“Election” (2005) – A.J. Hakari

The most Americans get to see of the astoundingly complex Triad crime network in a movie is when some lazy screenwriter throws in some Chinese gangster as an 11th-hour antagonist. The full extent of how vast the Triad empire stretches is usually lost on viewers this side of the pond, and although it only takes a few steps beyond where Hollywood has led audiences, the Hong Kong-borne crime dram Election still provides a compelling, if somewhat flawed, tale set in this most hostile of worlds.

The time has come for the members of the Triad’s Wo Sing Society to elect a new chairman to lead them. Such a ceremony is held every two years, and this latest campaign has come down to two remaining challengers vying for the chairman’s throne: Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a hotheaded crook with a “shoot first, ask questions” later policy, and Lok (Simon Yam), a cool and collected individual with big ambitions to expand Wo Sing’s operations even further. Despite all his bribery and shady goings-on, Big D loses the election to Lok, although he’s not about to go down without a fight. Big D all but declares war on those who oppose him, kidnapping and beating up those who voted for Lok before setting his sights on a baton handed down through a century’s worth of chairmen, planning on using it to exploit the society’s traditions and assert himself as the grand criminal poobah. But Lok isn’t one to take Big D’s shenanigans lying down, his quest to get the baton and claim leadership before Big D resulting in enough double-crosses, changing loyalties, and hidden twists to make any viewer’s noggin pull a Linda Blair.

Those whose greatest exposure to mobsters doesn’t extend beyond the sort of stock villains Arnold Schwarzenegger blasted away in the ’80s may be disappointed to see that Election dances a little more often on the talky side. There’s a fair amount of low-key action, yes, but Election really finds its thematic footing in dealing more with mob politics than with who’s going to get whacked next. Your basic “out with the old, in with the new” conflict lies at the center of the story, with those who adhere strictly to the old Triad traditions having to position themselves against the increasingly hostile Big D, who’s willing to take the quickest path to becoming a kingpin that he can find. This may all sound like your basic crime genre fodder, but what makes Election so fascinating to watch is the natural quality the actors bring to the table, a sense of experience inherent amongst the characters. As these guys sit in teahouses and debate who would be a better chairman, you really get the feeling that this is a seasoned bunch of gangsters more concerned with making sure their criminal enterprises run smoothly than with blowing away everything in sight.

Yam and Leung make for a solid pair of opposing figureheads, and pitching in a terrific supporting turn is Wong Tin Lam as a former Wo Sing chairman, a rotund, grandfatherly type who possesses the most wisdom and reason out of all the characters. The only downside is that from a select few Triad flunkies (particuarly the one who actually eats a ceramic spoon out of spite), the supporting cast tends to bleed together. On the one hand, this angle is reasonable, since most of the focus is on Big D and Lok’s rivarly, and virtually all other mobsters are just there to take orders. But it turns into a problem when the screenplay starts whipping out the double-crosses like a blackjack dealer on meth, twists which often catch you by surprise and put ironic spins on certain situations but confuse you just as much, since you’re never really emotionally invested in these no-name henchmen who switch loyalties at the drop of a hat. After a while, the movie’s sleight-of-hand starts to wear thin to the point of being almost painfully predictable, especially as director Johnnie To drags the story kicking and screaming through a clunky final act.

There are times when Election pushes you to an almost giddy state of enjoyment with its sly performances and slow-burn storytelling philosophy, and there are times when all that excitement sort of fizzles and just about sputters out for a little while. But at the end of the day, Election keeps the light going long enough to guide movie fans through the drab mobster genre towards this slick and suspenseful little gem.

 

Rating: ★★★☆

 

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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