December 29, 2005


Official poster for Johnnie To's ELECTIONJohnnie To hates the triads. Hong Kong's secret criminal fraternities are street gangs and protection rackets existing in a smokescreen of tradition and ritual that they use to obscure their motives from the police, average citizens and, ultimately, themselves. Originally established four hundred years ago to overthrow the foreign Manchu rulers, the triads have existed secretly ever since: underground societies of brothers bound by oaths of loyalty and dedicated to restoring the strength of China. These days they are underground societies bound together by illegal businesses and profit margins dedicated to little more than boosting their bank accounts. Their image as a band of brothers fighting the good fight has been celebrated in pulp fiction and in Hong Kong movies, but it doesn't exist in real life. In real life they're just thugs, fighting over territories and new drug dealerships like hungry dogs.

Hong Kong's film industry has made dozens of triad movies that glorify these crooks, but Johnnie To is interested in what's left when you pick away the legend and ELECTION is a slap in the face to anyone who buys the line about a global conspiracy of righteous criminals. While GOODFELLAS was supposed to be a warts-and-all look at the mafia, compared to ELECTION it's a kiddie film that makes it all-too-plain that its director has fallen under the sway of the cool waves radiating off his subjects; he's bought their BS in a way Johnnie To hasn't for a minute.

The plot is blood simple: Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Kar-fai) are up for chairman of Wo Sing in this year's election. Lok is a reasonable businessman who values harmony, Big D is a stupid bonehead who values yelling. I'm not going to tell you what happens, but things come down to a fight over a ceremonial baton: the 100 year old symbol of Wo Sing's leadership. It's been hidden in China for safe-keeping and whoever holds it will be the guy with the leverage. With the bigwigs taken off the field by the cops, the election results comes down to a bunch of small potatoes racing after the baton and fighting over it as it passes from one bloody hand to another.

No one is who they seem, and there are moments in the middle of the movie when you'll be lost in a quicksand of competing motives and hidden agendas, but just keep breathing and don't think too hard. Go with it, as they say in Lamaze. Kudos go to Lam Suet (as a loyal soldier with an ugly head), Eddie Cheng (as a stuttering mountain of mild-mannered righteousness) and Nick Cheung (yep, the most annoying actor in Hong Kong rocks this movie hard) but the real revelation is Simon Yam. Tony Leung's flashy performance has earned the most kudos but to me he seemed in danger of going wildly over the top every time he appeared onscreen. Simon Yam's portrayal of a locked-down businessman with the heart of a monster is an actor's master class in keeping the stone face but letting revelatory moments shine through like a lighthouse, broadcasting what's lurking beneath the placid surface to the world. Late in the movie, he picks up the baton for the first time and his face lights up from within, like some kind of radioactive jack o'lantern that just crawled out of hell. It's gorgeous for those of us who like our evil hot.

Shot mostly in broad daylight, and with some scenes of violence that are almost unbearable to watch, ELECTION isn't a movie that I think will have any kind of mainstream appeal in the US. It's so bleak and unrelenting, and so dedicated to overturning a romanticized portrait of organized crime that's alien to Westerners, that I can't imagine general audiences getting all shook up over it. But presented the right way, I think this could be a critical hit because his message is sadly universal.

In the world according to Johnnie To, we're all animals. Triad members are merely the animals with the freshest blood on their muzzles.

December 29, 2005 at 09:32 AM in Reviews | Permalink


It look likes no US distributor will buy this movie......

(Maybe they are waiting ELECTION 2 before make their decision?)

Posted by: No name | Dec 29, 2005 2:51:36 PM

I was just chatting with some distribution folks today and the general feeling seems to be that people are holding off on a lot of this harsh action/crime oriented stuff because they're feeling a little burnt out on it. Which is too bad, because I think ELECTION is worth a dozen lesser movies and I'm dying to see ELECTION 2.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Dec 29, 2005 7:28:02 PM

It is very sad, because ELECTION is Johnnie To's most provcative movie to date......

BTW, Quentin Tarantino loves this movie. Hoping he will bring this movie to US.

Posted by: No name | Dec 30, 2005 7:06:43 AM

If I had to pick one Johnnie To movie to keep and toss the rest, I think I'd pick RUNNING ON KARMA. But ELECTION is definitely one of his best, and I'm really looking forward to ELECTION 2 a lot.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Dec 30, 2005 7:14:45 AM

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