The only Triad movie in memory without a bullet or even a gun on display, Johnnie To’s “Election” sees the Hong Kong helmer back in prime crime form following flawed actioner “Breaking News.” Stepping up into Cannes competition for the first time, To has developed another lateral spin on a familiar genre, here a power struggle within a Triad society at election time. Though some general viewers may feel let down by the relatively scant action, To aficionados should vote for this one, and promising theatrical opportunities loom in the West.
Hong Kong cinema has no shortage of criminal power play dramas, including Poon Man-kit’s excellent rags-to-riches epic “To Be Number One” (1991). But To and many of his regular Milkyway Image production team, including scripters Yau Nai-hoi and Yip Tin-shing, focus on the sheer mechanics of power handover with the same kind of glee (though less stylized) as their elaborate criss-crossers “The Mission” and “PTU.”
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The election of a new chairman for two years is due in the territory’s largest and oldest Triad, the Wo Shing Society, whose membership totals 50,000. The two candidates are the cool, apparently reasonable Lok (Simon Yam) and antsy, psychotic Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai).
The latter immediately starts bribing seniors in the society to sway the final vote, but it’s Lok who wins, largely thanks to the influence of a respected elder, Uncle Teng (Wong Tin-lam, the corpulent Triad in “The Longest Nite”).
Big D goes postal at the news, crating up two seniors who voted against him and rolling them downhill to within an inch of their lives. He then stops the outgoing chairman from passing the ceremonial carved baton which bestows final power on the new godfather.
In fact, the baton has gone missing in the meantime, and a chase ensues across the border into China to find the wooden emblem, as open war threatens to break out within the triad society. As the Hong Kong cops, led by Inspector Hui (John Chiang), arrest Big D, Lok and company as a preventative measure, the power struggle continues via their lawyers, with Big D threatening to start up a rival society, New Wo Shing.
The baton finally reaches Hong Kong after a gruesome but also slyly humorous encounter between two Triads (Lam Suet, Lam Ka-tung) in a field by the roadside. But there’s an even more brutal street rumble in nighttime Hong Kong, involving two of Lok’s supporters, Jet (Nick Cheung) and the svelte Jimmy (Louis Koo), before the baton ends up in Lok’s hands.
However, as the official inauguration takes place, there are still several twists and turns left in the yarn, with the real power player showing his ruthless hand in a shocking epilogue. (A follow-up movie is said to be in the works, and there’s enough juice left at the end for a two-generational trilogy.)
Large cast of characters is laid out in a reasonably clear way, though it’s obviously a help if auds already recognize many of the faces — largely drawn from well-known stars (Leung, Yam, Koo, Cheung) and character actors (Lam, Wong), several of whom are To regulars. In an oversized perf that starts impressively but would have benefited from some reining-in overall, Leung hogs most of the limelight, but Yam comes through in the later going as the quiet but very controlled Lok.
Widescreen pic has a constantly simmering feel, thanks to gliding, light-play camerawork by To regular Cheng Siu-keung, mobile editing by Patrick Tam and a fresh-sounding score that’s basically repeated strumming on fretted instruments. As in many To movies, there’s a slight dip in the rhythm at the 70-minute mark as the script cranks up again for the final act.
Original title is simply the Chinese term for the Western word “Triad,” literally meaning “The Black Society.”