Election (2005)

Directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Yau Nai Hoi & Yip Tin Shing
Producers: Johnnie To & Dennis Law
Starring: Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Louis Koo, Wong Tin Lam, David Chiang, Eddie Cheung, Nick Cheung, Tam Ping Man, Maggie Shaw, Gordon Lam & Lam Suet

Buy the DVD (1 disc) at:
HK Flix.com

Buy the DVD (2 discs) at:
HK Flix.com

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2006:
Best Picture
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Best Screenplay (Yau Nai Hoi & Yip Tin Shing
Best Actor (Tony Leung Ka-Fai)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2006:
Best Actor (Simon Yam)
Best Supporting Actor (Wong Tin-Lam)
Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Shaw)
Best Cinematography (Cheng Siu-Keung)
Best Original Film Score (Lo Ta Yu)

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2006:
Best Picture
Best Director (Johnnie To)

Awards at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2005:
Best Original Screenplay (Yau Nai Hoi & Yip Tin Shing)
Best Sound Effects (May Mok & Charlie Lo)

Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2005:
Best Picture
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Best Actor (Tony Leung Ka-Fai)
Best Supporting Actor (Wong Tin Lam)
Best Cinematography (Cheng Siu-Keung)
Best Make-up and Costume Design (Stanley Cheung)
Best Action Choreography (Wong Chi-Wai)
Best Original Film Score (Lo Ta Yu)
Best Original Song Dui Tian Ge* (Song For Heaven)
Music: Lo Ta Yu
Lyrics: Lin Xi
Performed by: Silver

Every 2 years, the Wo Shing Triad Society elects their new chairman (Hong Kong people do not have this luxury of democratic elections by the way). The two fighting for the top spot is calm and measured Lok (Simon Yam, in a performance responding to those traits) and loudmouthed, hotheaded Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai, ditto). Despite money switching hands to buy votes, Uncle Teng (Wong Tin Lam, bringing the most nobility the film has) and his fellow senior members vote Lok in as the new chairman. However the leadership Baton passed on from one chairman to another is on the loose and it's clear that Big D isn't giving in without a fight, even if it includes forming a new triad society...

Gathering up a lot of attention through its very explicit poster, showing various hand signs associated with triads and getting a Category III rating automatically because of that "provocation" and content, the latest stylish, cinematic outing from Johnnie To within his particular, dreamy cinema landscape became a hit in Hong Kong at the time of release, something To usually can't count on with these particular productions of his. Also invited to the Cannes Film Festival and rumored to be an 180 minute epic, it was reduced to 100 minutes for cinema and dvd so with a few aspects such as that in mind along with To's rising star status internationally in addition to being a Hong Kong poster boy for dependency, how does this triad story fare then?

If you want to be really simple about it, Election is a very polished triad story. However, it's does not have the appealing nature of the triad life style as seen in Young And Dangerous or the farce like traits of Too Many Ways To Be No.1. It is however To's attempt at trying to advocate the issue of loyalty in a worldly perspective. Probably having pondered it for some time, he's come to a downbeat conclusion and within his Hong Kong world, the triad society is a place where the traditions speak of loyalty, only no one seems to be practicing it for very long stretches at a time. It sets the stage for another fairly visuals driven time with a Milkyway production and Johnnie To at the helm. Cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung's lighting scheme balances the ordinary and contrasts, only not for the sake of being cool but it speaks to the script intentions by award winners Yau Nai Hoi & Yip Tin Shing.

Because the concepts of triads as originally conceived hundreds of years ago is nowhere to found today. Oh the initiation ceremonies may speak to the contrary but when it comes down to it, the seniors are the only ones proud of their heritage. However they have no leverage in the struggle to maintain a harmonic and respectful triad society. They are seen in smoke and shadows, used only by their successors as instruments of power and warfare. Even the police (head officer played by David Chiang) realize that it's not their job to eradicate but to maintain balance and harmony as best they can. Out on the field and within the inner politics, the only word is business. This is sad and I think Johnnie To feels the same way. Because you can arguably call triads at one point in history heroes with values and even the world outside the triads has very little of that in the new millennium.

Even more so is the sad views apparent since Election focuses on that very occasion where corruption, greed and bribes circulates like your everyday election, wherever you go it seems. The hypocrisy reaches all new levels with To's characters as the famed Baton, really a symbol tracking back generations, is for some reason an aspect the power hungry individuals they take seriously! Johnnie To vents. In fact, he vents well and in a valid way but presents Election as a different beast compared to past acclaimed works and I'm not sure it'll find fans in all camps. His cinematic world does contain what you do expect, including stylized settings and some odd ball humour worthy of Takeshi Kitano status but he's got more interest in the theme and edge, which there is plenty of.

Characters are only designated a purpose. A purpose where colourful actors are brought in to bring the utmost workable traits, a choice that works well...for the likes of Simon Yam and Tony Leung. To assigns several scenes the task of being interesting while talky and the plot driven character traits of Lok and Big D serves the frame well. The power struggles are nothing new, in fact the supporting character gallery is unfortunately a little too big to be coherent or fully realized in the hands of more un experienced actors such as Louis Koo and Nick Cheung. They still are in a place where they need more fully fleshed out writing to support them and To has too much confidence in these particular guys.

What To and Milkyway knows is that Hong Kong cinema needs them though but does not need them to give in to the Hollywood way. Based on the direction and star power, Election will easily make acceptable tours of duty around the Asian territories, international film festivals and slowly but surely, bring more noteworthy status to Johnnie's international image. In my mind, that's a grand plan if anything and since To now finally scored a hit again making his type of film, the future is suddenly looking bright.

As mentioned, the length was trimmed significantly and not that it lacks character, the biggest knock in an otherwise immersing work is that the film is very inconclusive in its development of secondary characters (again Louis Koo and Nick Cheung). There's got to be more to it and it came as no surprise to hear that Election 2 is already in the works. So Election is a work worthy of criticism, a work of patience, style, humour and a view of the triad world where hope for loyalty is lost, even for humanity as a whole. It's felt and it's another welcome, if not masterful addition to the filmography one of Hong Kong's very best. Let's just hope the entire scope of the saga can reach even more satisfying levels come sequel time.

The DVD:

Another fine anamorphic 2.38:1 framed presentation from Panorama. Handles blacks and sharpness very well and is completely spotless.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track provides fine atmosphere at times, mostly using the fronts for Lo Ta Yu's organic music and for subtle effects. Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, Cantonese DTS-ES and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 are the other tracks on offer.

The English subtitles provides a very well-written translation without obvious errors of any kind. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.

Released as both single and dual disc editions, trailers for Drink Drank Drunk and Everlasting Regret reside on disc 1 but the real extras begin on platter 2. The subtitle setup menu reveals that Panorama once again has rightfully opted to provide English translation for their added features. I couldn't be happier. Starting with Exclusive interview with director Johnnie To (29 minutes, 2 seconds), To enthusiastically and intelligently covers the ground the on-screen topics wants, ranging from the history of triads in society, why you should even make another triad film, why his latest films have been pure Hong Kong experiences, his particular way of working with actors (the discussion about Wong Tin-Lam is particularly funny), intentions for Election 2 and the experience of going to the Cannes Film Festival. It's the next best thing to an audio commentary and should be made a recurring feature if Panorama continues to handle To's films.

The domain Exclusive interviews with actors contains discussions with Simon Yam, Wong Tin-Lam and Tony Leung Ka-Fai. In his interview (lasting 6 minutes, 43 seconds), Yam offers up intelligent praise about Johnnie To, why it was difficult to act out the character of Lok and discusses his favourite scene in the film. Wong Tin-Lam (7 minutes, 47 seconds) mentions his supporting actor nomination as nothing special because he has won many prior and that he didn't deserve it anyway. Largely though, the program covers Wong's early career in the industry, which is a very welcome inclusion. Tony Leung closes this section (program lasts 15 minutes, 50 seconds), again praising director To in a more colourful way and also talking about finally figuring him out after working more with him on this film. Leung also describes the freedom actors get to mould their characters, past roles vs. the one of Big D and the constant connection many Hong Kong citizens have to triads which is why research barely is needed.

(from the Johnnie To, Simon Yam & Tony Leung interviews)

The Making-of documentary (7 minutes, 18 seconds) does nothing for you if you already sat through the informative interview section. Johnnie To goes over the triad history again and actors Simon Yam and Tony Leung only talk characters but does try to give their perspective on the inner workings of the so called loyal triads. Kudos for the atmospheric interview setting for the stars also. Election at Cannes Film Festival is simply an animated 12 page photo gallery (53 seconds) detailing the cast & crew's trip to the festival but the collection of stills are at least worth one watch. 2 trailers, 2 TV spots and an animated photo gallery (1 minute, 41 seconds) with 24 movie stills finishes of a very satisfying release...almost. As reported on forums, go into the trailers section and press up to highlight the rock. Clicking it will take you to a teaser trailer for Election 2. With the tagline "even criminals can serve their country", the stage is set for an interesting further exploration. Release date is 2006.

The now requisite Panorama booklet (20 pages) looks good, if not a little low on info (both in Chinese and English though). Character bios, a brief history on triads and Director's Statement are included, the latter being the most interesting. To writes about the triad's place in society, whether it's a good or bad thing and what it really boils down to as an organization. Even though his "realistic snapshot" as he calls it may be out of date, he feels it still makes sense to portray something that have for the longest time been part of being a Hong Kong citizen.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

*thanks to dleedlee and for providing the Chinese title