2005/2006Director: Johnny To
Cast: Tony Leung Ka-fai, Louis Koo, Simon Yam
yndicated crime is a complex business. There are so many power struggles, so many players, sects and allegiances. There are double-crosses and back-door-deals. It is rare these days to find a solid film that really delves into the Byzantine mechanics of the underworld—one that explores political and social corruption and makes a genuine effort to unpack the consequences. A gangster movie for the thinking viewer. It’s been a long time since Kenji Fukasaku’s Yakuza Papers hit the U.S. market, even longer since The Godfather. But fear not, because Hong Kong Maestro Johnny To is waist deep in creating the most recent epic crime opera, and it’s been worth the 20-year wait. His first two installations, Election (2005) and Triad Election (2006), are currently playing at the Film Forum in Manhattan, and it would behoove you, thinking viewer, to do everything in your power to catch these masterpieces.
Both of To’s films investigate the intricacies of the Chinese Triads, a secret underworld power consolidation first established sometime in the 17th century with the intent of overthrowing the Manu Chi’ing Dynasty. Over hundreds of years, the Triads evolved into a sort of Hong Kong mafia, more concerned with making money and maintaining power than protecting the integrity of their homeland. Today, Chinese citizens commonly refer to the Triads as “The Black Society,” and it is estimated that, out of Hong Kong’s three million residents, one in six has some connection to the syndicate. My mathematical source calculates this to be 500,000 people, and if the amount of characters present in both films in any way validates this calculation, my source is right on the money.
Election begins in a smoky room. Triad fat-kats, also called uncles, discuss business. Who should be elected chairman? Who is best equipped to lead the Wo Shing Clan, China’s oldest Triad, into the 21st century? Most uncles vote for Lok (Simon Yam), a levelheaded, politics-savvy alpha-male. But there is dissent. The opposing candidate, Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai), is a hotheaded psychopath who doesn’t take well to losing. When he gets wind of the defeat, he goes AWOL, essentially defects, and declares war on his brethren by stealing the Dragon’s Head Baton, the Wo Shing’s ancient symbol for leadership.
Upon being informed that the baton is missing, the clan members understandably freak. A thousand different gangstas make it their business to secure the thing. In the process, a dizzying amount of loyalties are contested, and thugs are tortured, stabbed in the throat, and run over by motorcycles. Nothing is resolved before a tremendous amount of blood is spilled. Desperate grasps for power inevitably yield violence. To takes this Shakespearian maxim to heart and ruthlessly updates it for the 21st century.
He does so in both films. Triad Election kicks off two years after the missing baton fiasco, when the Clan is faced with selecting another chairman. Lot believes his stint as the face of Wo Shing was unacceptably short. He’d like to break from centuries worth of tradition and re-secure a second term, but the uncles want business-savvy Jimmy (Louis Koo) to run the show. Jimmy maintains peripheral ties to the Clan. He is content with scoring huge real-estate development deals and selling pirated DVDs, but when he tries to expand his various endeavors to the mainland, he’s blocked by the police, who strike a deal with him. If Jimmy agrees to become chairman and contain the Triad to Hong Kong, the police will allow him to open his market to a billion new customers.
Jimmy agrees, but the more steeped he becomes in Wo Shing bureaucracy, the more he realizes his potential to be a business man instead of just a business man. The same fate befalls Jimmy that seems to have befallen all who came before him. Power is an intoxicant, and Jimmy gets inebriated. He discovers within himself an uncanny reservoir of nihilism in the face of violence, which imbues him with the fortitude necessary to feed the flesh of his enemies to half-starved German Sheperds. It is acts such as these that drag Jimmy deeper and deeper into the belly of the underworld, and by film’s end leave him spiritually empty and morally bankrupt, à la Michael Corleone in The Godfather II.
Excuse the horrendous metaphor, but Election and Triad Election remind me of two different pieces of fruit born of the same tree. Both films are competent and vital facets of a single saga, but the subtle tonal mutations are what give each its distinct flavor, and serve as a testament to To’s expert direction. If Election is a badass action film with brains to spare, then Triad Election is a badass action film with some serious soul.
To has gone on record multiple times explaining his Election series as an examination of how these ancient societies adapt to the 21st century. He believes they have done so with trepidation and anxiety, and does a damn good job of cinematically articulating the Triad sentiments. To has made a film about the modern incarnation of an old tradition, and how it exists in the new millennium. He has done so without sacrificing that which makes the classic crime films from the old millennium so timeless. It’s evolution, baby.
Election and Triad Election open this Wednesday in New York. They are also available on DVD.
By: Frank Rinaldi
Published on: 2007-04-24