Producer/director Johnnie To, (Breaking News, Full-Time Killer) has 45 films to his credit, (in addition to one awaiting release and yet another in production) in the 27 years since making his debut as a director. That’s more than 2 movies a year, a stunning output. (Could it have been accomplished anywhere else in the world other than Hong Kong, where a three piece custom-made suit rarely takes more than a couple of days to complete?) Working in several genres, To’s production company, (aptly named Milky Way) has become a stand-alone mini-industry, garnering this 52 year-old filmmaker an impressive 20 awards and 22 additional nominations for his frenetically-paced action films. (As a sample, just watch the first 20 minutes of Breaking News and try to think of a more explosive and thrilling bank heist.)
He’s at it again in this pair of films, the first of which was released late in 2005 and the second a year later. Clocking in at a cumulative 3 hours and 13 minutes, this epic look at organized crime in Hong Kong bears favorable comparison with Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. But see them both at the same sitting or you’ll be lost trying to follow the myriad strands of To’s storyline…
In the first, the audience becomes acquainted with an oddly democratic tradition in Hong Kong’s triads: electing a young and rising star in the underworld to become “chairman of the board” for a two year period. The power and prestige this position brings with it inures to the credit and authority of “the uncles”, those who’ve previously held that position.
As Election opens, campaigns are underway on behalf of an old- fashioned gangster named Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai) and his rival Lok, (Simon Yam) a quiet, soft-spoken fellow who devotes so much of his time and attention to his preadolescent son that it’s hard to picture him as a potential crime czar. But beneath Lok’s tasteful polo shirts and khakis lies a ruthless passion for power that’s more subtle but just as vicious as Big D’s lethal combination of gonzo personality and physical intimidation. Each man enlists an assortment of thugs, drug dealers and strong-arm men to gather the necessary votes and Big D becomes so confident of the outcome that he instructs his wife to organize a sumptuous victory dinner before all the votes are counted. Yet with the support of a handsome and exceptionally bright underling named Jimmy, (Louis Koo) Lok’s cunning carries the day. Big D refuses to accept defeat and tries to hijack delivery of The Dragon’s Head Baton, a hand-carved wooden symbol which serves as tangible evidence of ultimate triad authority.
A series of dazzling action sequences ensues as both sides battle for possession of the talisman; ultimately, Lok works with Jimmy to persuade Big D to accept Lok’s victory in exchange for the latter’s support two years hence at the next election. Temporarily mollified but no less ambitious, Big D helps Lok solidify his position at the head of Hong Kong’s criminal syndicate, then makes the mistake of exposing himself and his wife to Lok’s unpredictable taste for mayhem. In an ending worthy of Tony Soprano, the audience learns a good deal about Lok which will be amplified in the sequel…
Election teems with colorful characters that enter and leave the action with sufficient speed to keep the film’s various subplots difficult to follow, but even mediocre subtitles can’t detract from the compelling propulsion of this hard-hitting examination of organized crime “Asian-style” and the curiously resigned attitude of the police towards curbing it.
Triad Election picks up where its predecessor left off; two years have passed, the election of a new leader has been called and Lok is up to his old tricks, playing his associates off against each other in an attempt to keep his position for an unprecedented second term. During Lok’s tenure, Jimmy has grown rich and increasingly powerful by engaging in both legimate and criminal enterprises which have gained him entry into the city’s upper echelons of respectability. The “uncles” urge Lok not to try to extend his term as head of the triads and most support Jimmy for that role, despite the latter’s ambivalence; he’s intelligent enough to realize that his brains and sophistication provide a veneer of respectability which argue against taking a more visible role in the triad hierarchy. But mysterious agents from the mainland seek to place someone at the head of Hong Kong’s triads who can be manipulated for the financial benefit of criminal elements in the Communist-run government, so they make Jimmy an offer he can’t refuse - - unlimited access to their lucrative, but highly illegal, offshore resources.
Jimmy rolls up his tailor-made sleeves and dispatches a number of Lok’s principal supporters in a grisly bloodbath which ensures that no foe will be left standing, (or recognizable when fallen) while Lok employs a mixture of treachery, intimidation and murder worthy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in his drive to defeat his former subordinate. But this time, Lok’s son, now a wildly confused teenager, becomes the Achilles heel which Jimmy uses to bring down his former boss and obtain possession of the Dragon Head Baton. Yet Jimmy soon discovers that his new role as head of the city’s criminal organization carries with it a mandatory - - and subordinate - - relationship with those far more powerful and dangerously corrupt government officials on the mainland who insist that he stay “on top” of the triads permanently, whether he wants to or not…as their lap-dog. Victory is his, but with it comes the ominous foretaste of ultimate defeat…
There are more than casual traces of both The Godfather and Soprano epics here, alongside nuanced observations about the corruptive capacity of power and the depths of depravity some will go to in order to attain it. These two films may be thoroughly situated in the crime/thriller category, but they imbue To’s flashing visual brilliance with a moral gravity not often found in offerings aimed at the action-movie audience.
The verdict? This pair of thoroughly commercial films delivers the goods while demonstrating the crime genre’s capacity to deal with issues beyond bullets and body counts.
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