And now for a movie about an election that goes more smoothly than the 2020 US Presidential Election. No, there is no Reese Witherspoon here, but there is a scene where a character grinds up a spoon and eats it.
Election time is nearing for the position of Chairman of the Wo Sing Society. This has taken place every two years for over a century and, we can assume, without a hitch. This time around, the two candidates are the cool Lok and the charismatic Big D. Of course, not all 50,000 members of the society vote, just the (totally not symbolic of the Communist Party) elders. The movie begins with a group of triad members discussing the two candidates while sitting in a private area of a restaurant. Some like Lok because he looks out for his fellow “brothers” and gets along with them. Others prefer Big D’s ambition and potential for strong leadership.
The meeting gets interrupted by a group of police. They arrest all of the triad members, but allow them to wear hoods when taken outside so that the public does not get a look at their faces.
Now we meet Big D and an example of his leadership. He meets with a guy named Fish Head on a boat and gives him 200K, which I think is around $26,000 USD. The money is for Fish Head to tell the elder named Uncle Cocky to vote for Big D. Yeah, it is an outright bribe. He is not exactly nice about it, tossing the envelop of cash at Fish Head’s head. Fish Head asks for a little cut for himself, but Big D tells him that that will have to wait until after he is elected.
Big D starts jokingly suggesting that Fish Head should retire. Everyone laughs, including Fish Head’s underling, Jet, is also laughing at this. Displaying his strong leadership, Big D tells Jet to eat a porcelain spoon. So…uh…Jet breaks the spoon and…eats part of it. He is about to eat the rest, when Big D says that he was joking. A bit late for that. Jet continues to eat the spoon anyways while glaring at Big D. Big D tells him that he follows orders like a dog and leaves. Jet finishes the spoon. Fish Head warns Jet not to mess with Big D; at least wait until he is somebody to do something.
Lok is speaking with a chicken smuggler by the border. Noting the loss of two nightclubs to the Lum Society, Lok promises to expand the turf of the Wo Sing Society if elected. He asks the smuggler to secure Uncle Fat’s support for him. The smuggler makes no promises, and notes that Big D’s turf is his outlet for dope. Lok smiles. It is unclear how the conversation concludes.
Lunchtime at the police precinct. By this time, the six triad members from the beginning have been released on bail. A younger officer says that they should all be shot. An older officer responds that more would just spring up. All the police can do is manage the triads and try maintain balance, for the sake of peace and prosperity. Heh…imagine that. Police trying to minimize violence.
Uncle Long Gun was supposed to receive 200K from Big D, but his underling, Brother Sam, had gambled it away, so Sam’s underling, Jimmy, lets him have the 100K of his own earnings that he had with him and they let Uncle Long Gun believe that it was from Big D. After Long Gun…um…checks out one of the prostitutes working for Jimmy, he curses out Big D for giving him half of what Uncle Cocky received. So, he will not be supporting Big D for chairman.
A meeting of the Uncles. The points seem to be the same as from the first meeting. Big D makes money, while Lok looks out for people. Eventually, Uncle Teng browbeats the others for bowing to Big D’s big money, so almost all of the votes end up going towards Lok.
Lok is ecstatic.
Big D, however, is not happy. Never mind that this is only a two-year position or that he could campaign for it again once Lok’s term is up; Big D paid good money for that position and the results are an insult to his honor. He had even prepared a big banquet to celebrate the occasion, so Mrs. Big D has to go compensate the restaurant for the cancelation.
Uncle Teng is telling Lok about the significance of the chairman’s Dragon Head Baton, which has been used for over a hundred years. It used to allow the chairman to identify himself only when necessary, but now it is a symbol of his authority. Lok shall retrieve it from someone named Whistle and will be responsible for its well-being.
Of course, Big D is not simply going to take this lying down. He is going to contest the election. Big D’s personal faction of the family abducts Uncle Long Gun and Brother Sam, puts them into crates, and transports them up a hill. Big D calls Whistle and demands that he hand over the baton. Whistle seems very reluctant to defy Uncle Teng, but Big D ends the call. And then he kicks the crates down the hill. His underlings go to bring the crates back up so that Big D can kick them down again.
And…it works. Whistle calls up Uncle Teng and tells him that he will not hand over the baton to Lok and hangs up before Uncle Teng can tear into him.
News reaches Lok. He calls up Big D and tries to reason with him, but Big says that Lok is nothing without the baton.
And now the race is on. There are fears that Big D could overturn the election results by stealing the baton before Lok can acquire it. Of course, the sitting chairman had the baton hidden somewhere over the border in Mainland China and those in his camp are wary of simply giving it up to either supporters of Lok or Big D in such an unofficial manner. As things spiral out of control, the frustrated police try to put a stop to this infighting by just arresting anyone whom they can.
My previous Triad movies in this series have the ultra-cool, extremely cheesy, and/or melodramatic. Election is pretty much nothing like them. This movie is cold and dry, and it can sometime test patience. The rather simple story of the search for a McGuffin of Power could have been a rip-roaring adventure, but here it is deliberately made grim and slightly scary, with a few touches of bleak comedy. There is much less violence here than in a John Woo movie, but the violence that is in is hardly cathartic or glamorous; it is just disturbing and matter-of-fact, with pretty much no gunplay at all. The talk of family and brotherhood is extremely limited, with members loyal only to their immediate brothers and uncles, but suspicious of everyone else. There are no heroes or good guys. Even those members who seem like relatively good guys are not even relatively so. This is not so much a corrective to John Woo’s gangster movies, but to a majority of Hong Kong gangster movies, including those by Johnnie To himself.
While the movie does have some disturbing violence, it is my understanding that it is the glimpses into the inner workings of Triad Society that gave this particular movie a Category III rating in Hong Kong. That means no one under 18 was allowed to see this in theaters. Given that both being in Triad is technically illegal in Hong Kong and that Triad members do not want their secrets divulged to the public, this movie was considered a bit dangerous. Election concerns itself less with violence or other criminal activity and more on the politics and rituals of the Triad. I cannot say how authentic the movie actually is, but it has an air of realness that many of the cooler and more violent triad movies do not have. We get a peek into the hierarchy of this society, even if we do not understand it completely. There is one character who speaks almost completely in Triad oaths. And, of course, there is one particular scene that is complete ritual, something that was probably impossible back in the 80s and early 90s when the Triads were directly involved (or, at least made themselves disruptive enough to have an influence) in the Hong Kong film industry. And probably not possible now with the PRC breathing down the industry’s throat. There are smaller, more subtle nods to the inner workings of the Triads during meetings and conversations between the uncles, between the uncles and their proteges, and between members of different factions within the group. The words said are important; the looks given are important; the actions, the timing, and the sequence are all important. How important? I have no idea; I am not a Triad member.
At the same time, the movie seems to imply that all of these rituals have lost all of their meaning and serve only to give a false sense of legitimacy to such horrible actions. Even the big ritual scene is undermined by the scene that precedes it, with one triad member almost killing another and someone jokingly (or not jokingly) implying that his oath of loyalty has strings attached. Ambition, politicking, and ruthlessness can trump tradition. Even the tradition itself is subtly called into question; the triads may trace their roots back to the five Shaolin Monks who had fled from the foreign Qing Dynasty in the mid-17th century, but the Wo Sing elders seem to speak only of the past hundred years as if that means anything in the grand scheme of Chinese history.
One could argue that the movie was not being authentic out of respect for the Triads, but quite the opposite; to air these things out in the open and place them in a context where their importance is questionable at best. It is not really making sense of the rituals or even pointing them out; they are just there out in the open for everyone to see. We do not learn why these people are how they are or what they really think. It is pretty clear, though, that they are bad people, regardless of the rituals and beliefs. A pretty simple message for such an intricately made movie, but sometimes a simple message needs to be said.
A sequel to this movie, called Election 2 or Triad Election in English, was released in 2006 and is just as good. There is some Triad movie floating around that has gotten labeled as the third movie in this trilogy, but do not believe that; it is not related to these movies and I hear that it is not good. There was supposedly going to be a third movie that will be released in 2015, but that did not happen. There have been reports of potential sequels, but they mostly seem to be hoaxes or someone trying to will a wish into reality. Given how Xi Jinping’s PRC has “influenced” Hong Kong’s film industry over the past few years, the third movie is unlikely to happen without being de-clawed. Sure, I am guessing that Xi would love Johnnie To to make a movie that provides a cynical take on elections being controlled by a small cabal of elderly men and being as fragile an institution as anything else, but the digs taken at the Mainland will probably not fly. Still, To managed to give us this movie and the second movie. If they are all that we get, then that is good enough.
WTF ASIA 140: The Truth Beneath (South Korea: 2016, approx. 103 minutes)
WTF ASIA 141: NH10 (India: 2015, approx. 107-111 minutes)