Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Johnnie To’s Election

The crime genre has been explored ad nauseam, particularly within the Hong Kong movie industry (the Hong Kong industry seems to have lost its domination of Asian Cinema giving way to other industries, mainly South Korea). Western films through staple efforts by Coppola and Scorsese have also explored it: The Godfather, Goodfellas etc. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong crime genre has been influential; proof of it is Scorses’s remake The Departed, based on the highly successful Infernal Affairs. Recently however, it seemed that other than a few noteworthy films, the genre was recycling themes and ideas without having new grounds to explore. Election is proof that the genre still has life and shouldn’t be disregarded just yet.

Although I was not familiar with Johnnie To’s work (I had seen Mad Detective and wasn’t impressed) I had heard many positive reviews of his oeuvre. I was particularly excited about Vengeance, which debuted last year in Cannes, even thought it had not fared well with the critics. The idea of French crooner Johnny Hallyday, playing a chef seeking revenge over the death of his family sounded appealing to me (maybe it reminded me of Steven Segal’s Casey Ryback in Under Seige which I must admit is a guilty pleasure of mine). I also heard Quentin Tarantino championed Election but precisely because of that I decided not to delve into it, fearing it would be mostly style over substance.  Because of this, I was expecting a completely different movie, something more in the realms of a B-movie. I was so wrong. Election is a subtle study of Hong Kong’s society and culture through the eyes of a Triad Organization echoing some universal political ideas.

The story centers on the election for the leader of the Wo Sing Triad. Two candidates on the opposite end of the spectrum want to be the leader of the Wo Sing for the next two years; Lok (Simon Yam) the cool headed and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) the uncontrollable hot head.

On a side note and totally unrelated matter, Lok’s calm demeanor reminded me of SNL’s Obama Plays it Cool.

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The movie does have some interesting discussions about what would be the desirable characteristics of their leader in order to continue expanding the business while at the same time remaining stable (desirable qualities as well for CEO or a President). As we can see in the movie, the Triads have been an Organization alive for hundreds of years (even longer than some political parties or even political systems) and a big reason for their success is their quasi-religious following of traditions.

On the other hand, the Police aware of their inability to fight the Triads have decided that they role should be limited to ensure the least amount of violence and bloodshed, which can only be achieved through a swift transition of power within the Wo Sing.

This sets up the scene for the struggle for power between the two “candidates”. The way they fight is somewhat reminiscent of a chess game. The action elements of the film are minimum, yet we do get to see a few minutes of action through a more “realistic” eye.

Election seems to take some of its cues from The Godfather, but using a wider canvas. Instead of focusing on the family, albeit all of the Wo Sing members are brothers, it attempts to describe not only the nucleus of society (the family) but society as a whole. That successful attempt raises the bar for future crime films, which although not a novel theme, it does approach it in a way that seems fresh.

Johnnie To proves that the Hong Kong cinema is still relevant and still has a lot to offer.

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