Sunday, July 06, 2008

Election: Grade B

Election (2005)
Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka Fei; Director Johnny To. (Cantonese; subtitled)

This Hong Kong gangster film is one of the best of the genre. There is already an “Election II” sequel out (not yet on DVD). In this movie, a 100 year old triad (gang) elects its new chairman (Yam), but the loser, "Big D" (Leung) does not accept defeat. He tries kidnapping, bribery, and intimidation to get his way, but the “honor” of the gang’s tradition does not yield. Big D declares he will form his own organization (with himself as boss) declaring war on the others. But the police round up all the leadership, and there are meetings in prison. The winner and the loser agree to work together, sort of, for a while, maybe. The story is easily strong enough to sustain the action. The violence is brutal and shocking (as is the custom in this genre), but also very personal because there are no guns in the whole movie! Enemies are beaten, stabbed, run over with cars, bashed with shovels and hit with whisky bottles. I kept imagining guns that were not there. Three black Mercedes screech to a stop and 12 thugs jump out. Cue the ouzi’s! But no, it is a fistfight with knives, machetes, boxes, and steel barrels. It’s amazing how much more effective the violence is without the depersonalization of the gun. There’s no martial arts either, making every scene feel realistic. The sharp dialog and good characterizations also help us engage with the humanity of the characters. There is a real sense that these guys are like any society of people, with history, tradition, and alliances, dealing with their particular culture of violence, individual talents, social hierarchy, and even mental illness. The scene with a community of monkeys watching a violent murder is especially telling. You come away appreciating the breadth and depth of Triad life in Hong Kong.

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