Directed by: Johnnie To || Produced by: Dennis Law, Johnnie To
Screenplay by: Yau Nahi-ho, Yip Tin-shing || Starring: Simon Yam, Louis Koo, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Nick Cheung, Lam Suet, Gordon Lam, Wong Tin-lam, Maggie Shiu, David Chiang, Tam Ping-man, Mark Cheng, Andy On, You Yong
Music by: Lo Ta-yu, Robert Ellis-Geiger || Cinematography: Cheng Siu-Keung || Edited by: Patrick Tam, Law Wing-Cheong, Jeff Cheung || Country: Hong Kong || Language: Cantonese, Mandarin
Running Time: [combined] 193 minutes
One of the first international hits by prolific Hong Kong filmmaker, Johnnie To, was his two-part crime saga, Election (also known as Black Society, a reference to the city’s infamous triad syndicates). While it covers well worn cinematic ground — how raw greed and ambition master criminal intent over self-righteous “honor” or brotherhood codes — To’s coverage of the material is distinct for its dispassionate nature and methodical storytelling, almost Fincherian in its careful precision. David Fincher and his ilk are, as a matter of fact, far more comparable to Election’s tonal consistency and overall style than anything Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese ever made. To’s crime dramas are so cold and detached one could at first be forgiven for mistaking Election as a dry Oscar-bait nominee for Best Foreign Language film, but then the hits come, the blood flows, and the subtle music creeps into the background. Election is an organized crime ballad, make no mistake about it, but like Drug War (2012) and many others that followed, its plain title and exterior mask a malevolent, expertly crafted cinematic beast underneath. What better style to convey the organized criminal?
This two-part drama follows the eponymous triad event, which occurs every two years when Hong Kong crime elders convene to select a new boss for their organization. Various boss-candidates maneuver for favorability among these elders and their own crews, including the standard bribery, extortion, blackmail, and extreme violence expected of most electoral campaigns. Part I (2005) introduces us to this political maneuvering through the competition of Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Kai-fa), the former a patient, charismatic manipulator and the latter a headstrong, half-cocked, over-aggressive sociopath. I’ll let you figure out which one ends up on top. Part II (2006) covers the next triad election, whereby a lower ranking captain, Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), attempts to break from the syndicate altogether and the mainland Chinese government intervenes to prevent all-out gang-warfare.
The main plot itself and various subplot details provide thematic depth, character motivations, and cultural analysis, but are ancillary to the film’s primary appeal and expert craft. As I implied earlier, Election is all business, not personal. At a little over three hours in length, Election crosses tremendous narrative ground, a large ensemble cast, and unforgettably violent, gory set-pieces through impeccable editing and patient cinematography. Director of photography Cheng Siu-Keung, frequent collaborator of To, sticks to tripods, dollies, and a few crane shots for the most part, refraining from handheld cinematography and using close-ups only when necessary. This deliberate lack of free camera movement accentuates Election’s emotional distance, and yet captures a wide range of blocking, ensemble staging, and dynamic action choreography, all without feeling artificial or overchoregraphed.
Election’s efficiency and organic camerawork are its main appeal. To’s penchant for low-key visuals, low-key lighting, and an almost silent soundtrack make his film’s few moments of color and music particularly striking.
For example, my favorite sequences are (in Part I) a three-way street-battle for control of the Triad “baton,” which denotes official power throughout the Hong Kong criminal underworld, and (in Part II) where Louis Koo kidnaps several of Simon Yam’s lieutenants and coerces them into betraying their boss. In the former scene, To cuts across three sets of fisticuffs adjacent to costar Nick Cheung slowly stabbing a hostage to death, while a subtle yet distinct acoustic guitar riff crescendos. In the latter, Koo imprisons his hostages in a dog kennel and chains them to attack dogs, going so far as to chop one of them into pieces and grinding them into dog-food, featuring what may be some of the grisliest sound-editing in modern cinema.
It’s this combination of precise camera-movement, editing (of both picture and sound), and bombastic violence on a personal scale that makes Election work. What doesn’t work are moments of repetition, a lackluster ending, and several supporting characters who disappear at various points never to return, with zero closure. These weaknesses would hurt most other films, including crime dramas, but Election gets a pass on most of these elements given its dispassionate emphasis on environmental aesthetics, narrative flow, and broader commentary on Hong Kong triad culture. Most characters are non-distinct and generic; their actions and ambitions are memorable, but they themselves are not. Election is yet another demonstration of Johnie To’s utter command of his craft and a larger thematic dissection of the breakdown of traditional Hong Kong criminal institutions. Reading anything further into this film would be exploring beyond what To originally intended — not that he nor I would necessarily discourage anyone from doing so, of course.
If you’re new to Hong Kong cinema or East Asian cinema in general, Johnnie To is a fine filmmaker and the Election duology remains one of his most notable works. Perhaps more so than even Drug War, Election is a fascinating study of the changing nature of Chinese cinema, a blending if you will between the growing mainland film industry and the more internationally famous, auteur-driven Hong Kong film culture. To is hardly a personal or emotional filmmaker, and thus his dramatic style may contrast with certain famous Western filmmakers who specialize in the crime drama, namely Martin Scorsese, David Ayer, or Ben Affleck, but in comparison to a David Fincher or Dennis Villeneuve, his meticulous craftsmanship rhymes perfectly.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: There are few over-the-top, action-packed moments in Election, but there are several grisly, intense, unforgettable set-pieces, and that’s the point. Johnnie To demonstrates how the times are a-changin’ via morphing political structures through restrained cinematography and unrestrained criminal violence, using disturbing sound editing and memorable blocking to his advantage. The story and characters are well written, but almost feel like afterthoughts compared to his broader social commentary and cinematographic exercises.
? Paint is the deadliest weapon. Or perhaps just the most annoying.