Filmmaker Johnnie To directs, on average, about 2-5 movies a year in his native Hong Kong. Usually you'd expect someone that prolific to be a hired-gun studio hack or at the very least that his output quality would be highly erratic. Although it's true that some of his films are more uneven than others, in general To produces smart, stylish, and cool entertainment that usually has something interesting to say and rarely insults its audience's intelligence. His 2004 picture Breaking News (one of three features he directed that year) played outside of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and more recently his 2005 Triad drama Election (not to be confused with the Reese Witherspoon comedy of the same title) was nominated for the Palme d'Or.
Starring Simon Yam (memorable recently in To's PTU) and Tony Leung Ka Fai (the one from A Better Tomorrow III and Zhou Yu's Train, not the other famous Tony Leung from Infernal Affairs), Election takes a relatively realistic look at the current state of Chinese crime Triads. Not just some flashy action thriller, the film is a slow-burning drama that attempts to examine the complex political structure of such organizations, and poses complicated questions about their position and relevance in modern society. Yam and Leung star as, respectively, Lok and Big D, big time crime bosses competing for the position of Chairman of the Wo Sing Society Triad, a job that becomes available by democratic election every other year. Candidates must campaign, give speeches, cajole, bribe, and threaten (both economic repercussions and violence) for votes, just like "legitimate" politicians.
Lok is the level-headed businessman and the more qualified candidate in many people's eyes, while Big D is a charismatic but unstable wild card. Moderating the election are the Society's current Chairman Whistle, and Uncle Teng, a former Chairman and respected elder with much influence and sway. When the winning candidate is finally revealed, let's just say that the loser doesn't take the news so well and attempts to exact retribution against anyone who didn't vote for him, behavior clearly in violation of the code of honor the Society has upheld for over 100 years.
What's fascinating about the movie is the way it depicts the election not only as a conflict between two different personalities, but a conflict between ancient traditions and modern business. The Society and the conduct of its members are governed by many formal (often superstitious) rituals, including a literal "passing the baton" from one leader to the next. Although many of these are considered mere formalities by the younger generation, the elders respect their purpose and will not allow business to transpire without them. When the baton of leadership is stolen by the losing candidate, the winner cannot be inaugurated without it, even if he has an overwhelming majority of support at that time. The film also provides an intriguing portrayal of the delicate political balancing act between the Triad and legitimate society, one in which the police understand the reality of how organized crime works and attempt not some grand crusade to bring it down, but merely to facilitate a truce that will stabilize business as usual without further violence.
Johnnie To directs with a more restrained hand than usual, withholding flashy pyrotechnics in favor of nuance and dramatic weight. Some of his trademark black humor does creep in, however, especially during the storyline in which a string of characters attempt to smuggle the ceremonial baton out to and back from mainland China, which results in many changes of loyalty and reversals of fortune. The story juggles a large cast of colorful characters with well-defined personalities, many of whom are capable of violence. Unlike most Triad films that glamorize and fetishize the criminal lifestyle, though, this one gives us cold, soulless brutality, without ever a gunshot fired. Its bleak, disturbing finale is both shocking and haunting.
Election is available on DVD from Panorama Distributors in Hong Kong as either a basic single-disc release or a 2-disc Special Edition. The SE is packaged as a fold-out digipak within a slipcover. Both versions are encoded in all-region NTSC format and should function fine in any American DVD player.
Presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with anamorphic enhancement, the movie image is decent but not great. The picture is on the whole soft and hazy, with shallow black levels and weak shadow detail. Colors are also muted, but this appears to be a stylistic decision. There are next to no edge enhancement artifacts, fortunately.
Some viewers watching on progressive scan displays may experience problems relating to the entire disc being flagged as "Video" instead of the appropriate "Film". These flags tell the progressive scan DVD player or television how to assemble the interlaced fields into whole video frames. A smart deinterlacing chip will disregard the flags and perform its own assembly based on the cadence of the video, and normally how the disc is flagged is irrelevant to other picture quality concerns. However, even the excellent deinterlacing chip in my video processor was tripped up by the subtitles on this disc, which displayed combing artifacts pretty much throughout the entire movie. The problem also manifested itself with smeariness in the chroma portion of the video signal, such as car tail lights during nighttime scenes.
The original Cantonese soundtrack is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS-ES Matrix. The front soundstage is crisp and expansive, and dialogue is always clear and intelligible, but the mix is not particularly aggressive in the surround channels. Bass activity is also only fair.
A Dolby 2.0 downmix is also available, as is a Mandarin dub in DD 5.1. Subtitles are offered in English and Chinese (both Traditional and Simplified). The English translation is perfectly coherent with few noticeable grammatical flaws.
Viewers who buy the single-disc edition get no bonus features other than a couple of trailers for unrelated movies. The Special Edition, on the other hand, has a nice selection of English-friendly supplements, including a booklet in the case with a "Director's Statement" from Johnnie To explaining his purpose in making the movie.
Unfortunately, both discs of the set automatically launch with an obnoxious forced commercial for a video game called "Kung Fu City" that cannot be skipped.
Disc 2 starts with a 30-minute Interview with Director Johnnie To. Optional English subtitles are provided. The filmmaker discusses his desire to record the realistic workings of Chinese Triads at this point in history, as well as some of his directorial choices and his opinions on current Hong Kong cinema. Short of doing a full audio commentary, this interview is a thorough recording of his intentions for the film.
Also subtitled in English are shorter interviews with actors Simon Yam (7 min.), Tony Leung Ka Fai (15 min.) and Wang Tiamlin (8 min.). All three are fairly informative. A 7-minute Making-Of Featurette is pretty standard Electronic Press Kit fluff, subtitled fortunately.
The disc closes with a brief Cannes Film Festival Slide Show, a few trailers and TV spots, and a short photo gallery.
No ROM supplements have been included. The movie disc was very glitchy when I tried to play it in my computer's DVD drive.
The past few years have seen the Hong Kong film industry experience a slump in quality. Election is one of the better recent releases from the region, and is another strong entry from director Johnnie To. The DVD's picture quality is nothing exciting, but the 2-disc Special Edition has an excellent interview with the director and a few other very good interviews with the main actors. Considering its reasonable price which is only a few dollars more than the feature-less standard edition, it deserves a solid recommendation.
A Better Tomorrow Trilogy
Infernal Affairs Trilogy
Zhou Yu's Train