October 31, 2007
Election/Triad Election: To for the price of one
Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): Election ***½
Triad Election **½
If you've not yet rented Johnnie To's Triad Election (2006), on November 6th you'll have the opportunity to watch it with To's original Election (or "Black Society," made in 2005), when the first film is released to DVD. The actual title of "Triad Election" when it was released on its Hong Kong home turf was "Black Society 2." It's a noticeably inferior sequel that could easily turn you off from watching the original, a masterful piece of filmmaking about the Hong Kong triad organization. While either movie may hold up as a entity unto itself, there is no way viewers can appreciate even the second-rate virtues of the second film without first understanding how the situation in which the characters find themselves came about.
Election tracks the process (it's relatively democratic, for a crime ring) by which a possible new leader is decided upon. His reign lasts but two years and must be solidified via the possession of a very special, beautifully carved wood "baton." Abetted by screenwriters Nai-Hoi Yau and Tin-Shing Yip, To introduces us to a rather large cast, headed by two fascinating antagonists Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Lam Lok (Simon Yam), each with his own style and sentiments. Every cast member registers as individual and interesting in his own right (there is only one major woman in each film, and her role is mostly for show, particularly in the sequel). We get some intriguing history, too, doled out in smart visual terms. The movie pulls you in via its characters and keeps you glued so that when the action finally begins, you're beyond hooked. (Much of the action, too, springs from character--unusual for this genre--which makes it all the more riveting and special.)
Power, its uses and corruptions, is at the forefront here, and To manages to give that power its due. Your sympathies, such as they are, may move surprisingly from one person to the next, until--in an ending that impacts to a degree that is shocking in its depravity and ruthlessness--you are cut utterly adrift. This is strong stuff and it would be good to report that To keeps it up in the sequel, but alas, the set-piece in Triad Election (which undoubtedly accounts for the U.S. theatrical release that eluded its predecessor) is a stupid and unbelievable gore-fest. Most of the characters from the original turn up again here, but in moving second-stringer Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo) into a lead role, To and his writers diminish the movie. In the first film Koo uses his good looks in a smaller role to hook us and make us curious about this character. What we discover in the sequel is that he's pretty and vapid and simply not up to snuff as a "leader." His penultimate scene on the hill, complete with his cries of "I’m a businessman!", register beyond hypocritical into the just plain silly, given all that's come before.
Too bad, because Triad Election does offer some fine action scenes and good performances from the rest of the cast (Nick Cheung as Jet is a stand-out in both movies). Lower your expectations and you may enjoy Triad. But under no circumstances should you miss Election.
Posted by cphillips at October 31, 2007 12:28 PM