and business development) in mainland China (every American corporation's wet dream, incidentally, at least before the recent crisis; nowadays their immediate goal is to stay above water).

To's style here is I'd say subtler, quieter, more haunting--he's capable of images that stay with you for days (maybe the rest of your life): a closeup of Jimmy's face as his boat glides slowly, silently away from another (where a man is being prepared for a watery burial); a shot in profile and without sound of unspeakable things being done to a bound man in a dog kennel; a shot of Jet (Nick Cheung) coming out of nowhere and running for his life from a gang of thugs wielding meat cleavers (again as in the first no guns are used, and the resulting violence is considerably more gruesome)--how and why we don't know, and never find out.

Yam's Lok was the magnetic central figure in the first film; Koo's Jimmy is no less compelling. He's a businessman, first and foremost, and in the beginning, standing on a high hill viewing the vast fields he intends to transform, the imagery is almost biblical--Christ on a mountaintop, being offered the world. To gives us hints of what goes on in Koo's mind, how the various frustrations and obstacles before him aggravate his stubborn determination to scheme, deal, hack, kill his way to his goal. When at one point he suddenly stands up and takes matters literally in his own hands, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck--not because I was seeing a psychopath losing control but because I was seeing a driven man, a man who could very well be myself, the pressure of time and need and money forcing his arm into action.

It's a subtle, near-subliminal performance worthy of comparison to Al Pacino's in The Godfather Part 2, and it's to To's credit that he lets Koo's mask of cool slip only twice: first in a horrific torture sequence straight out of--well, I'm not sure what exactly inspired it, but I wonder if To's action-film contemporaries (Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, John Woo) are capable of thinking up such acts (Danny Lee, maybe). The second is, if anything, even more horrific--a demonstration of power and its application so absolute it leaves you with jaw dropped, hands clutching armrests--yes, Jimmy's dreams are realized (we even have the obligatory scene of the happy man hugging his expectant wife), but at what cost? A great film, I think, this and its predecessor; possibly the two together represent To's most ambitious work to date--even his masterpiece.

3 comments:

Mhicko said...

Hello Sir. I'm Mico Manalaysay and I'm a film student in UP Diliman. I would like to hear your thoughts on the presentation of the "Bayan" in some of the Philippines' canonical films. I was thinking of conducting an email interview with you sir. Here is my email addres, mhicko@gmail.com.

Regards,
Mico

rex baylon said...

hi Noel,

I totally agree with you about how overrated Battle Royale is and question its reputation as one of Fukasaku's cinematic masterpieces. It is quite sad that a master filmmaker like Kinji Fukasaku will be remembered for such a second rate film. I much prefer his films from the 60's and 70's. The yakuza films that Fukasaku made with Bunta Sugawara are not just entertaining genre pieces but they are biting social commentaries on Japanese society after the American Occupation. And unlike Battle Royale his yakuza films don't rely on sheer spectacle to keep your attention. Not only that but I think that the 5 volume Jingi Naki Tatakai(Battles Without Honor And Humanity) series that he adapted and directed easily knocks the Godfather Trilogy off its pedestal for greatest gangster epic. What's your opinion of his other work, sir?

Noel Vera said...

I haven't seen his other work! I'm only familiar with these movies. I'd like to see them, sure; the question is of time, and availability.

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