Review: Triad Election

Competition over a triad leadership spot erupts into a gang war. Complex, brutal, and fascinating gangster epic from Hong Kong’s best director.

Gangster stories may seem a dime a dozen, but Triad Election operates on a far different level than the average mob tale. A sequel to the equally excellent Election, Johnnie To’s film is largely shorn of the melodrama and sentiment that let viewers off the hook while witnessing the crimes that the genre demands. Triad Election‘s version of the underworld, based on meticulous research and populated by unusually convincing characters, seems as real as a documentary, only one filmed with the technical mastery, formal beauty, and inexorable logic of a world-class director.

The story is based on a triad custom of electing a different leader every two years. In an ironic microcosm of the world of politics, crime kingpins nominate and campaign for candidates, ultimately resorting to whatever methods will insure victory. Jimmy (Louis Koo), a former distributor of porn and pirated DVDs, seems the most likely replacement for Lok (Simon Yam), whose two-year term saw unparalleled profits for the Wo Sing Society. But Jimmy, in the middle of a legitimate real estate development deal on the mainland, wants to distance himself from the triad. When the hotheaded Kun (Lam Ka Tung) announces his candidacy, Lok decides to defy tradition and extend his own term.

Screenwriters Yau Nai Hoi and Yip Tin Shing flesh out the story’s simple premise until it encompasses an entire world of legal and illegal activity. The marvelously drawn characters range from Jet (Nick Cheung), an affectless killer who sports a different wound in every scene, to the hapless Big Head (To regular Lam Suet), who has to placate a girlfriend by cell phone during the middle of a kidnapping. By the time To orchestrates the seven-minute chase at the center of the story, he has more than a half-dozen viewpoints to choose from, a seething cauldron of shifting morals and conflicted aims that evokes the enormous canvas Coppola achieved in his Godfather films.

The chase follows a scene of almost unspeakable brutality that has already become notorious among cult fans. (It’s a bad sign when the contract killer you hired protests that his new job is giving him nightmares.) But To is not an exploitation director, and the violence in Triad Election is not there for fun. In To’s world, there is no escape from corruption, no matter what your motives are, as Jimmy slowly discovers. Jimmy will also learn, in a devastating scene with Xi (Yau Yung), a Chinese cop, that he is trapped forever by his destiny.

Although it is a continuation of Election, Triad Election is a self-contained work that requires little explication. But do not pass up the opportunity to see Election, a powerful, unsettling film in its own right, and one that sets into motion the forces that clash so memorably here. Taken together, the films offer an utterly compelling account of how organized crime operates. They are also further proof that Johnnie To is one of the medium’s most accomplished directors.

Cast: Louis Koo, Simon Yam, Nick Cheung, Lam Ka Tung, Lam Suet, Cheung Siu Fai, Wong Tim Lam, Mark Cheng, Tam Ping Man, Pauline Pan, Andy On, Yao Yung, Albert Cheung.

Credits: Directed by Johnnie To. Screenplay by Yau Nai Hoi, Yip Tin Shing. Produced by Dennis Law, Johnnie To. Executive producers: Charles Heung, Dennis Law. Associate director: Law Wing Cheong. Director of photography: Cheng Siu Keung. Edited by Law Wing Cheong, Jeff Cheung. Art director: Tony Yu. Costume designer: Stanley Cheung. Original score: Robert Ellis-Geiger. Musical themes from Election by Lo Tayu. Administrative producer: Tiffany Chen. Production executive: Catherine Chan. Production supervisor: Ding Yuin Shan. Production manager: Jackson Ha. A One Hundred Years of Film and Milkyway Image presentation of a Milkyway Image production. In Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles.

Tartan Films/Color/2.35/ Dolby Digital/93 minutes

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