Tony Leung Ka Fai
Ka Tung Lam
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27th Oct 05
Every two years Hong Kong's oldest Triad, The Wo Shin Society, elects a new chairman. The two contenders - well respected Lok and wild, unpredictable Big D - become embroiled in a bitter war over the result, with D stopping at nothing to gain possession of the talismanic dragons head baton that represents overall control of the Society...
A triad film with no gunplay? Hard though that may be for rabid Hong Kong thriller fans to take, Johnnie To’s ‘Election’ is exactly that - a minimalist take on a genre practically defined by explosive weaponry. To's film also keeps a surprisingly tight reign on the violence for much of its running time and when the inevitable carnage does arrive it is mostly implied or offscreen.
‘Election’ earned the notorious CAT 3 rating from the HK ratings board, although one suspects this is due to its explicit Triad references rather than violent content. Compared to recent offerings from Korea or even the bullet ballets of the late 80s HK explosion it’s relatively restrained stuff – eschewing kinetic thrills for an austere, detailed (indeed at times laborious) examination of contemporary Triad society.
The film opens with the election of the title, and draws a stark contrast between the two front runners for the soon to be vacant chairman’s position at the head of the 300 year old Wo Shin society. Representing a smooth transition is brother Lok (Simon Yam) - dependable, controlled, clearly a safe bet and the man best placed to keep the Society’s code intact. The wild card is Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai). Petulant, unpredictable and with a hair trigger temper, D wants to shake things up, and he doesn’t care how he goes about it.
When Lok takes the election easily, D goes nuts. He starts by intimidating the younger members of the Wu Shin - including one young tearaway who happily gobbles a crushed up spoon (!) to prove how hard he is - and moves on to torturing the elders (cramming two hapless Triads into boxes and rolling them down a hillside) to secure their support.
All this activity naturally destabilizes the society, stoking the flames for a potential turf war and alerting an already twitchy HK police force to the Wo Shin. Just as everything threatens to kick off, Lok and D are separately arrested and imprisoned. Not that this averts their attention from the ultimate prize - attempting to gain possession of the talismanic Dragon’s head baton that represents ascension into the Triad pantheon and gives its owner overall control of the society.
Looking back at that synopsis I realise I have may have made ‘Election’ sound a lot more exciting than it actually is to watch. I have to confess that after 40 minutes or so my attention started to wander - the slightly plodding pace, heavily expositional dialogue and detached, observational style threatening to overwhelm the material. There are an awful lot of scenes that are essentially just descriptions of what we know is happening; clandestine meetings amongst society members, lengthy work banter amongst the HK police force and so on. Rather like those tedious procedural scenes you get in 70s giallo, they make for a draggy mid section. There are also more scenes of people eating in this movie - at cafes, bars, meetings, and stakeouts - than any other movie I've seen in recent memory. Thank god the preview was so close to Chinatown.
However, kudos must be afforded to To and his screenwriters for sticking to their guns (while never showing them). Eventually the talk-heavy middle gives way, the action moves to China as the hunt for the baton intensifies, and we are left with what turns out to be an impressively controlled crime picture - Woo by way of Robert Bresson if you like – a HK (in)action flick that generates and sustains suspense through the observation of the codes and traditions rather than flashy pyrotechnics.
The ever-dependable Yam (known predominantly for his work with John Woo and his unforgettably evil turn as Doctor Lam in Danny Lee’s icky, monstrous film of the same name) gives a nicely controlled performance as Lok. He might look like the sensible one but you know he isn’t a man to be messed with. Leung Ka Fai’s loony act is far less impressive. His curveball notion of nuttiness is way out of place with the rest of the film and To could’ve done with reigning him in a bit. He comes across as irritating rather than dangerous, frankly.
In keeping with contemporary HLK thrillers, ‘Election’ looks fantastic, beautifully lensed by To regular Cheng Siu Keung in shimmering, anamorphic widescreen. I really love the gritty, western style score too, which is reminiscent of Ry Cooder's work for Walter Hill and fits perfectly.
‘Election’ is definitely worth persevering with, particularly for aficionados and any HK film fans with particular interest in the Triads. It won me over, though anyone expecting a stylised bloodbath or a high-octane action fest might be better off casting their vote elsewhere.