Dir:Johnnie To. HK. 2006. 93mins.

The second part of Johnnie To's contemporary gangster saga, Election 2 will be atreat for fans of last year's original, eager for more from its black-as-pitch Hong Kong triad family.But this exposition-heavy sequel is unlikely to draw in a new audience. Slow tobuild a head of steam, its last act payoff may come too late to satisfy thosenot already committed to To's realistic, cynical viewof contemporary Hong Kong society.

The first Election waslast year's surprise hit at home: for a local film with no A-list box officedraws and a Category III rating (no one under 18 allowed) for explicittriad-related content, it managed an astonishing HK$15m-plus, placing it amongthe top five homegrown films.

Election 2,which opened the 30th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival earlier thisweek, rolls out in Hong Kong on April 26. There, where it will be the onlylocal franchise built from any of last year's hits, it should benefit frompre-sold audience loyalty.

Internationalsales may be tougher, given the film's specific local ethos and reliance on theoriginal. Festival exposure should naturally follow in the wake ofJohnnie To'snow-consolidated international reputation, which has moved well beyond nicheAsian- and action-themed events after successive appearances at Cannes - where Election competed last year - as well asBerlin and Venice. Election 2 plays in the Midnight section at Cannes next month.

Thestory picks up some time after smooth, business-like Lok(Simon Yam) has won election as the WoShing society's godfather for a two-year term. A newelection looms - this triad society, unlike the city in which it is based,democratically votes in a new chairman/godfather every 2 years - and Lok is bent on an unprecedented second term. But his affabledemeanour conceals a core of psychopathic cruelty and he determines toeliminate the other candidates that stand in his way.

Primeamong them is Jimmy (Louis Koo), a model-handsome21st century gangster with an MBA, who admits that he entered the triads merelyas a fast track to financial success. Jimmy's election would consolidate his Mainlandland deals. The film's plot follows in meticulous and increasingly byzantine detail the machinations, duplicitous alliancesand acts of brutality that mark this underworld election campaign.

Tohas a fair claim to the title of modern master of the gangster film. Currentcomparisons to Coppola's Godfathertrilogy are inapt. Those films are grand opera; Tomakes chamber music. His radically low-key lighting, precisely designed widescreenmis-en-scène, and meticulous direction of fineensemble casts are hallmarks of his post-1997 style.

Noone can extract more tension from still, sculptural friezes of actors innon-motion. A scene in Election 2typically opens with actors in a frozen tableau pulsing with potential energy, witha sense of cataclysmic violence ready to erupt just beneath the surface.

Tonally,the film is typical To, with a range extending from moments of goofy visualhumour (To regular Lam Suet clowning around) to an absolutely chilling,relentlessly extended torture sequence whose sickening specificity (it evokesthe horror of the tortured more than their actual physical abuse) echoes, perhapsunconsciously, Abu Ghraib.

What is unexpected is thefilm's narrative unbalance. The first hour is a hard slog through complexexposition without an accompanying crackle of tension. Acts of violence thatlurk just behind the laconic, sometimes obscure, negotiations between gangleaders - and which constitute the kinetic energy that give this kind of To film its palpable excitement - are held back, buried inthe deep shadows that define the film's cinematographic palette. When To unleashes his hounds (literally) it's almost too late.

Audiences accustomed toreading post-handover Hong Kong films against that city's current struggle fordemocratic government will be surprised to find Tolaying all his allegorical cards face up on the table, with a bluntness that attenuatessome of the Election 2's suggestivepower.

While a form of democracy(the Wo Shingfamily's senior gangsters vote in the new chairman) may have been good enoughfor the old (colonial) Hong Kong, the new (Mainland-dominated) HK SpecialAdministrative Region needs something more from its "patriotic" triads.Thus the gangsters come under pressure from their would-be Mainland businesspartners (cops and corrupt officials alike) to set aside these open contestsfor something more stable and controllable.

The ending is open enough tosuggest that it will probably be seen best, in retrospect, as an intermezzo betweenthe formally brilliant original and the saga's presumably upcoming grandfinale.

To's usual stableof (almost exclusively male) actors carry off their roles with appropriaterestraint and stylishness. As with most of To's more personal works, the Election films show more interest in social structures than inindividual psychology. The cast correspondingly gives clear but somewhat uni-dimensional performances, though Simon Yam and NickCheung are standouts at suggesting the chilling tensions lying deep withintheir characters.

Milkyway Image
One Hundred Years of Film

Celluloid Dreams

HongKong distribution
China Star Entertainment
Executive producers
Charles Heung
Dennis Law

Dennis Law
Johnnie To

Yau Nai Hoi
Yip Tin Shing

Cheng Siu Keung

Law Wing Cheong
Jeff Cheung

Robert Ellis-Geiger

Simon Yam
Louis Koo
Gordon Lam
Nick Cheung
Wong Tin-lam
Lam Suet
Andy On
Mark Cheung