For a long time, I've never really been able to understand the praise heaped upon Johnnie To. Sure, he makes great-looking films that ooze with style and are peppered with fantastic action sequences. From a technical standpoint, few directors are his equal, especially in the realm of Hong Kong cinema. But To's movies are often also full of poorly-realized, unsympathetic characters, storylines that end up going nowhere, and flashes of absurd humor that feel more forced than anything else (and certainly aren't very funny).
That has completely changed with the Election movies, two films that delve directly into the heart of the Hong Kong Triad culture and then proceed to drive a stake through it. Election 1 and Election 2 -- which are best viewed as one long epic -- are a perfect blend of To's excellent sense of style, fully-realized characters, and a plot that ends with several gutwrenching twists.
The Wo Sing is one of Hong Kong's most powerful Triads. Unlike other Triads, however, the chairman of the Wo Sing is elected every two years. The election is coming up soon, and there are two potential candidates. Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) is wild and ambitious, and while prone to violence, has the muscle and power to get things done and expand the Wo Sing's control. Lok (Simon Yam), on the other hand, is more reserved and respectful of tradition, and is admired throughout the Triad for his wisdom.
Those expecting the usual high-octane pacing and shootouts that have marked many of To's previous films will probably be disappointed with this film. Much of the film goes back and forth between Big D and Lok's attempts to curry favor with the Wo Sing's uncles, who will ultimately vote in the new chairman. Big D resorts to bribery and intimidation, while Lok takes the high road of diplomacy and tradition. Under increasing pressure from the police to keep things quiet and under control, the uncles eventually elect the more respectable Lok, much to Big D's dismay.
At this point, it seems like things will explode between Big D and Lok's forces, but To keeps things under a tight handle. Instead, he slowly (and brilliantly) begins to introduce new twists. Even as Big D threatens to create a new Wo Sing Triad out of protest, Lok begins to consolidate his power, slowly revealing him to be as brutal and ruthless as Big D, even moreso. It's a great transformation, and Simon Yam (in one of his finest roles) pulls it off brilliantly, swinging from dignified to sadistic in the blink of an eye.
However, even bigger twists abound in Election 2, which takes place two years after the first movie, in time for the next election. This time around, the focus is on Jimmy (Louis Koo), one of Lok's associates. A rather minor character in the first film, Jimmy has decided to go straight and shed many of his Triad affiliations in order to become a legitimate businessman. His latest venture involves a major construction opportunity in China, which requires a very time-consuming permit process.
Eager to get started, Jimmy attempts to bribe the Chinese officials, an act that lands him in jail. The only thing that can guarantee Jimmy's success in China is becoming the new chairman of the Wo Sing. Initially reluctant to re-enter the Triad underworld, Jimmy begins a slow and methodical descent back into violence and bloodshed, calling in favors and shifting loyalties even as Lok also begins moving to retain his beloved position.
Election 2 takes all of the energy of the first film, and ramps it up another couple of notches. Again, those expecting the stylistic action sequences that are a hallmark of To's films will be disappointed (better to look to The Exiled for that kind of thing), but Election 2 is certainly not lacking in intensity. The film is all slow burn, and it's agonizing to see Jimmy, who at the film's start is full of ambition and promise, begin resorting to the extreme acts that he does.
But the Election films are about much more than just the Triad world. To also throws in some pointed commentary about China, and their relationship to Hong Kong. This is primarily the case in the second film, where Chinese interests begin to take a discomfiting role in Jimmy's plans, potentially spelling ruin for the entire Wo Sing. Needless to say, it's understandable why Chinese authorities got so hot and bothered concerning To's films, as they're cast in almost as bad a light as the Triads themselves.
All of the things that hindered To's films in the past are not present here at all. All of the characters are fully-realized, and all of the actors give outstanding performances (especially Yam and Koo). Even side characters are given important parts to play, be it the elderly Uncle Teng who dispenses fatherly advice to all of the Chairman wannabes, the assassin Jet, who simply wants to make a name for himself in the Wo Sing, or Lok's young son, who slowly begins unraveling as he discovers more of his father's true nature.
Though both films are very bleak, there are flashes of brilliant gallows humor throughout, such as when a gangster in the process of beating another man to a bloody pulp gets a phone call that instantly changes his relationship to his victim. But much of the humor is ultimately sarcastic, working with the cruelty and bloodshed (one torture scene involving a cleaver, a meat grinder, and some hungry dogs is easily one of the most disturbing scenes in recent memory) and the tragic, almost Shakespearean character arcs to drive home the moral of the film: that the Hong Kong Triads are undoubtedly and thoroughly corrupt.
Nobody can be a part of them and remain unspoiled. Even the best of men are infinitely corrupted, and those that seem to be the most upright are oftentimes the most cruel and bloodthirsty. As for all of the talk about tradition and loyalty, themes that have long been a staple of many Triad films, such concepts are quickly tossed out whenever significant sums of money or opportunities for advancement present themselves. With the Election movies, Johnnie To has not only made an epic gangster movie that solidifies his status as one of Hong Kong's top directors, he's also made one of the best, most pointed and tragic gangster epics in recent history.