RIC MEYERS: Triad Tekkonkinkreet
“Sh*t runs d*wnhill.” Those words of wisdom/warning were first spoken to me back in the mid-1980s, at lunch on the first day I started consulting for CBS-TV in California. The statement came back to me several times while watching this week’s offerings (as well as many, many times over the decades as I watched businesses run by productive people flourish, and companies run by “flawed” folk perish).
In order of release, there’s Triad Election, which arrived in stores last Tuesday. It’s directed and co-produced by Johnnie To, today’s greatest Hong Kong filmmaker, whose eclectic, exceptional ability at a variety of genres has given the international film community some of the greatest movies of the last two decades, including Heroic Trio (superheroes), Lifeline (firefighters), Running Out of Time (cops ‘n’ robbers), The Mission (bodyguards), Fulltime Killer (assassins), Love on a Diet (romantic comedy), Running on Karma (existential mystery), Breaking News (media wars) and Throwdown (judo comedy/drama).
The last few years he’s joined the ranks of Coppola, Scorcese, and Chase (sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it?) by filling cinemas with multiple award-winning Chinese gangster sagas. Election (2005) played like a Hong Kong big-screen version of The Sopranos minus the final scene black-out. Election 2: Harmony is a Virtue (2006) was something else again. To paraphrase To (sic) from “The Making Of” doc: Election was the set-up. Election 2 is the pay-off.
So Tartan Asia Extreme Video made a tough decision. Many people who liked Election might see Election 2. But everybody who loved Election 2 would definitely go back to check out Election. So rather than release the two movies in order, they decided to retitle Election 2 “Triad Election,” release it first, and then label Election its “prequel.”* For what it’s worth, I, personally, think they made the right call … although I might have gone a step or two forward in clarifying the issue.
The movie is great – not just for its stylish violence, psychological insight, and filmmaking prowess, but because of the aforementioned pay-off, which seems to be: China’s impersonal desire for order might be more cruel than Triad carnage. This was a bold, brave statement for To to (sic) make, but, as he also says during “The Making Of” featurette, he wanted to acknowledge the dismissive changes made since China’s takeover of Hong Kong’s lease. The city was like a seduced beauty that the government seemed to forget about as soon as its seduction was complete. All signs point to Shanghai now becoming the favored mistress, with Hong Kong the forgotten wife.
Now, if only anyone who’s never seen To would know it was him saying it. In their rush to release Triad Election, Tartan neglected to add i.d. subtitles, so while an actor, producer, and director make interesting statements, you have to guess who they are. You also have to forgive the spelling and grammar mistakes in the subtitles that remain. You may also wonder why the only other interviews are with minor (albeit fine) actors in the cast. All can be forgiven (even the photoshopping of a gun into star Simon Yam’s hand on the DVD cover), however, since the film’s so good. But, also because the film is so good, it would have been a lot better if the Special Features had included bios and filmographies of its major players. In terms of Asian films released in America, context should be king.
Which brings us to Tekkonkinkreet, a Japanese anime based on the black and white manga, directed by a transplanted American – coming to a store/website near you on September 25th. This remarkably colorful, symbolic, film fills the eye, but has a slightly rougher time infusing the heart and mind. If it succeeds, it’s more likely from the structure and inspiration of Taiyo Matsumoto’s original manga and the stunning visual details of animation director Kubo Masahiko than any “down-hilling” from novice director Michael Arias.
Although the “making of” doc takes pains to point out that Arias spent a decade trying to turn black and white into a film, it also clearly shows that it might not have taken so long had the ex-computer graphic software developer and motion control cameraman not been such an archetypically tentative, uncommunicative, precious, esoteric type. In fact, the Arias of the DVD’s extras makes Tim Burton look like Kevin Smith.
Beyond the actual film’s entertainment value, the DVD is worth getting for one of the best examples of what happens when a movie doesn’t turn out to be what the filmmakers envisioned. George Lucas, et al, can refer to their personal disappointment, but never has that sinking feeling been so well captured as during the DVD’s “Director Michael Arias’ 300-Day Diary,” where the man’s passivity clearly infects his crew to the point that their first assemblage screening results in near creative catatonia, followed by artistic hysteria.
This “making of” mini-feature is the centerpiece of the special features. The interview with Arias and his soundtrack duo known as Plaid is tolerable, and the audio commentary is carried by the more animated (pun intended) writer and sound effects designer, but it’s the aforementioned “Behind the Scenes” diary that should be required viewing of all hopeful animators. There’s a reason Pixar makes such great films: look who’s at the top of the hill. Thankfully for viewers of Tekkonkinkreet, Arias was up there with Matsumoto and Masahiko.
*This is not the first time an American distributor has monkeyed around with an Asian film series’ order. Jackie’s Chan Armor of God 2: Operation Condor was released by Miramax on DVD as Operation Condor. Only then did they release the original Armor of God here as Operation Condor 2.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.