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.
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.
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.
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.