This is one of those movies that just gets better and better the more you think about it. Johnnie To has actively sought to bring a realistic representation of the triad to the screen, to subvert the glamourised manner with which the Hong Kong cinema (To included) has portrayed its local gang culture, and lay bare its true nature. These kind of revisionist gangster movies have always been the best, and Election reminded me of The Godfather Part 2 and the magnificent (and still underrated) Donnie Brasco in the way it mercilessly deglamourises modern organised crime while waxing elegiacal about the essentially honourable motives that gave birth to it. Election is the best movie of the year so far, and also a real kick in the guts.
When the elder uncles of the Wo Shing Triad vote for the safe professionalism of Lok (Simon Yam) over the charismatic and risk-taking Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) for the chairmanship, it begins a bloody civil war within the gang. Big D and his men take violent revenge on two of the uncles, and seek out the totemic symbol of leadership, the Dragon’s Head Baton, before Lok can take his rightful possession of it. While Big D and Lok are both soon incarcerated due to the police interest this arouses (“You are suspected of triad activities!” the police mantra goes), their respective factions continue the war as the baton is sought out.
Seeming somewhat slow and structureless at first glance, Election might take a while to draw you into its rhythm. Certainly, it lacks something of the headlong urgency we might expect from To, but that’s because it’s a different type of movie. Action takes a back seat to the intrigue of backroom string-pulling and ambiguous loyalties, and the violence, when it does come, is sharp and brutal. To has abandoned all notions of entertainingly choreographed gunplay. In fact, he has abandoned guns altogether, which is a simple nod to realism: Hong Kong gangsters typically do not carry them.
To my mind, Tony Leung Ka Fai is no longer the lesser Tony Leung. With this movie and the superb Dumplings, his career is entering a new high. His performance as the virtual man-child Big D is exuberant, intimidating and vastly entertaining. But even this only manages second place to the steely cool of Simon Yam, wearing a nearly permanent smile which is at once warm and foreboding. Yam’s Lok is the ultimate modern gangster, which is to say he looks exactly like a businessman.
Absurdly billed by the Melbourne International Film Festival’s guide as “a non-stop action treat”, Election is a demure drama, not an action movie by any stretch of the imagination, but utterly riveting nevertheless. It has the scope and atmosphere of an epic, with the tightness and efficiency of, well, a Johnnie To movie. It is a mark of tremendous screenwriting and direction that the movie feels like just a tiny portion of a vast fictional world: the story, with its great host of sharply drawn characters, histories and motivations, lives and breathes outside the frame, not to mention the running time. And like any story portraying part of a dynasty with no end in sight, the ending only feels like a new beginning. And it’s not a happy one.