Monday, April 09, 2007

New Film: The Wind that Shakes the Barley & Triad Election

The surprise generated by The Wind that Shakes the Barley's Cannes victory last year was not limited to the jury's oversight of the presumed winner, Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, but rather extended to its apparent incongruity with the interior orientation and sumptuous aesthetic of jury chair Wong Kar-wai. With Ken Loach's latest finally reaching the States during the past month, the above proposition has become no less quixotic as The Wind that Shakes the Barley appears to be, by quite a large margin, the most conventional official selection from last year's fest. Of course, the symbolic value behind awarding Loach, beyond what it says about those films thought to be front-runners such as Almodóvar's, is self-evidently political, and in keeping with the tenor of Cannes over the past few years, anti-American. And while it isn't much of a stretch to assume that Loach's film is an implicit condemnation of the U.S.'s prosecution of the latest Iraqi war and more broadly, its War on Terror -- particularly when one considers the references Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty make to an illegal occupying army, as well as the extremely viscerally scenes of torture the director includes -- the fact is that The Wind that Shakes the Barley sustains a large degree of ambiguity when it comes to which tactics are best adopted by those opposing the British presence.

After the slaughter of an innocent near the beginning of the film, and the subsequent beating of train officials by British officers, Loach's narrative follows a small band of Republicans as they strike back against the far-better equipped British military. At the center of The Wind that Shakes the Barley --and of the militia itself -- are brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney); the latter is in fact the victim of torture in the aforementioned scene. However, once Britain forwards a truce, Damien and Teddy split ways with the former favoring continued guerrilla violence until Ireland is completely free of the British, whereas Teddy supports a maintenance of the hard-earned peace. While Teddy certainly possesses a moral authority earned by his heroic withstanding of extreme physical torture, Damien's clear socialist sympathies -- even leading the blue-eyed Damien to speak out in protest during the parish priest's homily -- mark the character as an extension of Loach's own oft-articulated leftist politics. As such, one might say that Loach tips his hand in favor of Damien's radicalism, though it is Damien and not Teddy who ultimately meets the greater tragedy -- though Teddy is by no means immune from the tragic either (given especially that he is Damien's brother). Hence, there seems to exist a futility to Damien's radicalism within this context, though it is likewise clear Loach does not endorse the alternative.

Joining The Wind that Shakes the Barley on New York screens later this month -- April 25th to be exact -- Johnnie To's Triad Election (a.k.a. Election 2) also shares with Loach's film a screening at last year's Cannes festival (vehimantly protested by the Chinese government) and as that parenthetical should indicate, political aspirations. In To's case, the enemy is Beijing, which is, as his narrative will make clear, the biggest syndicate of them all. Triad Election, as its sequel-obscuring U.S. title indicates, treats Hong Kong's underworld election with an unwilling, thirty-something tycoon Jimmy (Louis Koo) as the presumptive favorite. To be sure, Jimmy makes it quite clear that he has no interest in becoming the "biggest gangster" inasmuch as he is only interested in "making money." However, if one wants to be a businessman in Hong Kong -- and more pointedly as To suggests, China -- one needs be a gangster. In fact, while said balloting prompts extensive violent machinations as we are compelled to expect from the triad genre, it finally becomes clear that real threat to independent Hong Kong businessmen are not the triads at all, but Beijing. Indeed, China intervenes subsequent to the elections, demanding that centuries of tradition be discarded (for a result that will allow them to control the underworld of the former British colony).

Ultimately, the Triads are powerless against the Chinese, producing a message that may be far less sexy -- and less likely to secure hardware on the French Riviera -- than anti-Americanism, but one that remains a great deal more courageous. In fact To joins Tian Zhuangzhuang (and the latter's 1993 The Blue Kite) as a fearless critic of Beijing, thus reinvigorating a moribund national cinema. Moreover, while perhaps lacking the directorial pyrotechnics of his 2004 Breaking News, for example, Triad Election nevertheless features a great deal more visual inspiration than does The Wind that Shakes the Barley: for instance, in the director's staging of triad conferences in a pitch-black setting, thus removing everything but the visually essential from these meetings, there seems to exist a move toward abstraction in Triad Election that is on par with his genre-reversing The Mission (1999) -- and which matches his thematic revisions of genre. In other words, while Triad Election is every bit as indebted to a tradition of popular filmmaking -- albeit to the Hong Kong action film rather than the Anglo period biopic -- To shows an ambition in Triad Election which is largely absent in Loach's sympathetic portrait of the I.R.A. If only Wong was as brave heading a jury as he is making films (not that I still wouldn't have preferred Climates or heavy-favorite Volver).

1 comment:

chezhian said...

hi Mic,
your blog is great.
Iam a student of world films watching and analysing.the list of film in your blog is nice.