To still has it. The auteur makes a long-awaited return
to Hong Kong cinemas with Election, a gritty
take on the Hong Kong triad genre. Election details
the decisions and consequences facing the Wo Sing Society,
a storied Hong Kong triad that's looking to fill its
Chairman role. In this corner: Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai),
a charismatic, brash, and temperamental boss who attempts
to bribe and bully his way into the Chairman's seat.
In the other corner: Lok (Simon Yam), a calm, collected,
and cooly professional triad leader, who promises expansion
and a steady guiding hand. Who will win, the tiger or
the pussycat? And is either one really what they appear
to be? And will Louis Koo fans be upset when they realize
their tanned idol isn't in the film that much? The answer
to all the above questions: who cares? This is a good
Hong Kong movie, and that's about all that matters.
The general story of Election is nothing to write home about. Basically,
the Wo Sing Society needs a new chairperson, and it's
down to Lok and Big D. Big D has already bribed a couple
of the "Uncles", the senior triad members
with all the political pull. He's hoping the money gets
him in, but as Uncle Teng (Wong Tin-Lam) instructs the
other Uncles, it's not the money that matters but unity.
Teng favors the in-control Lok over loose cannon Big
D, and at his urgings, the Uncles give in and elect
Lok. However, Lok won't officially be the leader until
he gains possession of the Dragon Head baton, a revered
symbol of leadership that must be delivered to him.
Smarting from his ignominious loss, Big D sets out to
intercept the baton, whereupon every boss and small
potato in the Wo Sing Society starts to get involved.
If you secure the baton you'll either A) be a hero,
or B) have plenty of pull.
The incredibly-tanned Jimmy
(Louis Koo) wants to get the baton to avenge his boss,
who had the indignity of being locked in a wooden crate
and shoved down a hill by Big D. However, various other
lower-level triad dudes have been assigned to the case,
including the overly-righteous Big Head (Lam Suet),
his stuttering partner Soo (Eddie Cheung), fab maroon-shirted
Kun (Gordon Lam), and the fanatically loyal - and possibly
rabid - Jet (Nick Cheung). The cops (led by Shaw Brothers
staple David Chiang) detain all the high-level players
in hopes of stopping an all-out gang war, while the
small potatoes run across the border and back in an
effort to get the baton. Double-crosses and assorted
triad hijinks ensue.
Having multiple factions go
after the baton leads to the expected run-ins, though
the results are as funny as they are ironic and absurd.
Basically, two guys go at it with their lives possibly
at stake, but the bottom line is they're working for
the same side. This is only discovered after some brutal
violence, e.g. Kun smacking Big Head around with a massive
log, or Jet getting multiple stab wounds from the omnipresent
triad choppers (in an ultra-realistic move, Election features no gunplay at all). Jet and Jimmy seem initially
opposed when jockeying for the baton, but end up on
the same side when Big D's men engage Jet in a five-on-one
standoff. These action scenes are staged with the slow-burn
threat of violence and sudden jolts of brutality, and
when they happen they're riveting. Unfortunately, there
are very few of these action sequences.
But actual visceral action
is not what Election is about. All the action
in Election takes place in negotiations between
cops and triads, uncles and bosses, lawyers and bosses,
and finally bosses and bosses. Johnnie To takes a deep,
reportedly realistic look at the mechanics and rigid
mores of a triad-run election (the Chinese title, "Hark
Se Wui", means "The Black Society", and
is Cantonese for "triad"). This sounds like
it could be all sorts of boring, but To does more than
have his characters sit around smoky tables endlessly
debating "face". Election moves along
fairly quickly thanks to spare exposition, sharply-defined
character types, shifting locations, and crosscutting
action - and does so efficiently enough that the educational
aspects of the film get swallowed incredibly easily.
In many ways Election works as a triad election
tutorial, i.e. this is how you should act (like Lok),
and this is how you shouldn't act (like Big D). If you
break the rules of the triad, you get threatened with
assassination, and if you're too ambitious, you'd better
watch your back. To portrays the triad society as a
rigidly-structured, almost fanatical group, and while
his storytelling is sometimes obvious, the overall feel
is immediate and seemingly real enough to involve.
To also allows his actors
to create more than just types. Tony Leung Ka-Fai is
hyperactive and a bit cartoony as Big D, but the actor
is able to imbue the character with palpable fear, self-doubt,
and blind ambition - sometimes simultaneously. Yam is
cool and charismatic as Lok, and yet reveals a cold,
calculating face beneath his smiling politician's mask.
The other actors have less to work with, particularly
Louis Koo, who only seems to get third billing because
he's the most popular star in the film. Koo gets the
pivotal role of the younger triad who's loyal, but quietly
questions the rules and hierarchy of the organization.
When we first meet him, he's attending a university
lecture, yet another nod by To to the inherent realities
of the triad "business". The powerful bosses
talk about making money and keeping jobs, and those
who are too concerned with pride and "face"
might as well paint a target on their backs. The winners
are the ones who preach loyalty to the triad, and make
the tough decisions to keep everyone happy.
That is, until the ending,
which shows that sometimes cold-hearted smarts and ruthlessness
can get the job done, too. Election ends on a
thematically appropriate, but disturbing and nihilistic
note that takes any notion of honor and throws it to
the wind. Triads might preach righteousness, but in
the end it's just another way to play the game. Election is sort of an oddity; it's a movie that takes great
pains to reveal supposedly realistic triad rituals,
and yet it can still find time for righteous grandstanding
AND a final moment that basically shouts, "the
triad is full of bad, bad people." Well, it is
full of bad, bad people, which is why Election may likely piss off moviegoers who are used to some
sort of redemption in their films. The characters are
cold-hearted, justice and remorse are noticeably absent,
and the violence is shocking in its ugly brutality.
Killing someone in Election requires repeated
bludgeoning with a heavy object, and after the fifth
or sixth whack there's simply nothing glamorous about
it. Those who like an extra dash of righteous heroism
in their triad movies may be put out.
Still, it's all good.
Johnnie To delivers an uncompromising film that may
not be happy times, but it certainly doesn't have to
be. Election takes a done-to-death Hong Kong
genre and presents it in a relevant, accomplished fashion.
In every way, Election is an excellent Hong Kong
film, and possesses a quiet, cinematically gripping
verve that makes it very watchable. The film's downer
ending is somewhat abrupt and off-putting, and many
details seem meant for greater significance than they're
given (there are rumors of a longer cut of Election floating around), but this is a welcome wake-up call
to Asian Cinema fans that demonstrates that Hong Kong
can still produce stuff that matters. As of late October, Election is easily the best Hong Kong movie of
the year. It doesn't exactly redeem the industry (2005
has been a scorchingly disappointing year for Hong Kong
Cinema), but at least it's here. We should all be very,
very grateful. (Kozo 2005)