I just saw the Johnnie To movie Election, and I was struck by its depiction of violence. There isn’t the usual staging around murders which typifies gangster movie structure. And the murders or beatings themselves aren’t gory or operatic. The contrary example I may as well be describing here is Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage trilogy, which I find interesting for being pure genre exercises. They’re very matter-of-fact, pretty low-energy, almost procedural yakuza dramas. The first Outrage was actually designed around the murder scenes, and throughout the series, they’re pretty extravagant. There’s death by baseball, horizontal hanging via car, mass shootings, explosions. It’s all over the place. And it’s all done with the expected style: black suits, shades, pistols, dignity.
The body count in Election is low, and the twisty, unfolding story cuts away the premeditation. There’s a scene where an older Triad guy is informed his son was just killed, and the pursuant cutaway has the son on motorcycle obliterated by a Mack truck. This is the second time someone gets pancaked like that, and the first is accidental. Then there’s the extended sequence where a guy is beating another guy with a log he found in the woods. Or the famous torture scene where guys are put in wooden crates and rolled repeatedly down a hill. That’s a lot of labor for the torturers. It’s not lost on me that these scenes take place outdoors, in the wilderness, unlike the geometric, fluorescent interiors of Outrage, where such business is traditionally conducted. This recalls my memory of the first half of Exiled, another Johnnie To, which had gangsters out in the desert by the time it lost me. And a log? That’s the dignity part, where this is a genre obsessed with decorum and fraternal politics and looking cool. A log is not part of the gangster aesthetic, but it is improvisational.
As it turns out, Election is a movie about a generational shift, where even the rowdiest, most dangerous Triad guy is still bound to codes of honor, and that way of life is ending. If you need to kill someone, do it whatever-style. When gangster murders are no longer expected, and they become a disruption rather than formula, the effect can be shocking. Character is suddenly revealed, and the surprise of the victim is pretty much your surprise. The machete murder toward the end got an audible “Oh, shit” out of me. The final two murders were wrenching, and I didn’t realize how much sympathy I had for those characters.
So I suppose it’s a matter of what you’re in the mood for. I like gangster movies because of the Outrage factor, that they’re essentially slasher movies with an unknown string of victims and various slashers. But the joy of slashers isn’t for their horror, and this is where a movie like Election draws its distinction.