Vote or Die: Johnnie To’s Gruesome Crime Elections Arrive

Johnnie To’s Triad Election (2006) and Election (2005), both from screenplays by Nai-Hoi Yau and Tin-Shing Yip (in Cantonese with English subtitles), are receiving their American commercial release at Film Forum on Wednesday, April 25. The 52-year-old Mr. To has been directing, producing and writing for television and the cinema for more than 25 years, with roughly 30 features in his filmography, most of them dealing with the gangs or triads in his native Hong Kong. Like many of his previous forays into the Hong Kong underworld, Election and Triad Election are not without humor as they go about their often gruesome business of chronicling the selection of a new triad chairman or “godfather” (in frank homage to the famous Francis Ford Coppola–Mario Puzo trilogy). Mr. To’s bloody gangster dramas have their roots deep in Hong Kong’s history throughout all the imperial Chinese dynasties, the period of Japanese and British rule, and now the domination of the territory by the Communist Chinese mainland.

Mr. To’s works acquired a cult following in Europe and Asia in the 90’s with such widely praised underworld sagas as A Hero Never Dies (1998), The Mission (1999) and Full Time Killer (2001). Ever since the assumption of control over the territory by the Chinese, many of Hong Kong’s famous action directors have preferred to work in exile in Taiwan and Singapore, but Mr. To has remained in Hong Kong—and both Election and Triad Election are surprisingly subversive in their suggestion of widespread corruption at every level of government.

As Mr. To notes frankly in his director’s statement on Election: “Triad Society has always existed in Hong Kong. It forms a major part of the territory’s history and culture. It exists within the psyche of every Hong Kong citizen. During the course of its history, Triad Society has always been associated with the society at large …. Compared to its original patriotic cause 300 years ago, the Society’s reason for existence today is simply practical: money and power. In this day and age, business means everything; however, their means of achieving it are unlawful and often violent.

Election offers a realistic look at what it means to be a gangster in Hong Kong today. Through the bitter rivalry between the stories’ two candidates, Lok and Big D, we see discipline and tradition begin to disintegrate as individual ambition and greed take over. Ancient ceremony and blood oaths no longer occupy any importance beyond symbolic formality.”

The difference between Election and Triad Election is more than the difference between a prequel and a sequel. The first film provides considerably more exposition to explain the signification of the passing of the dragon baton from one triad chairman to the next. Election pits a canny traditional figure, Lok (Simon Yam), against a younger, more bullying mobster, Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai). Lok, a character who will carry over into Triad Election as chairman, will unsuccessfully try to hold onto his chairmanship for a second term. The atmosphere of the two films is a mix of the urban hubbub of an overcrowded city with pastoral sequences denoting a desire to escape the overcrowding through the gaining of wealth and power. Unlike the American crime genre, violence is viewed only as the last resort. In both films, there is a subtle suggestion that the children of the chairmen may pay the highest price for the criminal ascendancy of their fathers.

Triad Election features a more youthful and more reluctant candidate for the chairmanship. His name is Jimmy (Louis Koo), a minor figure in Election, and he is the choice of the mainland Chinese authorities, who make his attaining the chairmanship the price he must pay to trade on the mainland, where the greatest profits are to be obtained. Once he enters the contest, Jimmy is even more ruthless than Lok in achieving his ends. Possibly because of the congested venue of Hong Kong, Mr. To is not big on explosive gunplay, preferring instead a variety of bone-crushing methods of disposing of one’s enemies. In contrast to many recent action films, women are neither empowered nor abused in this predominantly male universe. The visual style throughout is disarmingly classical in the fluidity of its camera movements.

Triad Election and Election will run for a two-week engagement, from April 25 to May 8, at Film Forum, located on West Houston Street, west of Sixth Avenue. (Triad Election will screen daily at 1, 5:45, 7:45 and 9:45 p.m.; Election will play daily at 3:30 p.m. for a separate admission charge.) Though Triad Election follows hard on the heels of Election chronologically, each film can be seen and enjoyed individually with no reference to the other. After all, if you don’t like one of these films, you probably won’t want to see the other, though it might even be fun to see the second film first, and experience the first as a kind of prophetic flashback.

Vote or Die: Johnnie To’s Gruesome Crime Elections Arrive