Election / Election 2
(2005 / 2006)
by Del Harvey
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I have long been a fan of Johnnie To’s films. His work spans quite a few genres, from horror (Victim) to thriller (Fulltime Killer) to comedy caper (Running Out of Time 1 and 2). He’s even done one that successfully both combines several genres and bends the rules of those genres at once, in the amazing Running on Karma. His most recent releases, Election and Election 2, could easily be called the Hong Kong versions of the best of Scorsese. Only, with To, his films always remain uniquely his own.
The story is pretty simple. Every two years the senior members of Hong Kong’s oldest Triad, the Wo Shing Society, elect a new chairman. This exposes fierce rivalries, especially between the two eligible candidates; Lok (Simon Yam), respected by the Uncles is the favorite to win. But his rival Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) will stop at nothing to change this, including going against hundreds of years of Triad tradition and influencing the vote with money and violence. But when the Wo Shing Triad’s ancient symbol of leadership, the Dragon’s Heat Baton, goes missing, a ruthless struggle for power erupts and the race to retrieve the Baton threatens to tear their ancient society in two. Suddenly, Wo Shing must balance their traditional brotherhood ways with the cut-throat modern world of 21st century business.
Like our Mafia, 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 closely associated with the society at large.
It is similar to a political party in that it mobilizes men, power and other resources to achieve its aims. When political and economic changes take place and threaten its existence, Triad Society re-invents itself or adapts. Today, Triad societies are no different from criminal organizations in other parts of the world. Compared to its original patriotic cause 300 years ago, the Society’s reason for existence today is simply practical: money and power. In contemporary society, business means everything; however, the Triad’s methods of achieving success are often unlawful and extremely violent.
Johnnie To says that Election offers a realistic look at what it means to be a gangster in Hong Kong today: People are being consumed by greed and power. Through the bitter rivalry between the two candidates, Lok and Big D, we see tradition and discipline begin to disintegrate as individual ambition and greed take over. Ancient ceremony and blood oaths no longer occupy any importance beyond symbolic formality.
What is so very interesting in Election’s portrayal of a nasty and powerful triad society is the similarity to our own society’s organized crime families. There is a universality to these people’s lives, to the pure drive and desires of human nature, that reaches across cultural and foreign boundaries. And, unlike Scorsese, Johnnie To’s approach adds a somewhat more realistic touch in offering a side of the triad that we really do not see much of.
There are scenes in both films which taken the violence to the extreme, but they seem much more realistic for that level of presentation. In many ways, Election is more than just the typical Hong Kong crime/action picture—it tells of a history and a culture that engulfs and encompasses a major international (Hong Kong) society. But Election is the one those rare films that forces us to rethink our views of what we know and what we think we know.
Election 2 picks up two years later. Lok has been a successful chairman and a good source of income and stability for the Wo Shing during that time. The Uncles, the senior members of the Triad who function as a sort of Chairmen of the Board, are quite content with Lok’s money making. An up-and-coming member of the society, Jimmy (Louis Koo) is building a logistics center in China that will forge a giant, personal step from well-heeled bootleg VCD mogul to legitimate businessman.
This plot element smacks of Coppola’s Godfather series, especially the conflict between Michael Corleone and his desire to take the family business in new directions. The plot element works here, as it provides a perspective on one individual’s personal desire to strive to achieve beyond simply becoming a member of the status quo. For Jimmy’s desire is to build a business separate from the society and a home for his wife and their coming family. However, just like the Godfather films and many, many other Hong Kong Triad films, you’re never out of the family. And certainly never far from its reach, whether it be corruption or violence. And Jimmy soon finds himself as Lok’s chief rival and a divisive factor among the Uncles.
Soon Koo finds himself up to his neck in dirty deals with the Chinese government’s trade office, who has an agenda all their own, and double-dealing against those uncles who would vote against him for Lok. Overwhelmed by his endeavors, he sees his dreams for success and individuality crash and burn in head-spinningly fast succession.
Lok, meantime, seems to have been overcome by his drive for success and power, and will stop at nothing to retain the title he has held so successfully for the past two years. At one point he crosses the line, and begins to take on the Uncles themselves, without any regard for his own safety or the outcome of such unheard of actions.
Both men are in a race to get hold of and keep safe the Dragon’s Breath baton, the ages old symbol of power in their Triad.
In many ways, Election 2 is the logical outcome of such criminal endeavors, which in one sense are the natural progression within a society—any society for that matter—which exalts success over any other virtue. And this, if nothing else, makes Johnnie To’s sequel so apropos to our own culture and lifestyle.
Del Harvey is the founder and editor of Film Monthly. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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