Election 2 / Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai
Hong Kong, 2006
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 12 October 2006
Source Celluloid Dreams 35mm print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
While tunneling back and forth this weekend from Brooklyn to Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival, just about everyone else in New York was enjoying the Indian summer weather, reveling in the victory of the Mets (and the defeat of the Yankees), and seeing Martin Scorsese’s financially triumphant return to the gangster genre, The Departed. To my surprise, the last of these seemed to prompt the most ecstatic response. To me, the fact that Scorsese can still produce a compelling film is not at all surprising, but that he remade a Hong Kong gangster film in order to do so is, at least in some small way, quite remarkable. Late in a career that has devoted much energy to championing the works of Rossellini, Powell, Cassavetes, and scores of others, Scorsese, the inspiration and honorary godfather of many a Hong Kong crime saga, seems for once to be citing his offspring rather than his progenitors.
So while everyone else was off taking in Scorsese’s new film, I was watching (among other things) a film by one of the director’s cinematic scions, Johnnie To. Triad Election, which is elsewhere known as Election 2, is the sequel to To’s similarly titled triad film of last year, Election, but knowledge of the prior film is unnecessary for the new film. This allows the film’s U.S. distributor, that ardent purveyor of “Asia Extreme,” Tartan Films, to market Triad Election as a discrete entity. This works well enough, as To’s film is sufficiently indebted to all of the mobster movies that have come before it, including Scorsese’s films and the Godfather series. Any newcomer to To’s films is likely to find much in Triad Election that is familiar from prior variations on the American gangster film and from Hong Kong crime films in general: loyalty and (more often) disloyalty; honor and family; power and money; and, above all, fear and respect.
The film follows Jimmy Lee, a slick, young ex-Triad member, who has now made a good deal of money in the comparatively legit business of video piracy. With an attractive young wife and a deal with the Mainland government to plan the construction of a major new highway connecting Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Jimmy sees the promise of a new future for himself and his children, free of the seemingly inexorable ties to the world of the Triad. But as is conventional in such films, these ties are not easily broken, and he immediately feels drawn back into gangster life as the election of a new Triad chairman looms. Lok, the current chairman and godfather to Jimmy and a number of other assorted thugs and miscreants, gathers his godsons to dinner, where he announces that he will not seek a new term. This inspires much speculation in the Triad world, with the general assumption that the successful Jimmy is the most likely heir. And though he initially denies it vigorously, dreaming of a straight and narrow future for his family, Jimmy is soon forced into candidacy, blackmailed by the Mainland authorities into acting as their puppet within the Triad in exchange for the ability to continue his thriving business in China. Over a barrel, Jimmy begins a vigorous and contentious bid for the office of chairman, vying with his god-brothers, their henchmen, and eventually the sinister Lok himself in order to stay ahead.
Paradoxically, winning the office of Triad chairman is Jimmy’s only hope for a future beyond the organization, and he is forced to muster all of his ruthless strategy in order to achieve it. Played by the pop singer and model Louis Koo, Jimmy Lee is a dead-ringer for Alain Delon, as boyish as he is utterly cold and unfeeling, with barely the hint of a smile for his lovely wife and a callous willingness to off his closest friends, if necessary. And it is easy to see where he gets it: Lok is an equally poised father-figure to many, perpetually sporting a placid, slightly malevolent grin and dressed in the unassuming habit of a reasonably well-off Dad on his day off. Lok has a young son of his own, and there is a mildly amusing and oddly disquieting scene in which Lok is called in to meet with the boy’s teacher because the young rascal has been caught smoking in the boys room. Lok sits there listening to the teacher with same collected demeanor he might affect while beating someone to death.
This sort of scene has the slight air of a Tony Soprano moment, thrusting a somewhat clichéed gangster into a world of very contemporary concerns, such as the new interference of Mainland Chinese authorities and changing attitudes within the Triad to its traditions. Because for all of To’s studious recreation of Triad protocol — laws, codes, totems, and rituals — the gangsters of Triad Election are a new breed, largely devoid of loyalties and respect for one’s elders, willing to shove an old man down the stairs or carve up an adversary with a butcher’s knife, if the occasion calls for it. The tide has shifted in Hong Kong, and Jimmy and his contemporaries know it. As the elders call for stability and peace in the syndicate, the mantra of the younger generation is “My only love is cash.” A gangster like Jimmy sees the writing on the wall — the Triads, with their traditions and rituals, are a dying breed (as is video piracy); the real money is to be made in China’s New Economy.
This is the principal advantage of To’s film and one of the main elements that keeps it from being but another facsimile of its predecessors in its genre. Triad Election benefits from a good deal of cultural and historical specificity in a way that (one presumes) Scorsese’s film distinguishes itself from Infernal Affairs by importing its plot to Boston. For all its emulation of American gangster films, Triad Election is first and foremost a portrait of Hong Kong, painted in great swaths of black and red, with a surprising formality and lack of glibness. It is, after all, not in any way an action film, although it’s certainly bloody enough in places. To’s interest, as the director declared in his press conference, was to depict contemporary Hong Kongese organized crime as accurately (if slickly) as possible, and not to merely emulate or translate the classics. Whether Western audiences will be able to empathize with the Michael Corleones or Jimmy Conways of the East, single-mindedly mercenary as they are, remains an open question.