Election Review

As one of the best Hong Kong directors of crime, action and police thrillers including The Mission, Fulltime Killer and PTU, Johnnie To’s Election deservedly featured heavily at the 2005 Taiwan Golden Horse awards and was the official Hong Kong entry in competition at Cannes 2005. His take on the Hong Kong Triads however steps back from ultra-violent action and flashy CGI effects of the modern Hong Kong action film and is a departure in style for the director himself. By focussing on story, character and performance in largely realist terms, Election nevertheless manages to make a largely entertaining film that takes a deeper, more serious look at the historical legacy and uncertain future of Hong Kong gangster culture.

Different factions of the Wo Sing Society, one of Hong Kong’s Triad Societies, are gathered in various restaurants, cafés and bars, having lunch and discussing who is going to be appointed the new Chairman of the Society. The two candidates are Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), and despite some serious disputes between those who know what is good for the Society and those who have taken the substantial bribes handed out to them by Big D, Lok (sitting down to dinner with his son) receives the phone call telling him that he has been elected.

Big D doesn’t take the news well, kidnapping a couple of the Society’s ‘Uncles’, packing them into boxes and throwing them off a hill. He also threatens Whistle, the previous Chairman, demanding that he hand over the ceremonial Dragon’s Head Baton that denotes the authority to preside, so that he can start a New Wo Sing Society. The Hong Kong Police know that they need to clamp down on the Triad activities before this all gets out of hand and round them all up. In the breathing space during the lock-up of all the Wo Sing Society's leading members, the focus is drawn to the one element that will resolve the situation. The race is on to gain possession of the Dragon's Head Baton, supposedly across the border in Guangzhou, China.

Right from the opening scenes you can see that Election is not going to be your typical gangster movie. Where’s the explosive opening execution sequence that sparks off the street violence and signals the need for the election of a new Triad President? Where is the undercover cop who has infiltrated the Triads? Where is the Triad agent who has infiltrated the police? Where is undercover cop who the police force think is their agent but is really a Triad plant? Where’s the contract killer, the slow-motion gun ballets and the face-to-face stand-offs? And why are they instead all constantly sitting around eating? It’s actually rather pleasant however to see a gangster movie that is brave enough to ditch these movie conventions, cut down on the unfathomable twists and double-bluffs and actually get back to basics and tell a good straightforward story rather than string together a bunch of CGI action set-pieces with flashy camera work. It’s also refreshing that the film absolutely refuses to glamorise the Triads or their position in any way, showing them more often sitting around talking and eating rather than carrying out contract killings and takeovers of rival gangs in explosive shoot-outs. In fact, I don’t think there is a single gunshot fired or even a gun brandished menacingly throughout the whole of Election. The only thing these guys are likely to reach to their hip holsters for is their mobile phones.

That’s not to say that violence isn’t present however and while you might not see a gun in the film, the gangsters are not adverse to the use of machetes or bludgeoning victims with whatever hard, blunt objects come to hand. For while there appears to be a bit of humour in this depiction of the Triads gambling, drinking, eating too much and descending into petty in-fighting, there is a serious message here – that the Triads have become fat and lazy, have forgotten their ancient vows and traditions and need to change if they are to survive in the new political climate of Hong Kong. Quite what direction that takes them is however unfortunately left open for Election 2, which makes this film not quite as complete or as balanced as it ought to be. This is unfortunate, as a bit of restructuring to allow the entire film to be shown in as much of its original 3 hour cut as possible could have tied this all up much better and made Election a greater film than it is.

Election is released on DVD in Hong Kong by Panorama. It is released in single-disc and two-disc editions. This review covered the two-disc Special Edition, which is fully subtitled in English for the film itself and for all the extra features. The slipcased digipack also contains a full-colour booklet giving information, in English as well as Chinese, explaining the background of the characters and the Triads. The disc is Region 0 and in NTSC format.

The video quality is perhaps not quite as crisp and sharp as it ought to be. Often it looks well, particularly in daylight exteriors and brightly lit locations, showing reasonable colour balance, if a little on the over-saturated side and tending towards edge-bleeding. Less well-lit interiors and night-time scenes however tend to look a bit light and hazy, occasionally even looking out of focus in wider shots and blurring slightly with movements. The film is not grainy, but dot crawl caused by poor macro-compression is evident, particularly when viewed in freeze frame. As this is on a dual-layer disc with plenty of space, these really ought not to be issues. This is fairly typical of a Panorama DVD transfer, taking a fine quality print and giving it a mediocre transfer – so that it looks reasonably good, but is technically far from perfect.

There are a good range of sound mixes to suit most set-ups, the original Cantonese soundtrack mixed for DTS-ES, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0. All the mixes perform well, but they don’t get that much of a workout. The music score, which features a nice guitar based theme, comes across most prominently in the mix. A Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 dub is also provided.

English subtitles are provided in a white font and are optional. They are clear, easily followed and contain no grammatical or spelling errors of any kind.

The only extra features on Disc 1 are trailers for the Panorama releases of Everlasting Regret and Drink, Drank, Drunk (released theatrically in the UK this month). Disc 2 contains all the extra features for Election and they are all fully subtitled in English.

Interview with Johnnie To (29:02)In a good in-depth interview, the director talks about his reasons for making the film and why he made it as he did, going into detail on several key scenes in the film. The second half of the interview is less interesting focussing on what he thinks about each of the actors in the film. The actors themselves have their own say in Interviews with the Actors - Simon Yam (6:44) talks about working with To and his thoughts on the character of Lok. Although nominated as Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Horse Awards, the interview with Wang Tian-lin (7:47) is based on his work as a director and mentor of Johnnie To. Tony Leung Ka Fai (15:50) talks about how the director allowed his free rein to be creative with the character of Big D, and compares it with other roles he as played.

The remainder of the extras are fairly lightweight. The Making Of (7:19) is a brief but nicely put together EPK featurette which captures well the film’s intentions and themes. Election at Cannes Film Festival (0:53) is a slideshow photo gallery of the cast and crew at Cannes 2005. Two Trailers (1:36), (1:39) are in anamorphic widescreen, but contain no subtitles. A Hidden Extra can be found in this section by clicking on the boulder above Lok’s head. Here you will find an Election 2 Trailer (1:39). Also included are two 19 second TV Spots and a slideshow Photo Gallery (1:41).

Election is a much more realistic outlook on the gangster movie than we have seen in a long time, balancing realism with humour and a serious message, ending on a grimmer note than would be expected from what goes on in the main part of the film, that leaves us in no doubt that the work of the Triads is still a dirty business. Unfortunately, by leaving the way open for this aspect to be examined in the sequel, Election isn’t quite the complete film it ought to be, but what is here is very good indeed and a refreshing antidote to the flashy glamour and labyrinthine plots we have come to expect from Hong Kong action movies. Panorama’s two-disc special edition is a good way to see the film, with a more than acceptable transfer and a good selection of supporting interviews and features.

7 out of 10
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:37:23

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