Judge Adam Arseneau brought you a gift in apology for his failure. Hope you like baby fingers.
"Learn to let go, Lok. Everyone is greedy."
Triad Election (in reality, Election 2, the sequel to Hong Kong director Johnny To's masterful Triad crime film Election) plays like The Godfather set in the mean streets of Hong Kong, taking viewers deep into a ritualized world of the Triad Society crime organization, full of betrayal, backstabbing, and power-grabbing climbs to power every gritty step of the way. Triad Election is a great film on its own, but an even better film if you have already seen Election.
Facts of the Case
The Wo Sing Triad Society in Hong Kong has risen through the ranks and become one of the most feared, respected and profitable organizations currently operating in Hong Kong. Through a strict set of hierarchical rules and guidelines, the gangs keep bloodshed between rival groups to a minimum, which keeps the authorities happy (and off their backs). Every two years, the Society elects a Chairman, a ruler to preside over the groups, responsible for the prosperity of the Society as a whole.
The current Chairman, Lok (Simon Yam, Kill Zone) is a formidable man, quite content with his power and authority and the wealth it brings. His term is running out, and he wants a second term in office, something strictly forbidden by the rules set out by the organization. His only hope is to run unopposed, thereby forcing the elders to accept him as chairman. This will be a problem, however, because a young rising star named Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo, Flash Point) is making waves within the group, and many see him as the natural choice for the next chairman.
Jimmy is a modern gangster, an educated man with an MBA who sees more value in going legit than staying underground, diversifying into quasi-legal endeavors with great financial success, impressing the Triad elders greatly. Of particular interest to the Society is his is expansion into mainland China, an area with untapped potential by the Hong Kong triads. He seems a natural choice to be next leader, except that he has little interest in the position. He would rather focus on making lots of money, of tapping the potential of doing business, both legitimate and illegal in China, and refuses to run for the position.
Nevertheless, Jimmy's popularity is distressing to Lok. As long as Jimmy remains a viable candidate, his usurping of power will not go smoothly, and will surely mean war within the Triads. Through some delicate manipulation, Lok besmirches Jimmy with the Chinese government, effectively banning him from doing all business in China, both straight and crooked, thereby eliminating his profitability (and value) within the organization. Unfazed, Jimmy asks the government why Mr. Lok, a gangster just like him, is allowed to do business in China. The government explains that, as the Chairman of Wo Sing, the government turns something of a blind eye to his activity. Jimmy has no rank, and therefore has no pull in China—but if he had Lok's influence, well that would be another matter.
Jimmy realizes that the only way to re-establish his connection into China is to do the one thing Lok was trying to stop Jimmy from doing—run for chairman. Things rapidly heat up between Lok and Lee as both sides gravitate towards power, dividing the loyal family between the two candidates, and the body count starts to pile up. Success for each man will come at a price…
The most important thing to note about Triad Election is the film's subsequentness; that is to say, the full appreciation that this is a straight sequel to a prior Johnny To film, Election, with the same characters two years down the road. There will be more on this later. For the sake of this part of the review, we shall approach the film as a standalone title, though it pains us in part to do so. Imagine talking about The Godfather: Part II as a standalone film without making comparisons to The Godfather or, worse, having never seen the first film. The horror!
Much of Triad Election centers around a longstanding code of ethics established by the various Triad organizations in Hong Kong nearly a century ago, realizing early on the benefit of laying some ground rules. Constructing a complex hierarchy of leaders, rules, and provisions to keep the various groups in line, the Triads agree to respect each other and deal with "family problems" internally. If issues emerge, the gangs deal with the issue brutally and swiftly, but without letting violence spill out into the public, where people get hurt. By doing so, they have come to an understanding of sorts with the authorities, who tolerate the Triads to a degree, allowing them slightly more autonomy to conduct their business than in most countries. Such unspoken traditions have stood for decades, and have worked very well, giving the Triad Society an almost mythological appeal, like a secret group that operates above the law. The families agree to elect a Chairman every few years, de facto leaders within the organizations put in place to solve decisions. Anyone can run with the support of various high players in the gangs, but the position rotates—nobody can stay in the role for more than a single term. Except now, somebody wants to.
Balancing between pure adrenaline action and social criticism, Triad Election sandwiches viewers smack dab in the middle of a Triad election, with the current Chairman (required by unofficial law to give up his position of power) scheming to hold onto his authority. Breaking the rules openly would cause a full-scale Triad war, which nobody wants, but Lok is determined to rule, damn the consequences. The elders insist he bow out gracefully, just like every other Chairman in the past, but in Triad Election, there is nothing graceful or honorable to be found. The man who does not deserve power holds onto it with desperation, dangling it above those weak and gullible, making them dance to his tune. Likewise, the one character who does not desire the power is the one who ends up being forced to acquire it. A gripping study of corruption, this is an action film that plays out in the back rooms of bars, in back alleys, and between the good intentions of characters turned evil by the promise of power.
Despite working in the high-octane heady thrill of Hong Kong action cinema, director Johnny To has always made it a priority to speak poignantly about real-world issues and social criticisms within his cinematic vehicles whenever possible. Triad Election sternly lambastes the triad culture in China and Hong Kong, tearing asunder real-life issues of corruption and government involvement in organized crime, dispelling the mythology of honorable criminals, painting them instead in an unfavorable, corrupted light. In the film, the members of the families swell with pride and money, growing fat on their own cleverness and influence. Despite the ritualized culture of the triad family election, passing influence down the line, most members viciously defend their grip on power with the ferocity of a wild dog, refusing to abdicate. Exposing the myths they themselves propagate, Triad Election reveals that, ultimately, greed rules. Those who doubt the prophetic accuracy of To's critiques should note the Chinese government forced strong edits on this film during its theatrical run in China, taking issue with To's strong accusations of government meddling in the affairs of Hong Kong criminal organizations. Perhaps he hit a nerve?
The narrative is tight and surprisingly appealing to Western sensibilities, though some assumptions are made by the film that one is familiar with some of these characters, who reprise their role from the previous Election film. While far from being overly complicated, as action films go, Triad Election is smart, a thinking man's gangster film, one that refuses to hold the hands of its audience. It offers as many darkly comedic moments as horrifying ones. There are levels of subtlety running between characters, motivations of betrayal and allegiance formed spontaneously, sometimes contained within the merest of glances; one must commit themselves to the film or get left behind. With Lok trying to keep his grip on power and playing his five "grandsons" against each other in futile hostility, it can get slightly confusing to keep track of who wants to stab who, but each betrayal, each double-cross is devilishly delicious and shamefully sinful in a Shakespearian sort of way, and oh so enjoyable. Plus, machete fights. Gotta love machete fights.
Gritty tension, complex characters, scheming political machinations, and explosive action sequences balance perfectly against To's unique directorial style and subversive plot twists. The film broods, moving slowly at first, but barreling down the highway like a runaway truck during the last 40 minutes. As a fan of the director's work, I love To's constant manipulation of clichéd genre expectations, on how a drawn-out showdown between two gun-toting thugs ends in handshakes and smiles, not gunfire—but how violence can suddenly break out in thoroughly unexpected places. We get To's steady group of constant collaborators, including veteran Hong Kong faces like Simon Yam, Louis Koo, Nick Cheung, and Suet Lam, all of which constantly reappear in his films, mirroring their roles if not flat-out reprising them from film to film. For a Hong Kong director, his work remains very appealing to an international audience, quickly recognizable through their cinematography, direction, constant reoccurring cast and style. Truly, it takes a masterful touch to be an auteur director in a genre as hegemonic as HK action films, but To is one of the best at doing it, again and again.
Visually, Tartan did a bang-up job on Triad Election, presenting the film in a natural, balanced, slightly muted color tones, solid levels of detail, a clean sharp transfer, and deep black levels. The cinematography, full of deep shadows and elegant crane and tracking shots are quite appealing and rich in flair. In terms of audio, we get three choices: a DTS, a 5.1 Dolby and a stereo presentation, all in Cantonese. The DTS takes the cake, with sumptuous levels of articulation and balance. Dialogue is clear and sharp, music is perfectly balanced, and environmental effects that go unnoticed in other modes leap to life. Bass response is nice, too. The 5.1 surround track is almost as sumptuous, but lacks the punch and fidelity of the DTS track. Avoid the stereo track, for it is weak and thin. The baroque orchestral score, full of low moaning string instruments and pounding drums, accompanies the rising tide of drama perfectly, creating a constant anxiety throughout the film. Alas, the subtitles are not perfect, occasionally futzing up punctuation or forgetting the occasional adverb or modifier.
As for extras, Triad Election offers up a few morsels. The first, a six-minute "making of" featurette with cast and crew, discusses the film's origins and connections to the previous feature. We also get some cast interviews: a 17-minute interview with Lam Suet, and 14 minutes with Lam Ka Tung. Add to this a theatrical trailer and some previews, and that's all she wrote. The quality on all three featurettes is abysmal, clearly copied direct from some horrifying other-region source material. Not a lot of meat, but considering the DTS track, this is an acceptable offering for a single disc release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it is great to see Triad Election, aka Election 2 in a proper, spankin' North American release, I never expected to see it before a proper, spankin' release of Election. That one came as a surprise.
The inherent problem here is that that Election and Triad Election are best viewed together, as a singular cinematic offering back-to-back, which simply isn't possible for North American R1 audiences at the moment. This is a sequel, and was designed as such; without the understanding the subtext of Lok's rise to power, his corruption and seething betrayals are meaningless, crippling Triad Election to but a shadow of its potential. Discussions of which film is "better" or "worse" in my mind is moot, because they truly are two sides to the same coin, a continuation of the same train of thought.
What bugs me is the ominous re-branding of Election 2 into Triad Election by Tartan. This is a confusing thing to have done, suggesting by pure disassociation that the film is a stand-alone title. The thought of consuming a sequel as a singular offering without foreknowledge of the previous film pains me. Certainly, such a thing could be done, as Triad Election is a fine enough film—but one could also eat the chocolate cookie from around an Oreo and leave the delicious vanilla frosting untouched! You know, if you were a freak! I mean, good God, man, why? That's just crazy talk.
According to reports, Tartan indeed has acquired the rights to distribute Election theatrically and on DVD—so where is it? And why am I reviewing Triad Election first? Releasing it this way messes things up for everyone.
A fantastic film from top to bottom, Triad Election stands as a recent masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema and one of To's finest films. Gritty, stylish, tense, and dramatic, it is the output of a director on the top of his game. Just do yourself a favor and see Election first, or you'll be missing out on that aforementioned sweet, sweet creamy icing.
Not guilty, provided viewers track down the first Election first.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• The Making of Triad Election
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