Story: The Wo Sing triads of Hong Kong have to elect a new leader. There is talk about impetuous, rough and
energetic Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) or calm, cool minded Lok (Simon Yam) to be the new boss.
Big D tries to get the votes of the "Elder" by bribing them. However, Uncle Teng (Wong Tin-Lam) convinces the
community that the election has to be carefully thought through and that Lok might be the superior leader.
Lok is eventually elected as the new chairman of the triads. Still, before he can succeed to the throne he first has to hold an ancient dragon head baton in his hands, that is given from one former chairman of the Wo Sing community to the next, according to old traditions. Big D isn't really happy about the Elders' decision and works against the communities decision, now. He wants to get his hands on the dragon head baton himself in order to exert pressure on the Wo Sing.
The internal power struggles are on the brink of turning into an escalation and when the police, lead by Hui (David Chiang) enters the game, all hell is about to break loose.
Review: Johnnie To surely didn't create a masterpiece with this movie. Nonetheless, "Election" is a nice
attempt to (once again) shed some light onto the world of triads and the mechanisms at work. To is quite successful
concerning this aspect, but sadly his film falters when it comes to entertainment value. His movie's pacing drags a lot,
it's not really enthralling and actually there is nothing new for us to discover here.
If you are expecting action scenes in best To-style then you'll get even more disappointed. "Election" is a calm drama, which nevertheless can also be quite thrilling at times. It's just that the viewer loses his interest in the story and the different characters, because of the confusing script. This is the more odd as the plot is rather simple at its core. The problem is that there are way too many side characters and stories that make the plot unnecessarily difficult too follow.
Without a doubt, To tries really hard to bring the workings and principles in a triad organisation on screen as realistically as possible. It's all about honor and brotherhood, the concepts an organisation like this holds up for its members to follow. Without any rules a society like the triads wouldn't exist for long. Those who revolt against the society should have at least a few tricks up their sleeve, because otherwise you might end up in a grave pretty soon.
Lok is just the right guy for the Wo Sing, because he is calm and cool-headed. Somewhat wacky and bold Big D, however, won't accept that he hasn't been elected and so he starts a power struggle with the organisation. Fortunately, this doesn't lead to a cheap war unfolding, instead the theme is approached in a more subtle way. Here, one boss negotiates with another, lawyers are consulted and even the police has a few words to say. Yet, this all brings us to the main problem of the movie, because these scenes can become quite tedious. There are numerous names thrown at us, we oftentimes have to ask ourselves what function the person serves we just see on screen, and if we finally have found out, there are at least two new characters introduced to us. With time it becomes really arduous to keep track of who is who.
Moreover, there are also some unintentionally funny scenes, for example when one hand doesn't seem to know what the other one is doing. Kun is beating up loyal Big Head, excellently played by Lam Suet, when he gets a phone call and has to find out that he actually is on the same side with his victim. It's good to see that not only the audience doesn't know who is working for which boss to get the dragon head baton back, but the triads themselves seem to lose track of what's going on, too.
Anyway, this whole hunt for the baton seems to be somewhat pointless. In the end it turns out that most of the triads have been fighting each other in vain, anyway, as they prove to stand on the same side, eventually.
The role the police has to play in the movie is as little as it gets. Former Shaw-Brothers Star David Chiang desperately tries to get in the triads' ways, but deep down he knows that he can't do a thing against them. His only goal is to get the triads work within a frame that doesn't involve the public or doesn't disturb "peace". For this he tries to draw some new borders and keep the triads within them whenever they trespassed the old ones. This adds to the realistical approach of the film, but it also means that there is no thrilling good-against-evil game, which is unfortunate because it's really hard to relate to the villians. And there is no one else offered for us to sympathize with.
Simon Yam provides us with a convincing performance as always. His character remains calm no matter what happens and he has a very modest charisma to him, which almost makes him somewhat sympathetic. However, this picture soon gets destroyed when we have to see that behind this friendly mask a cold-blooded killer is hiding, who only cares about his own profit. Since he is a single parent father, having to provide for a son, it would have been nice if we could have taken a closer look at this aspect of his life. But this wish isn't granted and therefore Lok's human side remains a blank sheet.
Tony Leung Ka-Fai is the serious, yet jumpy-charismatic gangster Big D, who is playing the rival of Lok. He may be the most honest guy in the whole organisation. That is because he doesn't hide the fact that everything he wants is just power and money.
"Election" also has the strange habit to introduce numerous side characters, of which some are better written than Lok or Big D themselves. There are several famous stars to be seen, too. Apart from the already mentioned ones there are also Louis Koo, Nick Cheung, Raymond Wong, Andy On and Wang Tian-lin sharing the same screen.
Johnnie To manages to create a well done milieu-study, in which he unravels that there are no "good" guys among the triads, but he doesn't succeed in keeping the viewer interested in his work, which is because "Election" lacks the qualitiy of being captivating. You don't need to have some action scenes to improve your movie, yet somehow you miss them in this one. It's really interesting that there is not even one single shoot-out. There is only one little knife-drawing scene in which Nick Cheung's character is involved that deserves to be mentioned.
Every kill is portrayed in the most realistic fashion, though, and so there is also a lot of violence to be found. The most disturbing bursts of violence are those when the victims are monotonously hit by a stone or another blunt weapon until they don't maky any sound anymore.
In general, you have to give To credit for the great gritty-nihilistic atmosphere and the excellent pictures, yet there are just too many flaws for it to really matter.
The expectations for "Election" were quite high, but To can't meet them. The movie's pacing is too slow and the storytelling is too confusing. The ending might make up for some of the flaws, even if it is more of an anti-climax, which, however, just fits into the rest of the film, yet it can't make up for everything.
To's bottom line: Even though triads pretend that it's all about honor and brotherhood, when it comes to it, it's actually just about the money and power.
Bottom line of this review: A nice attempt to bring the dark and gritty world of triads onto screen, but sadly the story-wrapping is troublesomely confusing and there is almost no tension to keep the viewer interested in what's going on.