dir: Johnny To
First off, this isn’t a review of the Alexander Payne flick of the same name from 1999. Reese Witherspoon does not star in this as an annoying overachiever who gets involved in a titanic struggle with Matthew Broderick.
This is not exactly a rare entry in Hong Kong cinema. More than half of the films made in Hong Kong since at least the 70s have been about the triads and their wicked ways. Election wants to go a little further than the usual, and tries to depict a story where the political machinations of the behind the scenes power struggles are more important than the machete fights and the slapping around of prostitutes. It also delves into the history and customs of the triads, making them seem as wholesome and long-standing as your local Rotary club or Masonic Hall.
Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Lok (Simon Lam) are next in line for the leadership of their particular triad gang, the Wo Shing Society, the oldest of the established groups. The leader is voted for by the senior members, called Uncles, and reigns for two years. Some of the uncles favour Lok, because he is respectful towards them, level-headed and a solid leader. Some favour Big D because Big D makes a lot of money for them, and has bribed some of them to vote his way. Big D is loud and brash, and sadistic. Lok is quiet and seemingly thoughtful.
The dirty old Uncle vote doesn’t go down too well with one of the candidates, who unleashes a wave of violence to try to get things to go his way.
Past the vote, the story focuses on the pursuit of a baton which transfers the leadership from one leader to the next. The baton, which is an ugly, strange looking thing, has been hidden in China, so there is a race on between the men supporting the candidates to get it back and to get it to their respective guy.
In the scheme of things, it is hard for me to classify this film. It is yet another HK flick which lionises the triads by showing what difficult and complicated lives they lead, but it aspires to a nuts-and-bolts prosaicness meant to ground it in contemporary Hong Kong life. At one point an Uncle is arguing with the head of the police Anti-Triad Unit, telling him that there are over 20 triad gangs, with total membership of around 60,000 in Hong Kong alone. The threat is implicit, and the statement is not an exaggeration.
At a certain point, when one of the men is confirmed as the leader, the elaborate ceremony involving his virtual coronation is meant to represent the customs of the Hongmen, or Tiandihui, a group dating back to the 1760s. But in the form represented in this film, the Wo Shing claim a connection themselves with the survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple in 1732 by the Qing Dynasty, as a brotherhood of traditional loyalists carried forward through the ages to do good for each other.
The ceremonies require little pinky finger pinpricks and blood brothers-type stuff, lots of incense and repeated kooky phrases about loyalty to one’s brothers and to the Society. Instead of being particularly revelatory, they really serve the purpose of legitimising the existence of this gang, as if they have some greater claim to fame or respect because of the longevity of the customs involved.
Of course, such stuff is crap. The real ceremonies of the various triad gangs are entirely secret, and no way would anyone involved in the film have risked the wrath of the thousands of Hong Kong, Macau and Mainland gangsters by betraying their secrets. So what appears here must be an approximation, and little more.
And second, it does little to obscure the fact that these guys are murderous, drug-dealing, sadistic bastards who, in reality, derive their power through numbers and their potential for violence, and not claims to a higher, historical authority.
Which leaves us with the characters, the plot, and the resolution. The large ensemble cast play characters so rice paper-thin in their development that at times they become translucent. But it doesn’t really matter, or at least it’s not supposed to in a film of this type. Simon Lam as Lok is given almost nothing to do or say of importance until almost the end. We have, for most of the film’s length, no reason to want him to become the new head over Big D for any reason other than the fact that he is not as annoying or badly dressed as Big D.
Big D overacts heaps, and wears crap-looking but expensive suits and is clearly too stupid to ever be in a position to rule anything. But he has the will to power, clearly.
Some of the minor roles, though there are too many of them to sometimes even know who people are talking about when they’re referring to someone or something off-screen, are interesting. Jimmy (Louis Koo) seems smarter than most of the thugs and old men surrounding him, and also seems to aspire to something more than just the criminal’s daily grind. We see him attending an Economics lecture (with an Australian lecturer, no less) early on, all as an intellectual calm before the storm.
Jet (Nicky Cheung) plays a guy whose loyalty to the Society or his absolute determination to carry out orders verges on the pathological. In one scene a higher up jokes to him that he should eat a spoon. Jet starts grinding up the spoon into pieces and eats it all without batting an eyelid. He figures in the proceedings later on, and is pretty wild.
Maybe some of the machinations and political manoeuvrings are interesting, but I don’t know if that ring of verisimilitude they stretch for really comes through. For most of the film the main characters and the other Wo Shing Uncles are in kept in prison cells because the police fear a civil war spilling out into the streets. The whole dynamic perpetuates the myth that the triads and the cops have an uneasy alliance as a way of avoiding mutual destruction. It’s a complete fantasy, but film after film tries to reinforce or at least capitalise on this strange idea.
Nothing much of any real importance occurs in the film, but it is still well done. Johnny To is a prolific HK director with an established pedigree of decent flicks that latch onto the zeitgeist and tell (usually) fast paced action stories. Election is less action and more plot, and not a particularly new or innovative plot, but I guess I’m not the primary market for this.
The uneasy relationship between criminals, the police and Hong Kong society are better dealt with in other flicks, including To’s Breaking News, which also took a few stabs at the media, and The Mission, which was balls-to-the-wall action. Election plays to its primary audience, but represents a slightly more mature take on the genre than, say, the other triad recruitment films like the Young and Dangerous series, or the mawkish melodrama of the Love Amongst the Triad-type flicks.
On a side note, I’ve found it strange that three of Johnny To’s recent films, this one, Breaking News and Election 2, have played at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and in fact also opened or closed the festival on their respective nights, with To himself having come out as an honoured guest, yet his flicks don’t make it into the local arthouse cinemas. I guess if it doesn’t have Chinese people floating about tickling each other with swords, the audiences aren’t interested.
Still, they’re not missing that much by missing Election. Except for the ending, which surprised me, and made at least one of the characters seem more complicated than I gave them credit for initially. All that being said, I’m curious to see the sequel now, to see if it was worth this lacklustre setup.
6 times out of ten you should know that going fishing with your enemies is never a great idea.
“If I steal from my brothers, may I be stabbed to death by five knives” – Big Head, Election.