Election 2 Review
The first part of Election was a bit of a surprise for fans of Johnnie To, one of Hong Kong’s most talented and dynamic filmmakers, particularly in the area of crime and police thrillers. Despite working in familiar territory, charting the violent consequences of a battle between various factions of a large Hong Kong Triad Society over the election of a new Chairman, the film was dealt with in strictly realistic terms, with little of the glamour and none of the bullet ballets that might have been expected, the director taking a more serious look at the historical legacy and uncertain future of Hong Kong gangster culture as closer integration with China beckons.
The first part of Election, although it did come to a strong and purposeful resolution, was also curiously imbalanced, spending far too long on a chase across China for the Dragon Head Baton that symbolised authority over the Wo Sing Society, only touching on the wider implications and true nature of Triad culture with a precipitated ending that left the real meat to be chewed over in the sequel. Anyone expecting that this would mean a return to the hyper-kinetic style of the director’s past films however, will be severely disappointed, as unfortunately will anyone seeking a more in-depth examination of the underlying themes raised in the first film. Yet again, the film remains imbalanced, the director getting to his point and making it well, but unfortunately adding little to what happened in the first film.
In effect and for the larger part of the film, Election 2 more or less reprises the election contest of the Election 1. Opening again with another taboo sequence of a Triad initiation sequence over the opening credits, the film switches to mainland China, where Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo) is trying to expand the interests of the Society into legitimate business areas, cooperating with the powerful Chinese authorities into an expansion that can make or break the future of the Society. Immediately, To sets up the conflict between tradition and progress, and marks out the territory that the film is going to operate within. Because of his success in China, Jimmy is a natural contender for the election of the next Chairman of the Wo Sing Society. He isn’t interested in leading the Society, but feels pressure from both sides - from Uncle Teng (Wang Tian-lin), the effective Godfather, who believes that tradition must be upheld in order to prevent potentially disruptive elements from destroying the Society, but also from the Chinese authorities, who want someone with the right attitude and power to suit their interests. There are however other pretenders and contenders, not least of which is the current holder of the Dragon Head Baton, Lok (Simon Yam), who desperately wants to be Chairman for a second term. Does Lok still have the ruthless qualities and cool authority that made him Chairman, or is he starting to get old? Can Jimmy put aside his desire to be a legitimate businessman and make the necessary decisions to cut away dead wood and clear the road to his election?
The scene is set then for another bloody and brutal election campaign – and much like the first film, the power struggles to gain the upper hand take up most of the running time of Election 2. There is however no wild and crazy Big D in this film - memorably played in Election by Tony Leung Ka Fai – to counterbalance Lok’s methodical ruthlessness and the film consequently loses some of the dynamic of the prequel. In its place however, since Jimmy Lee has to play Lok at his own game, the sheer intensity and brutality of the battles are correspondingly turned up a notch or two. To’s intention however is not to compete with the glossy action drama of the likes of Divergence or Infernal Affairs - or even his own past films. Through the political scope and serious tenor of the ‘Election’ films, To clearly has ambitions to place them in the league of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, with Jimmy the reluctant Michael Corleone gangster extending his operations into China rather than Cuba. It’s an impossible and pointless task and To’s success is consequently limited by being measured against a much greater film.
Shooting the film in realist style, Johnnie To again avoids any use of guns and explosive action sequences, but nonetheless still finds a way to give the film an incredible sense of pace and tension that is gripping and involving. In terms of filmmaking ability, the director shows that he doesn’t need to rely on flashy camera angles and fast action scenes to create an immensely dramatic situation. He also manages to effectively make his point about the uncertainty of the future of Triad culture and the irrelevance of its old traditions when it runs up against the higher power and potentially more ruthless methods of the Chinese authorities. Significantly, the only gun that makes an appearance in either of the two ‘Election’ films occurs in one of the final scenes of this film, and its implication is clear. But two films of two bloody and brutal election campaigns, no matter how gripping and well performed, is simply unnecessary and too much to make such a simple point about the inescapibility of the connections of blood, family and crime that is only hammered home in the closing minutes of each film, but has already been made much more powerfully in Coppola’s Godfather films.
Election 2 is released on DVD in Hong Kong by Panorama. Like its prequel, 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, with a Director’s Introduction and a Synopsis of the film. The photographs here are also included as a set of postcards if the DVD is purchased from the YesAsia links on this page. The disc is Region 0 and in NTSC format.
There is little difference in the picture quality between this and Panorama’s transfer for Election, both looking reasonably impressive on a casual viewing, but revealing technical shortcomings. There is certainly clarity and stability in the transfer of a fine print that exhibits little in the way of marks, with only very small and minor dustspots occasionally visible - but the image looks over processed. Edges are razor sharp, although there is little sign of edge enhancement, and there are signs of stepping or breaking up of diagonal lines. Blacks are rather flat, particularly on interior shots, where the tone flattens out into greyer tones with little shadow detail. Colours are poorly defined, particularly skin tones, which are smeary and unnatural. The transfer also appeats to be interlaced, causing combing or blurring of movement which is particularly noticeable and distracting on a progressive display. It’s a pity, because the elements are clearly all there, only to be let down by the usual poor standards of Hong Kong DVD authoring.
The film comes with a choice of audio tracks – the original Cantonese track presented as Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS-ES, with an additional Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 dub. There is little difference between the original surround mixes, but the quality of the sound itself is variable. As is often the case with Asian films, the actual live sound recording of voices leaves something to be desired, the centre channel based dialogue often sounding rather dull and muffled as a consequence. Elsewhere in the post-production application of sound effects and music score however there are no problems, the sound distribution across the speakers and the depth of tone coming across reasonably well, without being overly impressive.
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 extras are all contained on Disc 2 of the set, and all include English subtitles. The Interview with Johnnie To (11:56) brings out the director’s intention to make a serious drama, the themes raised in the film and the wider implications of the handover of Hong Kong to China. There are also interviews with Lam Suet (17:18) and Lam Kar Tung (14:16), each of the actors relating their experience of working on the film and working with Johnnie To, comparing how their characters change in the two films. They both discuss important scenes that were deleted from the film, one of which is even included in the film’s Trailer. The Making Of Documentary (7:01) is just more interviews with To, actor Louis Koo and writer Yau Nai Hoi, mulling over the themes in the film. All these extra features have distractingly loud excerpts from the film’s score playing over them throughout. Three 1-minute TV Spots are included which are all more or less variations of the same clips from the film. These do not have subtitles. A Photo Gallery (1.13) presents promotional stills from the film as a slideshow. Many of these images are included in the booklet and packaging of the DVD.
Election 2 is another strong and well-made film by Johnnie To, that demonstrates the director’s ability to make a strong and gripping Triad thriller without relying on flash and glamour. I suspect though that To had higher ambitions than that, hoping to make a Hong Kong version of The Godfather (or more accurately, The Godfather Part II), but it fails to meet those impossibly high standards. Election 2 unfortunately follows the rather more common US tendency of making a sequel that doesn’t vary greatly from the template established in the original. It’s certainly the stronger of the two films – more intense, dramatic and purposefully brutal, making all the relevant points that the first film never got around to addressing properly by taking a serious look at how Hong Kong gangsters may or may not adapt during the handover to China - but the larger part of the film, with another brutal election campaign that splits the Society into factions between traditionalism and progressiveness, makes it feel more like a remake or second bite at the cherry. By doing it the same and doing it better, all Election 2 really achieves then is effectively making the first film redundant. That makes it work fine as a standalone film, but it fails to justify itself as the second half of a complete work, of which much more than this was expected.