With his induction into Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range imminent (Mad Detective being due for DVD and Blu-ray release in early November), it’s probable that Johnnie To’s profile in the UK may rise. Incredibly prolific over the past two decades his output has haphazardly seen theatrical showings and UK DVD offerings over the last few years, the more recent being Triangle, a collaboration with Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam. But given this sporadic nature to his big- and small-screen distribution it could prove daunting to find a place begin. After all there’s the likes of The Heroic Trio (his first, to my knowledge, to gain a theatrical release in the UK, however brief) and its comic book martial artistry, the Woo-ish pyrotechnics of Fulltime Killer or this particular disc, Election from 2005; each having its own particular qualities in relation to its chosen genre.
For Election that means the Triad movie, though it’s considerably less flashy than its A Better Tomorrow and Young and Dangerous counterparts. Indeed, Election was To’s first film to gain entry in the main competition at Cannes and also took away a host of prizes at the Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Film, Director, Actor and Screenplay. Comparisons, then, have been better suited to The Godfather with which it shares its multi-cast, multi-character portrait of underworld society and a penchant for scenes set in smoky backrooms. More to the point, Election is no doubt clearly aware of such similarities, hence a sequel within the space of a couple of years and distributor Optimum’s decision to dub this ‘Volume One’, i.e. only the entry point into a much bigger saga.
However, I’m more inclined to notice The Sopranos as the plot unfolds. Once again the multi-cast set-up applies, especially in the naming of the characters (Big D, Uncle Cocky and Whistle could all figure on the tongues of David Chase’s creations), but more constructive is the debunking of familiar Triad portrayals. To is going for realism here which means the toning down of the excesses employed in Fulltime Killer, for example, and a greater emphasis on character moments: the scene in which the feared and respected Uncle played by one-time genre specialist Wong Tin Lam mopes around his prison cell holding up his trousers in an undignified manner as his belt has been removed is clearly a key little touch, however off the cuff it may seem. Similarly the gentle pans, unobtrusive zooms and crisp photography allow for a classy edge into which the more obviously stylish set pieces fit seamlessly without tipping the balance.
This focus on form (on my part) is intentional as it is easy on an initial viewing to get somewhat lost within this densely populated milieu. In a nutshell, however, what we have is fairly simple tale of rival Triad factions coming into being courtesy of the titular election. The choice of a new leader is impending and the options effectively boil down to the calm and considered Lok (played by Simon Yam) and the more outlandish Big D (Tony Leung, the one from Dumplings and The Lover, not Wong Kar-Wai’s regular leading man). Needless to say, D’s aggression gets the better of him sparking murderous set pieces, police intervention and last-minute changes of position. What’s particularly interesting is the manner in which To manages to streamline all of this – and its attendant subplots – into little more than 90 minutes of screen time; perplexing at first glance, but rich enough to sustain multiple re-viewings.
Of course such a scant duration cannot even dare to compete with The Sopranos’ multiple seasons and as a result the quality of the ensemble does waver a bit. Election is ripe in intriguing cameos, though as one of the two leads Leung does have a tendency to overplay his hand: the one element of chaos in To’s carefully controlled whole. (To quote a line from the movie: “Harmony, not a one-man show.”) It is difficult to apportion exactly where the blame lies – with Leung or with the screenplay? – though whilst it’s a definite flaw at the heart of the film it’s also never quite overpowering enough to mis-steer the whole enterprise. Indeed, everyone else seems to react against Big D/Leung thus toning it down a little, plus there are many riches and points of interest besides. For a taste of To – currently Hong Kong’s most enticing genre practitioner - Election has more than enough to satisfy as an introduction for the uninitiated.
Released by Optimum back in 2006, Election comes with a generally fine presentation, some worthwhile extras and can now be picked up for less than a fiver (see the Price Devil comparisons below). The film is presented anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and it’s only major flaw is the burnt-in, and rather sizeable, English subtitles. Otherwise we thankfully do without standards conversion issues resulting in a clean, crisp image unhampered by damage or any overt technical problems. There is a slight grain detectable during some of the scenes, though little to distract from the fine photography. The soundtrack comes in both DD2.0 and DD5.1 options, the latter of course being preferable, not that either demonstrates any discernible problems. Dialogue is clear throughout and the fine score by Lo Tayu (with its Western resonances) sounds superb.
Of the extra features the seven-minute ‘making of’ featurette is best avoided. Poor presentation and non-optional English subtitles aside, it never really gets under the skin of the film offering merely B-roll footage and superfluous interviews with To and his two leads. Thankfully Optimum have also included a far more interesting interview gallery to compensate, the 29-minute chat with To being the high point. Wide-ranging in its discussion this piece finds the time to cover all the angles, from influences and casting decisions to breakdowns of key scenes and brief mention of the sequel. Also present are similar pieces with Leung (15 mins), Yam (6 mins) and Wong Tin Lam (7 mins), though their briefer durations don’t quite allow as much depth. Nonetheless they amount overall to almost an hour’s worth of information and insight, particularly when Wong touches on his own past career as director. Rounding off the package we also find room for a handful of Optimum Asia trailers (Azumi, A Better Tomorrow and Memories of Murder plus a four-page booklet offering brief notes on the history of the Triads.