Johnnie To is one of the most prolific filmmakers currently working in Hong Kong and has been described as the heir apparent to stalwarts like John Woo and Tsui Hark. To directs an average of two to three movies a year and possesses an incredibly diverse filmography. He's dabbled in a mix of genres that include melodrama ("All About Ah-Long"), comedy ("My Left Eye Sees Ghosts"), action ("The Heroic Trio"), and the crime film ("Running Out of Time"). I can't say that I've been a big fan of To's work. Many of my fellow HK cinephiles have raved about films like "Fulltime Killer", which I thought was rather middling. I did, however, enjoy "The Mission" and "Breaking News", along with the over-the-top "Heroic Trio" and its sequel, "Executioners," which To co-directed with noted choreographer, Ching Siu-tung.
"Election" is a different slant on the oft-seen gangster pic and is probably To's best and most mature film to date. The movie was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes in 2005 and netted multiple wins and nominations at the Golden Horse Awards and Hong Kong Film Awards. The success of "Election" led to a sequel, "Election 2" which was released in the states as "Triad Election." Tartan released the sequel earlier in September and you can read the here. Now, Tartan has chosen to release the original, and far superior, film.
Most audiences are likely familiar with Woo's brand of heroic bloodshed films. Movies where the heroes are gangsters with a code of ethics, a pair of .45s, and a long trenchcoat. None of that is present in "Election." Gone is the theme of male bonding and brotherhood. Gone is the blazing double-gun shoot ‘em up scenes. In fact, not a single gun is even seen in "Election." What you get is an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings and politics of the criminal underworld. "Election" actually received a Category III rating, the equivalent of an R in Hong Kong, not because of any violence or sexual situations, but because of its in-depth portrayal of the Chinese Triads. That's something taken very seriously by ratings board in Hong Kong.
"Election" takes a very episodic approach to the story with each act like a separate story. The first act of the film starts with the announcement that the Wo hing Society is set to elect a new leader. The current boss, Whistle (Wong Chun), is at the end of his two-year term and all the bosses are meeting to vote for their new chairman. The two leading candidates are the cool, laid back Lam Lok (Simon Yam), who is well-respected for his no-nonsense business-like demeanor. The other candidate is the volatile, loudmouth Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai). Big D is nothing more than a thug in suit, constantly running his mouth. He attempts to win the election through the simple means of bribery and bullying. In a smoky den, the Uncles meet and debate the merits of each candidate over a fresh pot of tea. Under the influence of the elder Uncle Teng (Wang Tian-lin), the bosses elect Lok.
Big D throws an absolute fit. He grabs the two bosses who he bought off and stuffs them into crates, then kicks them down a steep hillside. He orders his men to drag them back up so he can do it again. Next, he menaces Whistle into giving him the Dragon's Head Baton, a status symbol that signifies the power of leadership. Without the Baton, Lok cannot be officially recognized as the new leader. Feeling pressure from two sides, Big D and the other bosses, Whistle orders one of his men to take the Baton and go into hiding. This is where the second act comes in as the bosses send their various lieutenants and henchmen to bring back the Baton. Meanwhile, the cops have rounded up most of the bosses and locked them in jail to avoid any violence on the streets. Ironically, this action leads to the bosses learning that Big D plans on starting his own organization and waging war against the Wo Shings. Once this comes to light, allegiances are switched back and forth at a frequent rate. Some of the seconds wind up fighting each other to bring the Baton back to the same person. In one darkly comical scene, a right-hand man, Big Head (Suet Lam), defiantly vows that he will never relinquish the Baton even as he's being savagely beaten by another gangster named Kun (Lam Ka Tung). Both men receive a phone call from their respective bosses at the same time telling them to cooperate. Big Head hands the Baton over as Kun simply shrugs, "Sorry."
"Election" really plays up the traditions and rituals of the Wo Shing Triads that have been passed down from generation to generation. They have their elaborate oaths and ceremonies that all have to take part in. Much is made of Big D's complete disregard for such traditions and many of the younger generation question the elders' devotion to these ancient practices. Through the readings and recitings of these oaths of loyalty, To points out the hypocrisy and irony of how the Triads were originally formed to combat a corrupt government. He also comments on just how ingrained the Triads are to modern society by showing the police in a rather cynical light. The cops are just plugging the holes in a leaky dam. They know locking up the bosses means nothing as they'll be free to go in a matter of hours. The cops can only act as a stopgap measure to prevent outright war in public.
The biggest drawback to "Election" is its large cast of characters. You really do need a scorecard or family tree-style chart to tell everyone apart and who works for whom. It helps that almost everybody has a colorful nickname like Double East, Long Hair, Four Eyes, Sparky, Long Gun, Fish Ball, and Uncle Cocky. Out of all the supporting cast, the stand-out has to be Jet (Nick Cheung), a tenacious pitbull of an enforcer. Jet is efficient in his brutality and never backs down whether its battling against a half dozen gangsters armed with machetes or being dared to eat a ceramic spoon.
As Lok, Simon Yam turns in one of his best performances. Aside from playing the flamboyant sociopathic Judge in Ringo Lam's "Full Contact" or his work in "Bullet in the Head", I haven't been too knocked out by Yam. Here, Yam really gets to stretch his acting muscles. Whle Lok takes a backseat to the rest of the players in the first half of the film, he gets a much bigger role in the last half. Yam's character slowly and subtly reveals a darker side to his outer laidback personality. The film's epilogue ends on a particularly brutal note on Lok's part and the traumatic experience to his son, Danny (Jonathan Lee), is a plot thread picked up in the sequel. Even better is the performance of the lesser known of the Tony Leungs, Tony Leung Ka Fai who is not to be confused with the more famous Tony Leung Chiu Wai from "Infernal Affairs" and several Wong Kar-Wai movies like "Chungking Express" and "2046." Leung is a blast and turns Big D into a petulant child constantly throwing temper tantrums when things don't go his way. He does come off as a bit of a cartoon character, but that's just part of the fun.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is clean though the colors could be a little stronger. Still, no major complaints.
The audio is presented on three different tracks Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. All three are in the film's original Cantonese language with optional English and Spanish subtitles. The film is dialogue heavy so your system probably won't get much of a work out. What effects and score the film has sound really good, especially the driving blues guitar (with a dash of Eastern flavor) that dots the movie.
Interview with Johnny To is a fascinating half hour interview with the director. He discusses a variety of topics such as the Triads and their history, filmmaking, the Hong Kong film industry, and the effects of the Hong Kong changover that are still felt to this day.
You'll also get three other interviews with actors Simon Yam, Wang Tian-lin, and Tony Leung Ka Fai. They each discuss acting, making the film, working with To, and the Hong Kong film industry.
The Making of Election Documentary is a short seven minute behind-the-scenes featurette that's essentially of EPK quality. There is making-of footage mixed in with interviews with the cast and crew as they discuss their characters and shooting the picture.
Finishing out the extras are the film's theatrical trailer and trailers for other Tartan releases such as "Triad Election", "Divergence", and Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy.
I'm sure others will disagree with me when I say the current Hong Kong film scene has been a little stagnant in the past few years. I can't say churning out empty, overproduced films like "Gen-Y Cops" or "Dragon Squad" is helping any. It does make one appreaciate it even more when one finds a veritable gem amongst the wreckage. "Election" is the best Hong Kong film I've seen since "Infernal Affairs." There are rumors of a three hour cut of "Election" and I wished that had been the version released. Again, there are so many characters that most of them cut the short end of the stick when it comes to screen time. "Election" really had the makings of a gangster epic ala "The Godfather" or "Once Upon a Time in America", if it had been given a longer runtime. A double shot of "Election" and "Triad Election" is definitely recommended.