Election (Hak se wui, 2005)

Director: Johnny To

By Roderick Heath

Johnny To has emerged in the past few years as a master of Hong Kong genre cinema, filling the void left by the departure and disgrace of John Woo and other industry notables in Hollywood adventures. To and Woo share characteristics, both concentrating on bristling macho dramatics, each analysing fundamental social, business, and personal bonds through the charged metaphors of the gangster film, and both channelling the influence of foreign masters like Ford, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Leone into their localised aesthetic. They’re very different in other respects, however: where Woo is usually an operatic executor of movies that are fundamentally about movies, reverent of the given structures and precepts of the genre film, To is much more of an ironist, willing to play games with his audience’s expectations in laying out standard elements and then executing simple, but brilliantly effective twists. To’s as strong a stylist as any in modern cinema, but a purposeful, efficient one, saving pyrotechnics for the moment of maximum impact, and with his dancing camerawork, lightning editing, and keen mise-en-scène, he barely wastes a frame. Election proved something of a breakthrough for him in terms of overseas attention, and it’s not hard to see why.

The story is fairly simple, but To keeps his pieces moving on the board so fast it’s a challenge to stay focused. The Wo Sing triad, one of the most notable—but far from only—illegal organisations in Hong Kong is having an election for its chairman, who serves for two-year spells. The tradition of the election is over a hundred years old, and the codes that bind the triad members together go back even further, to the days of resistance against the Manchus and the rebellions of the Shaolin monks. The two candidates to replace outgoing boss Whistle (Chung Wang) are Lam Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), two temperamentally disparate kingpins. Lok is calm, disdainful of showy expressions of power, the kind of guy who walks around his neighbourhood and converses with shopkeepers without a weapon or bodyguards, a detail which speaks of his certainty of power. He keeps a fine apartment with his son Denny (Jonathan Lee). Big D is far less restrained: married to a potent kingmaker wife (Maggie Shiu), he’s a man who smiles and cajoles with excessive pleasantness and explodes in childish tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. And he doesn’t, when, in spite of his carefully administered bribes to some of the “uncles” who form the decisive circle of triad chiefs, Lok wins the election as the most honourable and respectable of the choices.

Big D decides to dispute the election, and kidnaps two of the uncles he blames for his loss, cranky old Long Gun (Yuen-Yin Yu) and dissolute Sam (Robert Hung), whom he’d bribed but who failed to vote for him because there wasn’t enough money to go around. He nails them inside wooden crates, and rolls them repeatedly down a mountainside until they’re bloodied, dazed messes. Calling up Whistle, he threatens their lives unless Whistle helps him in challenging the triad’s guardian of tradition, Teng Wai (Wong Tin Lam); Whistle responds by having a subordinate hide the carved dragon-motif baton that is the symbol of authority in the Wo Sing in mainland China. Big D senses he might still stake a claim to the governorship if he can get hold of the baton by proving that he has the muscle and guts to snatch the baton to those who would still deny his authority.

Getting wind of an impending clash between the quickly polarising sides, the police, commanded by stoic Chief Superintendent Hui (David Chiang), drag in all the uncles, including Lok and Big D, who, still raging at his fellow uncles who he thinks betrayed him, begins kicking Whistle in front of reporters whilst waiting to be taken into the police station. Whistle flees the violence, but is run over by a car and critically injured. The cops, desperate not to see a gang war start, only want to force the uncles to find a way to sort out their problems. But events threaten to spiral out of everyone’s control as rival bands of men loyal to Big D and the other uncles try to fetch the baton from its hiding place in Guangzhou, and an embittered Whistle tries to blab from his hospital bed.

To’s quick eye takes in a raft of small details that fill out the universe of the triad bosses with alternatively disarming and dismaying effect. Most of these gangsters aren’t actually very tough or especially good at their jobs—they’re mostly middle-age men whose days of roughneck street warfare and standover work are behind them. Amongst the younger ones, who include young punks with something to prove, and genuinely fierce warriors in need of a watchful eye, the slickest is the preternaturally cool Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), who distributes bribes and collects debts whilst also attending seminars in finance. Small and large rituals—Teng Wai making tea for the uncles to seal their election decision; a later, full-on, religious-flavoured, blood-brother ceremony—define and seal their society. The power of ritual and tradition is simultaneously endangered, illusory, and still binding in subtle and supple ways. The governorship of the triad is established by totems and oaths, and but these are only emblems of real things, and the competition to command the emblems will finally express the reality of those symbols. As the film plays out, the meanings of those symbols become thoroughly apparent.

Election also hints at broader meanings through its title: the election, the illusion of democracy, is a sanctified ritual in the triad. But it’s only possible because of the mutual consent of powerful men, and To encompasses the history of Hong Kong and the relationship of Chinese society to centuries of hegemonic rulers both foreign and domestic. Simultaneously, what adherence to a creed means is taken seriously all the way through, even though the drama is driven by upstart Big D’s refusal to accept the rules, a breach of the creed. He threatens that if he doesn’t get his way, he will break away and form his own triad, a potent threat indeed as no one wants a war. The police know they can’t stamp out the triads, and are happy to act as something like referees in this game to reduce collateral damage; their attempts to corral the uncles before the situation combusts prove partly successful. In a moment that’s both ribald and telling, Long Gun, whilst berating Sam and Big D for failing to give a big enough bribe, orders a nubile young prostitute to jump up and down for him: those old farts are happy as long as their pockets are stuffed, their dicks are wet, and the world’s jumping to their regulated beat.

In the film’s sustained, exhilarating central movement, the battling factions and the police try to beat each other in ferrying the baton out of China, leading to the teeth-gnashing moment between two intermediate members. Kun (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung), functionary for a boss who’s signed on with Big D because he’ll sell their drugs at a higher rate, beats Lok loyalist Big Head (Suet Lam) with a log to get him to give up the baton, whilst Big Head recites the words of their triad oath, explicating the bizarre bond of corporeal grit and spiritual adherence that keeps the Triad bound together. But then Kun gets a call from his boss, telling him the plan’s changed: he’s now to make sure that the baton comes home to Lok, and he has to apologise to the bloodied, battered Big Head before immediately leaving with the baton, knocking over a policeman in his relentless drive back to Hong Kong. He then passes the baton on to motorcycle-riding, hard-as-nails kung-fu warrior Jet (Nick Cheung), who was first glimpsed in the film taking offence to Big D’s patronising jokes, which caused him to crush up and eat a ceramic spoon as a fuck-you to the wannabe overlord; we know then he’d rather die than let Big D get the baton. With Jimmy Lee, who manages to intercept him, they beat off a mob of his men, Jimmy stuffing one heavy into a barrel and stomping on the lid until he’s trapped like a Looney Tunes character and Jet finishing up with a machete jutting from his shoulder. But the pair’s grit sees them victorious and Lok gains the baton. It’s the most generically satisfying part of the film as a blindingly executed piece of action.

Terrific little details flitter by at high speed, like the “you’re full of shit!” look Jimmy wears in listening to Uncle Sam’s swearing he’s not going to gamble any more, or Teng recalling how the baton once had to be sprayed down with insecticide after the last election because the former holder was such a slob. There are points in Election where even fierce attention won’t really reward a first-time viewer. Many of the bosses and their henchmen are swiftly introduced and barely distinguishable, though that’s probably intentional. Lok’s supine calm and Big D’s hot-headed smarm are, on the other hand, very carefully contrasted to carefully manipulate initial impressions. Lok, with his calm demeanour and general reputation for honour and chivalry within the triad, seems by far the better man, yet one senses that Lok’s security in his sense of power gives him a great capacity for ruthlessness. This is proven when, to make sure Whistle doesn’t blab to the cops, he has Whistle’s son run down by a truck and threatens that his daughter will be next, causing Whistle to commit suicide by pulling out his own life support. Once the baton’s in Lok’s hands, he reaches out to Big D, bringing him into his plan to expand the Wo Sing’s turf by taking over another triad’s territory: Big D pretends then to make an alliance with that triad’s boss, Brother Dinosaur (Bo Yuen), only to team with Lok to kill him, Big D relishing stabbing and kicking the dying man. All suddenly seems right in the Wo Sing world again.

But To saves his most brutal and amazing flourish for the very end: when Lok, Denny, and Mr. and Mrs. Big D share a bucolic afternoon fishing, Big D, pleased by how things are going, suggests that he and Lok share the Wo Sing governorship as some other triad bosses have done. Lok says they’ll have to talk it over with the fellow bosses, and then, when Denny and Mrs. D are momentarily absent, he picks up a huge rock and bashes Big D’s head in with it. Mrs. D sees him and tries to run away, but Lok catches her, throttles her, and buries her with her husband in an unmarked grave, before calmly driving home with his son, who witnessed his violence, in glazed, silent trauma, into a blood-red sunset.

The ending is both a ruthlessly concise trash job on the veneer of gangland civility that brings to mind the climax of Scorsese’s Casino (1995)—indeed, the thought of Scorsese having remade this film rather than the far less inspired Infernal Affairs is a tantalising one—with its galvanising, surprisingly prolonged, and truthful violence, but it’s also a coldly logical culmination of all that has proceeded. Lok’s unremitting execution of his rival and his problematic wife is both power politics defined, and obedience to the creed of the triad. Big D has violated the society’s laws and defied the judgement of the uncles, and he pays the price for that violation in the same way that Big Head defended the laws: at the cost of having his body pummelled, but this time unto death. This hardly leavens the final disturbing vision of Lam Lok as a brutal psychopath, his son’s haunted look saying all that’s necessary about life in this world even as they slip back into their social roles. The savage excellence of this coda elevates Election far above the pack. l

  • walkerp spoke:
    13th/07/2010 to 3:07 pm

    I am so psyched that you are going to analyze this film that I am commenting before even reading it! This is one of my all-time favourites. I love the pacing and rhythm, the way it builds up and builds up and finaly pops in only the most quiet and yet profoundly satisfying way, in so much contrast to the usual explosiveness (which I love as well) of Hong Kong films. Okay, let me read.

  • walkerp spoke:
    13th/07/2010 to 3:32 pm

    Solid analysis. You underline how well this film demonstrates the profound interweaving of gangsters and regular life in Hong Kong (or at least Hong Kong movies), a theme Johnny To has tackled his entire career.

    The music should also be mentioned, which anchors the whole affair together and helps with the rhythm that makes it so aesthetically compelling.

  • Rod spoke:
    13th/07/2010 to 9:59 pm

    Hi, Walkerp;

    Yes, To emphasises the ordinariness of his gangsters, their being simply a part of the landscape, with a flavour very few films in the genre have ever captured; it’s about as opposite the DePalma/Stone Scarface, for instance, as a movie can come and still be in the same genre. You know, I didn’t consciously notice the music, but thinking back, you’re right, it does contribute to the inexorable drive of the movie. It was interesting for me to watch this after Exiled, which is a more stylistically bold and propulsive film, but doesn’t have as solid and well-knitted a plot as this, but its story encompassed a large event in recent territorial China – the handover of Macao – and the theme was certainly one of “self-determination”, just as the subtext of this film was about political power and the nature of democracy.

  • Helena spoke:
    14th/07/2010 to 3:15 pm

    Thanks for the great review. I feel driven to comment because I love Johnnie To’s films, although I’ve seen relatively few of them. I’d hazard a guess, though, that Election (and Election 2) will be the high points of an extraordinary career. There are films of To’s which are easier to like and watch again, (Exiled being one) but Election I (and II) trumps them for its depiction of a fight-to-the-death power grab for which the corrupt and innocent alike pay a price. I have to admit to having my eyes shut for the fishing scene, but it’s that glimpse you mention of the son’s stricken face at the end which reveals everything seen so far in its true, hellish colours. Nothing I’d seen by To up to that point had prepared me for that shot. An exemplary cast, with Yam standing out for me in a performance gradually revealing a capacity for violence and hunger for power which will stop at nothing. Beautifully stylised shots of Hong Kong painted in sodium and neon, and yes, the soundtrack really struck me too. All in all, an extraordinarily powerful film. Please, watch Election 2 soon.

  • Rod spoke:
    14th/07/2010 to 9:20 pm

    Hello, Helena. Yes, although I had mentally prepared myself for some last act bit of bastardry, that finish still came out of nowhere. Well spoken on Yam’s performance.

    Of course, I’d like to think To’s just hitting his stride. He’s 55 now.

    Ah yes, Election 2 is a must-see for me now, as soon as I can get my hands on it.

  • Helena spoke:
    15th/07/2010 to 2:37 am

    I look forward very much to your thoughts on Election 2, Rod. (My eyes were covered for a few portions of that film, too. )

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/07/2010 to 8:15 am

    Ah, I’m afraid I can’t say anything of value here as I haven’t seen this film, and am not at all familiar with this director to some point. Your typical fecund analysis and an engaging and enthusiastic comment section have insured though, that I have not wasted my time reading through this, and I do well remember that harrowing climax in CASINO.

  • Rod spoke:
    15th/07/2010 to 11:46 am

    Well, give Election and Exiled a look, Sam, I heartily recommend them. I have no pretenses to being an expert in Hong Kong cinema and yet I’ve watched a lot of films from the past forty-odd years of their industry and I’ve been consistently impressed and delighted, although, as with Hollywood, a lot of their product in the past decade’s been hamstrung by a dedication to flash over meat. But To manages the balance quite impressively.

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