Movie Review: Johnny To’s ‘Election’

Rating: 4/5

For those who like well-paced, intelligent, crime movies, look no further than this stylish Hong Kong Triad (Chinese Mafia) movie. Election is the first in director Johnny To’s electionseries focused on the internal politics of the members of the Wo Shing Triad, the oldest and largest criminal family in Hong Kong.

In an interesting inversion of the criminal underworld, it turns out that the Wo Shing hold an election every two years to elect a new chairman. It is at this moment that we are dropped into the proceedings and begin learning about the two main candidates, as well as a motley crew of other characters.

The movie is filmed in a realistic way, often feeling like a documentary. We see the two candidates, Lok and Big D, as they politic their way to the top job. It is perhaps not surprising for a movie of this nature that the two men are very different in their natures and leadership styles. Lok is cool and calm, more like a businessman than a gangster. Big D is violent and clearly has some deep seated anger issues.

The story really starts to pick up when Lok wins the election, but Big D refuses to concede. Backstabbing abounds as Big D connives to prevent Lok from taking power, including the stealing of a ceremonial walking stick (an unusually important symbol for the leader of the gang).

A (not) so violent world

It is interesting that there is fairly little violence in this movie about violent men. In the world that these Triads inhabit, it is often the most intelligent man, rather than the most violent man, who wins. Thus we see many of the most intense scenes taking place as conversations rather than gun battles (a welcome relief from many other Hong Kong crime movies).  Violence, when it does occur, flashes suddenly before us and is stripped of anything stylized or glamorous.

We watch as the characters attempt to come to grips with a range of morally ambiguous choices and as they try to balance tradition with modernity. Greed, for money and power, is the cause of many of the problems that the characters face. However, on the other hand, loyalty also plays a strong part in the film’s story. The ending, when it comes, is both tragic and shocking, but you will still feel reluctant to leave this world.

What American movies/tv shows is this like?:

The Godfather, GoodFellas, Scarface, The Wire, Breaking Bad.

Note: this movie is in Cantonese, so you will need to ensure that you have subtitles (don’ get a dubbed version!). 




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