Director Johnnie To Hong Kong. 2005. 100 mins.
Election sets out to do for the Hong Kong Triads what TheGodfather did for the New York Italian mafia: enter into the mindset of aclose-knit criminal and social brotherhood, and set its members' respect for ritualand tradition against the bloody brutality of their methods. But in trying tocombine the star-driven HK action genre with a more reflective exposition ofTriad power-mongering, To overreaches himself.
One of the weaker competition titles to have screened in Cannes so far, Election is anuncomfortable hybrid that risks alienating both To's original action fanbaseand the new arthouse following he has attracted since 2003, when PTU and BreakingNews worked the festival circuit. Stars Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka Fai, andpop idol Loius Koo always have some leverage on the domestic box office, butTo's half-hearted arthouse lurch is unlikely to satisfy Hong Kong audiences,who prefer their action straight. Set partly in mainland China, Election may benefit fromthe 2003 CEPA agreement which allows Hong Kong product to be distributed in theMainland - unless the authorities get nervous about a film that refuses topaint triad members as out-and-out villains.
Every two years, the seniormembers of the Wo Shing society - Hong Kong's oldest Triad - meet to elect anew chairman. The candidates this time round are calm, business-oriented Lok(Simon Yam) and hot-headed loose cannon boss Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai). Despiteshelling out barrowloads of cashin bribes, Big D loses the election - and immediately swears revenge onLok. After roughing up a couple of the senior triad 'uncles' who voted for Lokby penning them in wooden crates and rolling them down the side of a mountain,Big D sets out to prevent Lok's investiture by intercepting the Dragon's HeadBaton, a carved wooden staff that is the symbol of the Chairman's authority -which has been taken over to mainland China for safekeeping. Triad members havenames like Four Eye, Fish Ball and Sparky, and it becomes increasinglydifficult to keep tags on who's who, and who they work for.
As always in To's work, there are moments of black humour - notably whena brawl between two rival triad lieutentants for possession of the baton isinterrupted by mobile phone calls from their respective bosses... to tell themthat they are now on the same side. Tony Leung Ka Fai plays to the gallery inhis stylised performance as rebel boss Big D, whose defiance of Wo Shingtradition is signalled by his spiky hairdo and the loud, stripey boatingjackets he likes to wear. SimonYam is more impressive as the impassive, perfectly groomed Lok, a family manwho seems, at first to be too mild-mannered to be a convincing underworldgodfather - but whose single-minded pursuit of power will gradually berevealed.
The scene of the Triad chairman's investiture is shot to reflect thequasi-religious nature of the society, and there are moments when the messageof the film becomes decidedly ambiguous. It's as if the director is inviting usto admire the loyalty and unity of this criminal family, its ritual trappingsand formulae, its members' respect for tradition and for the old. A shockingfinal scene set in a bucolic lakeside idyll reveals that this was actually adeliberate decoy on To's part: by feigning his own approval and courting ours,he makes the climactic revelation of the ugly brutality that underpins suchpicturesque brotherhoods all the more effective. But this bludgeoingfinale - To's equivalent ofCoppola's horse's head - is not enough to lift Election. Shotuninspiringly, with a number of underlit night scenes, the film never resolvesthe central genre dilemma of whether it wants to be an action romp, a choralunderworld saga, or the tragedy of a man who for all his family values andcalm, businesslike veneer is as steeped in blood as Macbeth.
Director Johnnie To
Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd, One Hundred Years of Film Co Ltd
Dennis Law, Johnnie To
Yau Nai Hoi, Yip Tin Shing
Cheng Siu Keung
Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Louis Koo