WTF ASIA 24: Election (2005)
As of now,Â the federal government of the United States is still in the midst of a shutdown and the United States Supreme Court is discussing campaign contribution limits.Â In any case,Â this is Election, directed and produced by Johnnie To. No, there is no Reese Witherspoon here, but there is a scene where a character grinds up a spoon and eats it.
Election time is nearing for the position of Chairman of the Wo Sing Society. This has taken place every two years for over a century and, we can assume, without a hitch. This time around, the two candidates are the cool Lok and the charismatic Big D. Of course, not all 50,000 members of the society vote, just the (totally not symbolic of the Communist Party) elders. That means, of course, that Big D needs to bribe only a few men to call him loyal throw their votes his way. Eventually, though, one of the elders browbeats the others for bowing to Big Dâ€™s big money, so most of the votes end up going towards Lok. Big D, however, is not happy. Nevermind that this is only a two-year position or that he could campaign for it again once Lokâ€™s term is up; he paid good money for that position and the results are an insult to his honor. He and his personal faction of the family abduct members from other factions and this ignites an internal struggle.
The movie itself is a little difficult to summarize as there are actually a couple episodes. The main crux of the story revolves around the fight to deliver the chairmanâ€™s baton. The baton is the symbol of the chairmanâ€™s authority and there are fears that Big D could overturn the election results by stealing the baton before Lok can acquire it. Of course, the sitting chairman had the baton hidden somewhere over the border in Mainland China and those in his camp are wary of simply giving it up to either supporters of Lok or Big D in such an unofficial manner. Also, Big D, Lok, and a whole lot of the elders get arrested as the frustrated police try to put a stop to this infighting. The resolution of the baton storyline may seem to be the proper end to this story, but the movie is only around two-thirds over.
My previous Triad movie in this series was the ultra-cool, extremely cheesy, melodramatic A Better Tomorrow. Election is pretty much nothing like that movie. This movie is cold and dry, and it can sometime test patience. The rather simple story of the search for a McGuffin of Power could have been a rip-roaring adventure, but here it is deliberately made grim and slightly scary, with a few touches of bleak comedy. There is much less violence here than in John Wooâ€™s movie, but the violence that is in is hardly cathartic or glamorous; it is just disturbing and matter-of-fact, with pretty much no gunplay at all. The talk of family and brotherhood is extremely limited, with members loyal only to their immediate â€œbrothersâ€ and â€œunclesâ€, but suspicious of everyone else. There are no heroes or good guys. Even those members who seem like relatively good guys are not even relatively so. This is not so much a corrective to John Wooâ€™s gangster movies, but to a majority of Hong Kong gangster movies, including those by Johnnie To himself.
While the movie does have some disturbing violence, it is my understanding that it is the glimpses into the inner workings of Triad Society that gave this particular movie a Category III rating in Hong Kong. Given that both being in Triad is technically illegal in Hong Kong and that Triad members do not want their secrets divulged to the public, this movie was considered a bit dangerous. Election concerns itself less with violence or other criminal activity and more on the politics and rituals of the Triad. I cannot say how authentic the movie actually is, but it has an air of realness that many of the cooler and more violent triad movies do not have. We get a peek into the hierarchy of this society, even if we do not understand it completely. There is one character who speaks almost completely in Triad oaths. And, of course, there is one particular scene that is complete ritual, something that was probably impossible back in the 80s and early 90s when the Triads were directly involved (or, at least made themselves disruptive enough to have an influence) in the Hong Kong film industry. There are smaller, more subtle nods to the inner workings of the Triads during meetings and conversations between the â€œunclesâ€, between the uncles and their protÃ©gÃ©s, and between members of different factions within the group. The words said are important; the looks given are important; the actions, the timing, and the sequence are all important. How important? I donâ€™t know; Iâ€™m not a Triad member.
At the same time, the movie seems to imply that all of these rituals have lost all of their meaning and serve only to give a false sense of legitimacy to such horrible actions. Even the big ritual scene is undermined by the scene that precedes it, with one triad member almost killing another and someone jokingly (or not jokingly) implying that his oath of loyalty has strings attached. Ambition, politicking, and ruthlessness can trump tradition. Even the tradition itself is subtly called into question; the triads may trace their roots back to the five Shaolin Monks who fled from the foreign Qing Dynasty in the mid-17th century, but the Wo Sing elders seem to speak only of the past hundred years as if that means anything in the grand scheme of Chinese history. One could argue that the movie was not being authentic out of respect for the Triads, but quite the opposite; to air these things out in the open and place them in a context where their importance is questionable at best. It is not really making sense of the rituals or even pointing them out; they are just there out in the open for everyone to see. We do not learn why these people are how they are or what they really think. It is pretty clear, though, that they are bad people, regardless of the rituals and beliefs. A pretty simple message for such an intricately made movie, but sometimes a simple message needs to be said.
A sequel to this movie, called Election 2 or Triad Election in English, was released in 2006 and is just as good. There is some Triad movie floating around that has gotten labeled as the third movie in this trilogy, but donâ€™t believe that; it is not related to these movies and I hear that it is not good. There is, however, supposedly going to be a third movie that will be released in 2015, ten years after the first movie came out. I am looking forward to it. I am also looking forward to the end of this shutdown, but that is another story.
Next Time: A Company Man (South Korea: 2012, approx. 95 minutes)
Time After Next: Company (India: 2002, approx. 155 minutes