As much as it pains me to say it, I must: Johnnie To’s latest, the Triad crime thriller “Election”, is painfully average. There it is. I said it. And this is coming from a big fan of the director, who has grace us with hardcore gems like “The Mission” (still the best Johnnie To gangster film of all time) and the criminally underrated “Throwdown” (still the most soulful Johnnie To drama of all time). Compared to the two just mentioned, “Election” falls somewhere between To’s entertaining but safe collaborations with Ka-Fai Wai and “PTU”. Which isn’t to say “Election” is not worth your time, as even an average Johnnie To film is easily better than the current crop of Hong Kong teen-friendly fodder the island nation is cranking out by the handful.
“Election” is the rather odd, but apparently true, story of how a Triad Society in Hong Kong chooses their new leader, or Chairman. Up for the job are Lok (Simon Yam), a seemingly mild-mannered, intelligent gangster and single parent to a young teen, and the explosive Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who wants the job at all costs. Bribery, bullying, and other means of extorting votes from the elder Triads have commenced in full as the story begins. It isn’t long before Lok is elected Chairman, but to fully assume power and be recognized as the new chieftain, he must first take control of a token baton passed on from one Society chief to the next for over 100 years. To this end, both Lok and Big D send out their underlings and allies in search of the baton, even as the police, led by the stout Superintendent Hui (former kung fu star David Chiang) clamps down.
And that really is the full extent of “Election’s” story. There are other political intrigue and Society in-fighting, as various Triad members make power plays against one another or attempt to push for their candidate. Even so, the film is relatively easy to digest, even if To and his screenwriters go out of their way to make things as muddled, convoluted, and difficult to follow as possible. In particular, there is a 30-something minute interlude in the middle where various factions search for, locate, and try to keep possession of the baton that has got to be the most pointless 30-something minutes To has ever put to film.
Of course it doesn’t help that the film, running at under 90 minutes, is crammed with secondary characters that are, shockingly, more interesting than the main characters. Tony Leung Ka Fai, playing a serious character for once, delivers a colorful portrayal of the tactless Big D, but he seems to be overselling the role. Simon Yam is appropriately calm and scheming, with bursts of extreme violence that reminds you why this guy is a Triad in the first place. But more interesting are the younger members of the Triads, in particular the college-educated Jimmy (Louis Koo) and the hardcore Jet (Nick Cheung). I would have liked to know more about these two.
The film’s overabundance of characters, each with their own personal problems and agendas, seem to be an artificial attempt to inflate the film’s complexity, which doesn’t work because, simply put, there isn’t any complexity to be found here. There is an attempt to explore the nature of the Triad Societies, but it’s unfortunately not very interesting. It’s easy to “get” that Triad elections are almost identical to political elections, but is that simple allusion really enough to sustain a whole film?
If it sounds as if I don’t like “Election”, that’s not the case at all. I suppose, more than anything, “Election” suffers from high expectations. I expected more out of it than it was able to give.
The film has a number of things going for it, including the fact that it is incredibly unpretentious, and there is no romanticism involved with the Triad lifestyle. These are cruel, deadly men whose one goal is not the brotherhood that they continually espouse, but rather profit. Capitalism is the name of the game, and everything else takes a back seat. We see this belief most overtly in the elder Triads, but Lok and Big D easily sells the idea as well. It’s underlings like Jimmy and Jet that believes there is more to the lifestyle than money, something that, undoubtedly, Lok and Big D might have at one point or another believed as well, before reality hit them in the face.
Another thing about “Election” that makes it better than your average Hong Kong movie is its maturity. It is very much a movie made by and for adults, something 9 out of 10 Hong Kong movies at the moment can’t boast. As such, the film deserves some goodwill from the adults in the audience. Also, the performances are excellent, from vets Yam to Leung (aka the other Tony Leung), right down to pups Louis Koo and Nick Cheung. While “Election’s” conclusion would seem to leave a lot unresolved, it’s not entirely a bad thing, as like the Triads themselves, there’s no reason why these people will be going anywhere anytime soon, something even Hui, the cop trying to crush them, admits without a shred of doubt.
Johnnie To (director) / Nai-Hoi Yau, Tin-Shing Yip (screenplay)
CAST: Simon Yam …. Lok
Tony Leung Ka Fai …. Big D
Louis Koo …. Jimmy
Nick Cheung …. Jet
Suet Lam …. Big Head
Ka Tung Lam …. Kun
Tian-lin Wang …. Uncle Teng
David Chiang …. Hui