There is much more worth discussing, but nothing can replicate the experience of watching the films. They are the definition of action and political allegory blended together impeccably, resulting in pictures that have never been more relevant to Hong Kong and perhaps the world.Recently, I had the honor of watching Election and Election 2 (also known as Triad Election) for the first time. I say honor because they were screened in 35mm prints as part of the Johnnie To retrospective organized by TIFF, with To himself introducing both films. To is one of the few directors that I find fascinating no matter what. Even his weaker films are interesting in why they fail, be it an experiment in musicality (see Office) or a commercially friendly comedy (see Fat Choi Spirit). But the Election films are different – they are the crime thrillers he excels at making, which, despite their suspense, cannot stop one from smiling at a master at work.
The two films are alike in many regards. Both are about the power struggle to become the leader of one of Hong Kong’s triads. The first film is between Lok and Big D; the sequel is between Lok and Jimmy. I review the films together not only because they complement each other, but also because To noted that the films were part of the same project, although he did not state clearly if they were filmed together. In any case, he was not following the contemporary Hollywood mindset: make a sequel if the first film is commercially successful. From the very beginning, the two films were designed as parts of a larger whole, so they deserve to be examined together.It is impossible to miss To’s distinctive style for it is deeply embedded within the film. Characters are engulfed in darkness as they move and converse in dimly lit rooms. Action sequences opt for steady and enticing cinematography, rather than the confusing shaky cam invading most action films today. But To does not stop there; he knows his ears are just as perceptive as his eyes. The first film contains one of the most suspenseful uses of traffic light sounds I have ever experienced. The score is also praiseworthy, especially Lo Ta-yu’s haunting motif, an auditory omen that carries an even darker meaning when the sequel concludes. Robert Ellis-Geiger’s score for the second film is unsettling too, but its reliance on bowed strings is clichéd to the point that it strikes one as less impactful than Lo’s plucked-strings-based motif (side note, I cannot find information as to what instrument Lo used, though I suspect it might be the Chinese instrument daruan). Nevertheless, the films only cement To’s reputation as a master of action.
While the films can be appreciated perfectly well separately, they benefit when viewed together due to the parallels that unfold. For those who have seen the first film, Lok’s methods to win power in the sequel are not just cunning – they are a dreaded confirmation of his moral degradation. Credits must be given to Simon Yam for maintaining Lok’s composed demeanor without ceasing to suggest that much more is boiling underneath. The parallels between the films persist in the depiction of children. I hesitate to say more, but it is not too revealing to mention that both films deal with the next generation. The chilling difference is that one child lives under the trauma, while the other lives to become the trauma. Even the contenders up against Lok for leader of the triad have interesting points of contrast. Big D exemplifies the stereotypical triad member, but thanks to Leung Ka-fai’s performance, the character’s brashness is always grounded enough to understand. Oddly, what makes Big D worthy of sympathy is that he remains brash no matter what. On the other hand, Jimmy constantly moves between an unyielding public persona and a troubled private self, a balance which Louis Koo strikes perfectly. This distinction between the surface and the truth is not only behind Jimmy’s complex characterization, but also the films’ political commentary.
That brings me to the allegorical part of the films. It is natural that critics, particularly those from Hong Kong, have scrutinized the films’ political subtext, given that various symbols and conversations echo the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China. During the TIFF screenings, To offered a succinct framework to elucidate the films’ political meaning: Election concerns the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, whereas Election 2 concerns the region’s future. Bring on the “death of the author” debate if you must, but the framework stands as an enlightening way of deciphering the films. Locations become thought-provoking elements rather than mere backdrops. Props are no longer confined to symbolizing the passing of power within a triad setting. A character’s philosophy goes beyond reflecting that particular individual. To masks such ideas in masterful storytelling and enthralling action, a balance which admittedly falters in the sequel to overtly highlight the political components. Even so, the allegory constitutes a large part of the films’ brilliance, especially when it has become disturbingly real in recent years.
There is much more worth discussing, but nothing can replicate the experience of watching the films. They are the definition of action and political allegory blended together impeccably, resulting in pictures that have never been more relevant to Hong Kong and perhaps the world. I leave you with To’s disquieting comment (my translation), “I made the sequel as a creative piece predicting Hong Kong’s future. In retrospect, it seems that everything was meant to be.”
Written by Ron Ma
Directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Yau Nai-hoi, Yip Tin-shing,
Starring: Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Louis Koo, Nick Cheung, Louis Koo, Cheung Siu-fai, Lam Suet, Gordon Lam
Released: 2005 & 2006 / Genre: Thriller
Country: Hong Kong / IMDB
More reviews: Latest | Archive
Election and Election 2 are available on DVD in the UK courtesy of Studiocanal.