Election – 黑社會
Director: Johnnie To (杜琪峯)
Cast: Simon Yam (任達華), Tony Leung Ka-Fai (梁家輝), Louis Koo (古天樂), Nick Cheung (張家輝), Wong Tin-Lam (王天林), Maggie Siu (邵美琪), Lam Suet (林雪)
Johnnie To knocks it out of the park yet again! Election is a fresh take on the triad genre, a perennially popular subset of Hong Kong cinema. Temporarily sidelining his stylized and expertly choreographed gunplay scenes, To relies on compelling characters, a finely tuned story, and an amazing attention to detail and history. This film and its sequel (Election 2, to be reviewed later), are exceptionally important films for their chronicling triad society within Hong Kong without resorting to glamorizing frankly evil people. These guys are not Ekin Cheng cool (but then again, who is?). They are manipulative, competitive, and backstabbing despite their oath to their brothers, and the result is a gritty and uncompromising film with some shocking scenes of violence used to amazing effect.
Let’s get one thing straight right now. THERE ARE NO GUNS IN ELECTION. Not one. No guns are fired and no major characters are ever seen seductively holding guns up to their face while taking a drag on a cigarette… which is why the following image of the U.S. DVD cover is so peculiar!
And I guess my love for this film is validated now that Quentin Tarantino, the almighty himself, has declared it the best film of 2005. Worthless hack.
Okay, enough sarcasm. Let’s talk about the film. Simon Yam is Lok, a candidate for chairman of the Wo Shing Triad Society who is in direct competition with Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai). Whereas Lok is cool (not in the Ekin Cheng sense), charming, and representative of a more civil, modern triad, Big D is anything but. Prone to violent outbursts and more apt to use coercion to gain the support of the senior members, Big D will literally stop at nothing to become the next chairman. Check it out as he rolls two other society members down a hill in crates:
The spontaneity and degree of Big D’s violent tendencies are matched by Lok’s calmness and ability to negotiate to his advantage. Lok is eventually voted in as the next chairman, but before his election is legitimized, he must have the dragon head baton – a symbol of leadership in the Wo Shing society – which is hidden in mainland China. Both Big D and Lok send men to retrieve it, but Lok’s negotiating skills ensure that no matter who finds the baton, it will go to him. This scavenger hunt in China leads to one of the film’s darkest, yet strangely funniest, scenes as men from both sides are quite literally pummeling each other until they realize they are essentially working for the same man. This shift in Lok’s favor is due to Big D threatening to split from the Wo Shing society, which could lead to a potential violent rift between the society and those loyal to him. The society doesn’t want this, and the cops don’t want this as the ensuing violence would be too much to handle. Big D’s desire for power is his defining characteristic, but it’s not a bloodthirsty power trip despite his tendency to become violent. This is something he feels he’s owed as a result of his loyalty (as he defines it) and ability to earn money, and it’s a desire that he just can’t get rid of even after recognizing the legitimacy of the election.
To’s deliberate characterization of triad society depends heavily on the characters of Lok and Big D. There is only room for one man at the top, and these two are by nature incompatible. While Big D’s desire for power is patently obvious thanks to the character’s histrionic nature, Lok appears flat and almost totally emotionless as he quietly accepts the trust placed in him by society members, but he is by no means a pushover. It’s a testament to Simon Yam’s ability as an actor that his character comes alive as he does despite his almost lifeless demeanor. This incompatibility between the two nominees spills over to the rest of the society as well. The uncles, senior members, are at each others’ throats as they argue over who to support, and the low ranking triads blindly follow the orders of those to whom they are loyal. The picture it paints is one of an insanely dysfunctional family, with emotional, argumentative parents and petty, squabbling children.
And yet, despite the infighting going on, triad organizations have been around for years! It is for this reason, as To states in interviews, that it is important to capture a more realistic portrayal of not just the power structure within triad society, but its underlying philosophies and conflicting outward appearance. Much is made in the film of the transition ceremony and professions of loyalty to the brotherhood, but in the end, it’s just a formality that simply does not dictate the triads’ actual behavior. What does control their behavior is money, power, and control. The future, therefore, is not represented by self-serving ideologues, but by a new breed of triad – the educated man, characterized in the film by Jimmy (Louis Koo). He goes to school, studies the ins and outs of business and economics, and is more concerned with legitimizing triad activities to avoid legal confrontations. But is he as flawed as the others? Watch the sequel to find out.
Election is one hell of a film, and certainly one of the finest genre films to come out of Hong Kong in years. Yam and Tony Leung Ka-Fai are excellent in the respective roles as they epitomize the multi-faced nature of triad societies. Likewise, Wong Tin-Lam, supportive as always in his roles for Johnnie To films, adds a distinct voice of reason as an elder member of the Wo Shing society, showing a disconnect between traditional practices of cooperation and modern hotheadedness. But what is most remarkable about the film is that for all Johnnie To shows us about this apparent dialectic between calmness and hostility as represented by Lok and Big D, he is perfectly willing to pull the rug out from under our feet and expose our ideal notions of good and evil for the utter nonsense that they really are.