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A Hong Kong answer to the Godfather Trilogy • Muenzinger Auditorium

Probably no three words in movie culture conjure a more specific image than the following: Hong Kong gangster. Fairly or not, they evoke the great body of work by John Woo and his imitators and the directors he imitated in the early '80s. These gents had a great deal of fun with the old conventions invented in Hollywood in the '30s, and their tropes were so seductive they've become world cinema tropes: men flying through the air in slow motion with an automatic pistol in each hand, excess spillage of blood, explosions and car crashes everywhere, a conceit that action sequences were like musical numbers and a movie paid no attention to interior logic but, like musicals, merely engineered their way to the next blast-o-rama as easily if illogically as possible.

But the Chinese, when few were looking, morphed. Their gangster pictures became less frenetic, more character-driven, more naturalistic, less extravagant, more ironic. This was most obvious in "Infernal Affairs," the dense drama that was adapted for the American screen as "The Departed," and the argument is closed with the arrival of the superb "Election."

The film, by director Johnny To, a veteran of the Hong Kong gangster scene, follows the lead of "Infernal Affairs": dense, demanding concentration, lacking any romantic (but plenty of sordid) violence, extremely involving and rewarding of careful attention. In many reviews, I've seen them compared to the "Godfather" films of Francis Ford Coppola, presumably because they are about a competition for what is essentially the Godfather job in the clan. But To's two movies are more like "The Sopranos." The comparison is based on their sense of character: Each of the many gangsters has a specific personality, sometimes a little screwy, and egos are in play as much as serious tactical consideration.

The movie follows the plotting and counterplotting as various killers, commandos, cops and wives come into play. It takes you into a world and makes you believe it so hard you want a cigarette, a beer and a really cool pair of shades. (S. Hunter, Washington Post)


Thu September 27, 2007, 7:00 & 9:00, Muenzinger Auditorium

U.S., 1999, in English, Color, 103 min, Rated R

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