In the early 1990s, the leaders of the Hong Kong action pack included John Woo, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung with Johnny To running somewhere in the distance. His only major credit was co-directing the awesome The Heroic Trio (1993) with Ching. But as the 1997 handover approached, during which control of Hong Kong would revert from the British back to the Communist Chinese, most filmmakers panicked. Some came to the U.S. to make Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and others simply laid low, waiting for the worst to happen. However, To suddenly found himself at the forefront of things, and slowly worked his way into becoming Hong Kong's top new action director, consistently churning out reliable, if old-fashioned hits: Running Out of Time (1999), Help!!! (2000), Fulltime Killer (2001), Running on Karma (2003), Breaking News (2004), Election (2005), Exiled (2006) and now Triad Election.
Tartan Films is giving Triad Election an American theatrical release, even though its forerunner, Election, did not get the same treatment. No matter. I didn't see Election, and it was easy enough for me to parcel out what was what. This superb, graceful new film actually has quite a bit in common with Francis Coppola's Godfather trilogy, and so anyone even remotely familiar with that should be able to follow it pretty clearly. Here it is: Lok (Simon Yam) is the current Chairman of Wo Shing Triad Society in Hong Kong. Each Chairman is elected and serves for two years. Lok's time is running out and he wishes to serve another term.
Meanwhile, Jimmy (Louis Koo), has become rich from his Triad business connections, mainly selling bootleg videos. He wishes to move into legitimate business, and has a high-priced highway deal all set up. But he's arrested, and his ability to do business in Mainland China is taken away. Only the Triad Chairman has enough power to trade favors with the cops and reinstate that privilege. So Jimmy has no choice but to run for Chairman. This starts a vicious gang war between Lok and Jimmy, but neither can make an overt attack. If either candidate is accused of any wrongdoing, the council of elder Uncles won't cast their votes.
Lok lures an anonymous hired killer into the picture with promises of his own lofty position, and goes after some of Jimmy's legitimate financiers. Meanwhile, Jimmy attempts to drum up support using cages, chains, hungry dogs, a sledgehammer and a meat grinder (the rest is best left to the imagination). Lok takes care of one of the uncles, the egg-shaped Uncle Teng (played by the wonderful Wang Tian-lin), by throwing him down a flight of stairs, dragging him to the next landing, and doing it again.
Like The Godfather films, the violence comes quickly and lasts briefly, leaving a shocked, slightly foul aftertaste. The movie's real strength comes in the performances, the interplay, and the unknown levels of trust. Initially I assumed that Jimmy was "the good guy," but both candidates stoop to about the same levels and rise to the same heights to achieve the same ends. To and his usual co-writers Yau Nai-Hoi and Yip Tin-Shing concentrate more on the emotional process leading up to the election. (The election itself is something of an anti-climax.) Both men have enough character flaws that we're drawn to them despite their actions. For example, Jimmy has a beautiful wife, with whom he would like to settle down and have children, but he's continually forced to behave sharply with her in order to save her life and keep her protected from his gangster life.
Meanwhile, Lok has a young son toying with entering a school gang to protect himself from bullies. In one remarkable scene, Lok and his gang show up at a meeting between the young, thuggish "gangsters" (with died, spiky hair, piercings and tattoos), his son and another young recruit. The recruits are just about to hand over their dues when Lok and his gang interrupt. One of the thugs sneers and says, "I'm a gangster." One of the older men slaps him and gets stabbed in the leg. It's the movie's most affecting scene, showing the allure, the danger and the ugly reality of the whole gangster situation. Lok's son runs, panicking, and Lok chases after him, eventually growing too tired and falling to his knees in the street.
To can be a crackerjack action director; just check out that astounding tracking shot at the front end of Breaking News, but here he's deliberately restrained, even pulling back on that highly emotional "operatic" quality that many Hong Kong films have. Triad Election is full of quiet, almost severe moments, men in rooms talking, trying to look as if everything is in control. Jimmy sometimes sits with them, looking for all the world as if he'd like to be somewhere else. His face looks pained, having to play these games. The games are easy for him, but unpleasant. Lok's case is very similar, wanting power but not exactly knowing why. In the teaming of these two damaged, trapped men, Triad Election gives us another mismatched pair like The Killer (1989) or Infernal Affairs (2002), connected at some level just beneath the skin but entirely out of reach.