Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Day 105 - Election

Election (2005) directed by Johnnie To

I decided to watch Election after watching Johnnie To's stellar Vengeance and I'm happy to report a pleasant if not thrilling experience with this triad crime drama. I will say though that it is a sort of uneven experience. I almost wrote it off as a mixed bag with unrealized potential, but then came the final twenty minutes which is completely stunning.

The title of the film refers to the upcoming election for the chairman of the Wo Shing society, a Hong Kong triad. Every two years a new leader is elected and the two contenders in this election are the level headed Lok (Simon Yam) and the power hungry and ill tempered Big D (Tony Leung). How smoothly do you expect the democratic process of criminals to work? Needless to say, the election is hotly contested with some last minute campaigning and bribery going on. And how does the loser take the news of the results? Just how any African dictator might take it; ignore the results, intimidate the voters, demand a recount and if all else fails, stage an all out coupe.

The first third of the film focuses on the election process. Early on, it is evident that the seemingly unassuming Lok will win. Big D, in a fury, kidnaps two of the uncles, cages them in wooden boxes and kicks them down a mountain over and over until they change their minds. When it is clear to him that he will come out on the losing side, Big D becomes desperate, threatening to break off from the society and start his own triad, meaning all out war.

The middle of the film sort of lost me as it focuses on the retrieval of the an ancient baton, the symbol of power for the triad. The tradition is that the baton is passed down from the old chairman to his successor, so it has a particular significance to this election. Both sides race to claim it as a matter of face and power. I feel like these scenes are unfocused and don't hold the tension well enough to build upon. I kind of didn't care and just wanted to see the two guys go at it personally. I wish the film just focused more on the characters of Lok and Big D who we actually do not learn that much about throughout the film. We don't know their history, we don't know what makes them tick, we don't really know their qualifications, honestly we don't even really know which side is better suited for the job, although it is clear throughout that you should be rooting for Lok.

The fact that we don't know which side is better suited for godfather is actually one of the hidden beauties of the film which reveals itself at the end of the film. Automatically we dislike Big D because he is brash, hot headed and prone to violence. We see how he treats people and can only shake our heads. Lok, on the other hand, looks mild mannered, more of an accountant than the head of a criminal organization. In fact he even says as much, the triad should be run like a business a la Stringer Bell from The Wire. One of the knocks on Stringer is that people, Avon included, thinks he may be on the soft side, but behind the smart looks and calm demeanor is a cold calculating gangster who is not afraid to get his hands dirty.

The ending of the film is just so stunning because it is so unexpected and completely changed how I viewed the rest of the movie. Obviously I cannot reveal it, but I literally sat with my mouth open.

This film has a great premise. It sort of gets muddled in the middle, but by the end I was thoroughly satisfied. It is sort of strange that in a triad crime film, the violence is rather kept at a minimal. Anybody familiar with Hong Kong action films knows just how ridiculous they can be but the random spurts of violence are rather subdued here. But when it comes, it comes hard making it all the more effective.

Apparently, Triad Election, this film's sequel is even better (holds a 96% rating on Rottentomatoes). It picks up two years later at the next triad election. If this film's election process and, really, any election in the history of the world, is any indication then I can only imagine how the sequel may top it.

Grade: B

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