Johnnie To is currently shooting The Sparrow, a look at a gang of pickpockets working the Hong Kong environs. He is also preparing for Cannes with Election, an operatic take on HK indigenous criminal fraternities – the triads – that became so enormous that it split into two films before being condensed back into one. Triads have a long history in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and their complicated, quasi-historical ceremonies and rules have given them a mythical edge. Suspected of starting anti-British riots in the Sixties, the triads have long been feared by the Hong Kong government. Depicting their hand signals, ceremonies, or language onscreen results in either outright censorship or instantly earns the film a Category III rating (Hong Kong’s NC-17). Casting Tony Leung Kar-fai (The Lovers), Simon Yam Tat-wah (The Mission), Lam Suet (The Mission), and Wong Tin-lam (father of Hong Kong’s leading schlock director, Wong Jing), Johnnie To is not only insisting on authentic triad language in Election, but its poster, depicting triad hand signals, has already been banned in Hong Kong.
How did this movie originate?
It’s a film I wanted to shoot for a long time. Hong Kong triads originated from the “Heaven and Earth Society” 300 years ago, and they’ve existed throughout the time of the Ching Dynasty, the Nationalist Party, and the Communist Party today. I wanted to show this unwritten history.
But the movie is set in modern day Hong Kong?
Yes. And the triad society has always changed, based on the political situation of the era. There were the riots of the Fifties and Sixties, then there were the negotiations between the British and Chinese government in the Eighties, and then the handover in 1997. All these things have had an impact on triad society. The British government tried to crack down on the triads, and they destroyed the Walled City of Kowloon. Today, the societies are dealing with the Mainland Government. There has always been a close relationship between politics and triads.
There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of triad films shot in Hong Kong. How is Election different?
In the past, Hong Kong gangster movies have been based on issues of honor and loyalty. They are about heroes – extraordinary individuals – and no one has taken a look at why the system itself has lasted. The triad society is a bit like a religion. I’m looking at how the system works. It’s existed for so long, and people sense the power within this type of community. This film is about the selfishness of human beings when they want power badly. Triad society is a world of outrageousness, it’s out of control, but they are disciplined internally by their own set of rules. But when things get out of hand, when people are only after power and profit, they will cross the line and become inhuman.