Election (2005) caused controversy before even one frame of film had been shown. It only took a press release and the promo artwork to get the buzz going. HK commercial powerhouse director Johnnie To (Breaking News, Fulltime Killer, Running Out of Time) had promised that this next gangster picture would be a more realistic look at the Hong Kong Triads secretive inner workings. The first and eventually censored promo art featured a sea of Triad members flashing hand signs that denoted their rank.
Those who are not familiar with HK standards and practices should know that the HK film industry has some strange rules regarding depictions of the Triads. If a film shows any of the behind the scenes traditions and secret society shenanigans, it automatically receives the harshest rating possible. You can actually glorify the Triads and show them doing stuff the general public knows about, like gambling, running brothels, doing drug deals, and scrapping with rival gangs and the cops, but god forbid you show them flash a gang sign. It is a bit strange, but we've got our own weird ratings board rules, like sex scenes deemed NC-17 purely because of a thrust or two, and decapitations, cutting, and such being perfectly fine as long as there is no blood.
So, basically, it was a pretty big deal that a commercial film maker, already known to have a good handle on entertaining crime/Triad films like PTU and The Mission, was delivering a seemingly taboo-breaking film. Election ended up making a pretty good splash at the box office, the HK awards circuit, and found its way to Cannes.
The film concerns the appointing of a new chairman for the Wo Sing Society, the largest conglomerate of various sub groups of Triad gangsters. The two leading candidates are the calm and reserved looking Lok (Simon Yam- Dr. Lamb, Hitman, The Mission) and the brash, obnoxious, and temperamental Big D (Tony Lueng Ka Fai- Double Vision, Flying Daggers, She Shoots Straight). The elders largely agree that Lok is the best man for the job. However, Big D has been making the rounds with bribes, swaying certain leaders, which proves fruitless when the elders agree to do the credible and honorable thing by sticking to the majority and making the credible choice.
Big D doesn't take losing the election and wasting bribe money very well. He goes ballistic. First, he kidnaps two of the elders and beats the tar out of them and insists that he will not accept losing. The police get wind of all the gang turmoil and commence to rounding up the various leaders and question them. The police readily admit the Triads are so deeply ingrained in the culture, the best they can hope to do is quell any violence, to ask for some peace, which is just what they do. But, Big D would rather risk warfare than concede.
The middle section of the film centers on the Wo Sing Societies ceremonial baton, a 100 year old relic that is handed down to the new chairman, a symbol of their unity and acceptance. Pro-Lok and Pro-Big D factions chase the baton across the Chinese countryside. The whole endeavor becomes a rather valiant but somewhat absurd attempt to clutch to the archaic traditions that clearly no longer hold the same relevance that they once did. Those both sides risk life and limb to get the baton, Big D getting the baton first wouldn't mean much other than a way to wag his tongue at the hierarchy that voted against him.
Now, while other reviews may get into it, I'm not going to reveal what happens at the end of the movie, who gets the baton, who gets power, and all that. A little mystery is good, especially in a film like this where it's third act really shows some cleverness, twists, and moments that make the film go from pretty average to very good. One of the standards of HK film these days is to try and make a series of films, like with Infernal Affairs. Election does brim with enough characters and surprises that a sequel (which, by the way, has been announced) will be very welcome.
Johnnie To has always frustrated me. Out of the gaggle of directors who made their names in the 80's (his Big Heat was one of the best HK crime flicks of the decade), he has made the transition into the more commercial world of HK films much better than his contemporaries like Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark. When the mid-90's shift to pretty boy actors, slicker productions, and general pop-appeal took over Hong Kong cinema, Johnnie To took it in stride and found success. But, while almost always entertaining, I found his commercial pandering diluted what could be much better films. A dash of over the top gunplay and action here, a goofy joke there, and a cheeky referential nod there always seemed to keep his films from being truly great. His films were like being served a high class meal, only to top it off with a Marshmallow Peep as dessert.
With Election Johnnie To has delivered his most mature film to date. He still straddles the line of pure entertainment and more thoughtful cinema, but he doesn't let those commercial tendencies destroy what is a great gangster picture, one of the best in recent years. While there is some comedy, it isn't pushy or silly. It actually fits within the films commentary on the Triad's uneven honor code, like in a scene where one Triad is beating up a rival, only to get a cell phone call informing him that his gang has switched alliances and now he must help out the man he was just beating. Likewise there is one belated action scene, but it doesn't involve any bullet ballet (no guns in the film at all) and speaks more of the loyalty of the gangsters willing to fight outnumbered, be bullied and battered, all out of honor and allegiance to their organization.
Election does have some unwieldy and uneven bits. The story is full of characters, maybe too many, like the colorful lot of elders and some henchmen, standouts being the dedicated Jimmy (Louis Koo) and the scrappy Jet (Nick Cheung). I found myself wishing to see some more of them, which hopefully the sequel will delve into. Reflecting very closely to their characters, the two lead performances show the model of reserve and the model of needing to be reigned in. Simon Yam gives a quiet performance and speaks volumes with his eyes of Lok's strategizing mind and viciousness lurking under his calm surface. On the opposite side, Tony Lueng plays his role very broad, borderline cartoonish, making Big D very much the bratty, petulant insecure child. So, while Simon Yam shows a very humanized side of the gangster, Tony Lueng instead falls back on a well-worn caricature. While both are engaging, one enhances the realism, the other detracts.
The initial hubbub proved to be much ado about nothing. It is a very good film but it isn't exactly shockingly groundbreaking or an absolute masterpiece. It does sets the bar for future HK crime films much higher, but I wasn't surprised. Johnnie To has always leaned towards a more evenhanded portrayal of Triads and Election is just the further evolution of his demystifying what has often been a glamorized society in HK films, where the Triad was often either painted as some heroic figure, two-guns-a-blazing, or a cardboard villain. While I think Johnnie To is still finding that balancing act between realism and commercialism, Election points to those prospects looking even brighter; it is, by far, one of the better films in his career.
The DVD: Panorama, a Chinese based distributor, but the disc is all-region encoded.
Picture: Panorama is one of those companies that is very hit and miss. Especially in terms of older, back catalog releases like the Tora-San films and Ozu classics, Panorama has really missed the mark and delivered sub par, compression plagued and poor print quality transfers. But they are cheap, so knowledgeable consumers know what they are in for with a Panorama purchase.
Here we've got a rough Anamorphic Widescreen transfer. Election has a very natural look to it, and Johnnie To largely dispenses with his trademark trickery and slickness in favor of more formal direction. Unfortunately, the print is on the soft side, diluting the sharpness of the image. The contract also has a slight lack of shadow details, and some fo the darker scenes come off a bit too gray. Again, Panorama got their hands on a new film, with a clean, spotless print, but somehow manage to muck it up.
Sound: DTS, 5.1, and 2.0 Cantonese, or 5.1 Mandarin audio tracks. Optional Chinese or English subtitles. Great sound. Again, the film doesn't quite have many action spectacle moments, but the mix is quite responsive in all the key areas. The score is a real standout, and those with high end systems should be relatively pleased. The only real issue I found was some slightly weak dialogue recording in a few scenes. Subtitle translation appears pretty good, well-timed, and without many glaring grammatical errors.
Extras: Nothing, really, a slipcase and trailers for Everlasting Regret and Drink, Drank, Drunk.
This is the single disc edition, thus the lack of any extras. If you want the extras you'll have to go for the two-disc, which I'll add, is quite affordable. But cheapskates who just don't bother with extras very much will be more than happy with this barebones version.
Conclusion: Election is a great Triad film, one that is unafraid to confront the gangsters skewed sense of honor and tradition that is in total conflict with their amoral behavior as criminals. In terms of the disc, it gets a mediocre grade. Flawed image and barebones, but, hey, it wont break your wallet. It's a judgement call- fine if you just want to watch the film, not fine if you are a stickler for technical details. I'll give it a shaky recommendation.