This film makes Judge Joel Pearce want to enter local politics.
The glorious return of the Hong Kong gangster film.
Hong Kong is no longer the exciting hotbed of action and thrills that it once was. Most of the recent entries have been silly and overly commercial, a problematic second Hollywood of the East. Through all of this, however, a few directors have continued to push the envelope to deliver top-notch entertainment. One of these is certainly Johnnie To, whose 1999 film The Mission was a triumph of action and suspense. But while John Woo was coming to America and Tsiu Hark was selling out, Johnnie To stayed in Hong Kong, and is still making great entertainment. His greatest recent film is Election, also one of the most exciting films to come out of Hong Kong in quite a few years.
Facts of the Case
Wo Shing is the oldest Triad in Hong Kong. It's a relatively small group, but they are well respected and have a lot of tradition to fall back on. Every two years, they elect a new Chairman, giving younger members a chance to break into the circle of elders. This year, the contest is between two men. Lok (Simon Yam, Kill Zone) is the obvious choice. He is cool and collected, and respects the long tradition of the group. Big D (Tony Leung, Double Vision) is a mouthy upstart—promising to bring major changes when he is elected. The uncles go with the safe bet, which sets Big D off. Now, it looks like war is imminent, and nobody wants to see that happen—except maybe Big D.
Let's face it. We've all seen gangster stories before, and they don't often have new stories to tell. There are the stories of young gangsters who get big too quickly and lose control. There are stories of new gangs that are too tough and cause fights with the established crime scene. There are stories about the battle between the crime syndicates and the law. Well, Election does have something new to offer. As crime groups become established, they need to settle into routines and form some sort of order. In the case of the Wo Shing, it takes an almost democratic tone. At the start of the film, we are almost lulled into believing that this election is just like a political one. The candidates seek supporters in the political arena, hand out bribes, and get verbal promises. After the vote takes place, however, we quickly realize that the civilized facade of this group doesn't run very deep. They are just as tough as the gangsters in any other film, and we've just gotten started.
Johnnie To does an excellent job of breaking Election up into several acts, each one raising the stakes and pushing the group closer to an inevitable conflict. At the start, we are introduced to the large cast of characters as the two men start to campaign. After the election, we shift to a race to get an important symbolic artifact that both men want. Loyalties start to shift as politics and physical struggles start to mix. I won't talk about the third act, except to say that it holds its own surprises. These separate sections help in a number of ways. We get to know the characters well, even though there are so many of them to figure out. They also help to maintain suspense: as each major act unfolds, we are shuttled off into completely new directions.
On the cover, most of the characters are carrying guns. This is interesting, because the film has virtually no gun violence whatsoever. We are used to seeing gun battles in gangster movies, and even more in Hong Kong gangster movies. Here, though, the violence is much more primal. Just as these characters cling onto a set of traditions, they are stuck using more traditional means of killing each other: machetes, tree branches, and whatever else happens to be on hand. The violence is never glamorized or sensationalized, instead choosing to remind us that these are terrifying criminals. As they fight, they threaten to destroy each other, and ultimately bring down the whole machine. The lack of gun violence gives the film a completely different feel, and it works well.
Indeed, I have few complaints about the Election. The end is quite abrupt, but that may just come from the fact that I would have happily sat through another hour of intrigue and double crosses. By the time we really get to know this colorful cast of characters, the film is over. I know a sequel has been produced, but I'm not sure if it will be that opportunity to hang out with these guys again. Beyond that, though, it's clear that Johnny To still knows his stuff. The cinematography is stunning, perfect actors have been cast for the roles, and the film just plain works.
Tartan has also done a fine job with this DVD release. There are the usual Tartan issues with the video transfer in the form of interlacing artifacts from the PAL source. The audio is solid, though, with a punchy Dolby Digital 5.1 track that isn't afraid to use all the channels. The DTS track isn't recommended, though, as it has some strange pops and clicks. In the extras department, we get the usual assortment of production featurettes and interviews, which don't add much to the experience but don't wreck it, either.
If you've ever loved the Hong Kong crime film industry, you'll be thrilled to discover Election. It's everything we've ever loved about gangster films, boiled down into a delicious stew of politics and violence. Put it at the top of your must-see list.
Not guilty. I might even run next time…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Production Featurette
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