Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s reputation in the West today largely rests on a handful of stylish crime dramas and action films. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: with a career that began in Hong Kong television in the '70s before moving into film with The Enigmatic Case in 1980, his resume has the kind of depth most directors today can only dream of. Films like the Chow Yun Fat vehicle All About Ah-Long made him a star in Hong Kong, while his first international hit was 1993’s martial arts epic Heroic Trio, starring Michele Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung. In the mid-'90s, he teamed up with fellow director Wai Ka-Fai to form the production company MilkyWay Image, and their output rapidly developed into a profitable pattern of lightweight comedies for the local market and serious crime dramas that attracted international interest.
His 1999 film The Mission, about a band of outsiders hired to protect a triad boss after an assassination attempt, was his first gangster film to attract serious western attention. In recent years, he’s made more personal and idiosyncratic films – including 2008’s stylish but lightweight pickpocket romance Sparrow, 2011’s Life Without Principle, a non-linear look at the Global Financial Crisis’s effect on Hong Kong, and the 2015 musical Office – but it’s his crime films that have made the biggest impact worldwide. And of those crime films, it’s the two Election films that stand out; while some of To’s individual films come close to their level – especially his gripping and astonishingly cynical 2013 film Drug War – together the Election films are a one-two punch he’s yet to surpass.
Both films are available at SBS On Demand; at a time when it seems support for democracy around the globe is faltering, they’re more relevant than ever.
Every two years the elderly “Uncles” who run Hong Kong triad The Wo Shing Society elect a younger boss as their chairman. The new boss sets the tone and the direction of the Triad: this year the choice is between flashy and brash but big earning Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai) and the seemingly bland middle-manager Lok (Simon Yam). It’s basically a choice between a candidate who’s the classic stereotype of a gangster and someone so conciliatory and even-tempered it’s hard to figure out what he’s even doing in a triad.
Unsurprisingly, that question is answered when Lok wins the election – the Uncles figure a steady hand is what the Triad needs right now – but Big D refuses to calmly accept the result. Worse, the dragon head baton that symbolises the power and authority of the Wo Shing Society leader goes missing: without it Lok will never be able to call himself the boss. What follows is a massive hunt by both sides as each try to find the baton and claim victory for themselves.
At the time (it was released in 2005, with Election 2 coming a year later), Election was seen by some as a commentary on the state of democracy in Chinese-run Hong Kong, but what it has to say about the petty, devious, winner-take-all nature of elections is relevant worldwide. It’s no dry lecture on the duplicitous nature of our would-be leaders: To is clearly a big fan of gangster films and Election works hard to celebrate some of the genre’s traditions while subverting others. The plot twists and turns in often surprising ways, and much of the fun comes from the various levels on which politics, whether legit or Triad, are the same all over.
The violence here is low-key (guns rarely rate a mention, with hammers and swords more likely to be used in a fight) which makes the beatings all the more brutal when they do erupt. The large supporting cast occasionally makes figuring out who’s on which side tricky, but that’s the point: one of the film’s big moments comes when one Triad member is informed mid-bashing that the guy he’s pounding on with a log is now on his side. “It’s just business” is a common refrain in gangster films; rarely has it been shown so effectively.
Set two years after the events of the first film, it’s election time again and it’s no surprise that the current leader of the Wo Shing Society doesn’t want to go without a fight. Complicating matters, there’s a new candidate: Jimmy (Louis Koo), a small businessman and minor player in the first film who only joined the Triad because it was good for his company, puts his hand up at the firmly stated request of China’s Mainland Security Bureau. They want their own man in the top job so they can control the Triad now and forever, but personal ambitions aren’t so easily snuffed out.
The second film builds on the first, expanding the roles of many of the minor players like hangdog hitman Jet (Nick Cheung) and the stereotypical dim but loyal Big Head (Lam Suet). There’s also more big action set-pieces, which go some way towards disguising the fact that this is a much darker film than the first. Originally everyone was battling on a relatively level playing field where winner-takes-all and the pieces (well, most of them) were put back in place at the end of the day: now the game is overseen by powerful forces who can trash the board at will. The players here are much more desperate, the list of what they’re willing to throw away to win that much longer, and if there are any real winners at the end of events they’re not looking too happy about it.
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