Now Playing! Johnnie To’s Crime Wave

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A scene from 'Election' (2005), dir. Jonnie To.

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, before film noir festivals and Tarantino wannabes sated San Franciscans’ bloodlust for stylized cruelty, Hong Kong action films were our drug of choice. John Woo emerged as the most exciting HK director through a series of flashy gangster shootouts that led to a lucrative stint in Hollywood. But for all the visceral pleasure of Woo’s crime flicks, they were pretty shallow. It was left to Woo’s prolific peer and successor, Johnnie To, to mine the genre for societal, political and familial insights.

SFFILM and SFMOMA’s latest three-weekend Modern Cinema focus, Johnnie To: Cops and Robbers, concludes this Thursday through Sunday with a bang -- or rather, a volley. The renowned director and producer takes the stage Aug. 3 for a lengthy conversation with SFFILM executive director Noah Cowan, followed the next night by Election and Triad Election (aka Election 2), To’s acclaimed, ambitious studies of a powerful gang adjusting (that is, increasing its profits and influence) after Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China in 1997.

Still from 'Life without Principle.'
Still from 'Life without Principle.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)

To will be on hand Saturday for The Mission (2pm) and Exiled (8:30pm), though one wishes he (and Francis Ford Coppola) would hang around to riff about the influence of The Godfather (4:30pm). His S.F. visit wraps with an appearance Sunday afternoon with Breaking News (2:30pm), leaving his fans to bathe in the bloody, haunting morality plays of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (5 p.m.) and To’s Life Without Principle (8:15pm). In the movies we love, crime and conscience are thick as thieves.