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Election 2

(Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai)
[img_assist|nid=1123|title=Election 2: Election Boogaloo|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=420]
dir: Johnny To

It’s been a good year for Johnny To. Exiled and Election 2 have been well received by critics, even if Election 2 was banned in China because of its implications of government collusion with triad gangs (a truly shocking and outlandish claim). Surely such a thing could never be true. To’s films don’t seem to connect with audiences in a big way, which is a shame.

Following on two years from the events of the first film, Lok (Simon Yam) has been a successful Chairman for the Wo Sing triad, but it is time for another election. Though he seemed almost reluctant to seize the reigns of power in the first film (at least initially), holding power has changed him. Where we would expect the film to focus on the new potential Chairmen (which it does), Lok decides to throw his own spanners into the Wo Sing’s processes.

Of the young turks itching to become leader, the brightest star is also the most reluctant. Lok’s godson Jimmy (Louis Koo), who is a big earner for the triad, only sees working for the Wo Sing as a means to an end: he yearns to go legit. A multi-million dollar development in China is his pie in the sky, his chance to get out of the underworld and to star in the business world.

But nothing in this life is easy, especially when the Uncles of the Wo Sing want him to keep earning for them, when Lok seems determined to hold onto power, when other contenders for the throne are likely to threaten everything Jimmy values, and Jimmy himself is conflicted.

Jimmy has changed between the films, though the triad has not. Its traditions remain as strict and its methods for achieving conflict resolution are as ancient as chopping peoples heads off with machetes. For all his cool demeanour, Jimmy is only a few steps away from being the best (and therefore worst) possible leader that the Wo Sing can hope for.

An irony arising in both films is that in both instances, two of the main characters suggest a variation to the Wo Sing’s rules to allow them to get power, or to hold onto it longer than the rules of the society dictate. Both meet certain fates as a result of this. It would not be too much of a stretch to point out the bigger irony of films whose plots hinge on criminal organisations that flout society’s norms and laws that murderously reinforce adherence to their own norms and laws.

Pretty much everyone from the first film returns (except, of course, for the ones who got murdered), with varying degrees of screen time and purpose. Some come back only to die, others to represent a contrast between Jimmy’s character now versus then. As most of them work in almost every film To makes, it seems redundant to call them Johnny To regulars. But what else would you call Cheung, Yam, Suet Lam and Tian-lin Wang, some of whom wouldn’t get to eat if it wasn’t for To?

Jet (Nick Cheung) returns as well, still fiercely loyal, still ultra-violent and always dangerous. His complete disregard for his own safety and for being caught when committing vicious crimes makes watching him both disturbing and compelling. I wish he had a bigger role in the film.

The Election films have been marked by, apart from their status as triad recruitment ads, an unglamorous approach to depicting violence. Actions taken by characters are either bizarre (putting people in crates and rolling the crates down steep hills), or explosive (a character beats a character to death with a rock).

The sequel goes even further by having some characters butcher, grind up and feed some unwilling participants to dogs in order to get cooperation from their compatriots. It’s horrific to watch, and the way we feel about a particular character changes permanently, but it is done neither for gore’s sake nor for laughs. These are vicious people with power. Vicious people with power will do anything to retain their power.

In a move that saw the film banned in China, To has also managed to craft an interesting subtext about China’s strongarm influence in Hong Kong post-handover. The triads spend their lives currying favour or bullying obedience, butchering each other and forming their complex alliances, but they pale in the face of the bigger and more ruthless gangsters in the Chinese government itself.

Women play practically no part in these films, except in minor roles. These are men’s films, films about the bonds of friendship, loyalty and fealty to their lord. And also about how easily men in the triad will murder each other if it suits them.

It’s not an entertaining film, exactly, but it is an interesting one. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Lok at some point, but it’s easy to hate him as well. Jimmy is an interesting character, but it becomes difficult to either empathise with him or to relate to him past a certain point. In truth, he becomes scarier than his opponents, and his actions become unjustifiable in any context, let alone protecting himself from his enemies.

Still, this sequel is somewhat stronger than the original: To’s drama is fascinating in parts and amusing at others, and shows him again to be one of the most consistent and competent directors working in Hong Kong today.

7 hammer beatings to death out of 10

“I can make you a deal. I can be a patriot.” – of course you can, Election 2.