Johnnie To’s gritty take on triad warfare is full of really cool villians and cinematic storytelling. The general story of Election is nothing to write home about. Basically, the Wo Sing Society needs a new chairperson. Fierce rivalries emerge between the two eligible candidates. Lok, respected by the Uncles, is the favorite to win. But his rival Big D will stop at nothing to change this, including going against hundreds of years of Triad tradition and influencing the vote with money and violence. This movie received the coveted NC-17 rating equivalent overseas and it really raised the bar for how a gangster movie should be made.
Election laughs in the face of such restrictions. An initial poster for the film showed a group photo of many gangsters, all using a hand-sign to indicate each individual’s position in the gang. Hong Kong film censors are notoriously stingy in permitting films to portray lifelike details of Triad rituals and customs, so this was a big deal. You have scenarios in this film such as having multiple factions go after the baton leads, which leads to the expected run-ins. The results end up as being humorous as they are ironic and absurd. Basically, two guys go at it with their lives possibly at stake, but the bottom line is they’re working for the same side. The cinematography is good. Story was well written. Cast was great!
Despite a tight narrative, Johnnie To’s Election feels at times like it was once a longer picture, with many characters and plot strands abandoned or ultimately unresolved. Nevertheless, To skillfully paints a picture of characters warring within traps largely of their own making. This simple contrast provides enough ammunition to keep the film rolling as the hunt ensues for the Dragon’s Head Baton. As with most Johnnie To movies, it is not peppered with violence or excessive gun play, but rather plenty of posturing and tension. The more psychological than paint-the-screen-red literal, will dig under your skin and leave a lasting impression far after the movie is over.
Election is the first film of two in Johnny To’s world of the Triad gang’s electorial process. Japan Cinema will have the review of the second movie in the coming weeks. In the meantime, what this movie does painfully correct, is it doesn’t let you forget that, no matter how likeable, none of these guys are good men. So you shouldn’t root for any of them. This is a return to form for Johnnie To after his last film ‘Breaking News‘ didn’t live up to his reputation. As in many To movies, there’s a slight dip in the rhythm at the 70-minute mark as the script cranks up again for the final act. I found this movie extremely entertaining and found myself enthralled by seeing a soceity I am not usually familiar with. These are cruel, deadly men whose one goal is not the brotherhood that they continually expose, but rather profit. Election illustrates that fact to a tee in a mature, entertaining manner.