J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Election

Big D is the Al Gore of the Triads. He assumed he was next in line for the two-year chairmanship of the Wo Shing Society, but the Uncles elected Lok instead. So, does he accept the results of the voting and concentrate on his own business? No, of course not. The resulting power struggle escalates into full-scale street violence in Johnnie To’s modern classic Election (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Frankly, Lok appears to be the more forward-thinking of the two candidates, whereas Big D can fly off the handle a wee bit. Slightly disappointed by the election results, Big D lashes out at two swing-voters he holds responsible. In response, the outgoing chairman dispatches his lieutenants to China with the Dagon Baton, which is ceremoniously handed down to each new chairman. Thus, begins a mad scramble between the two factions for strategic possession of the baton. However, most of the plotting will be done within prison after Chief Superintendent Hui has both candidates and several senior uncles arrested, in hopes of preventing open war.

This is the film that will probably always come up first when you google Johnnie To—and for good reason. For many, it was also their gateway drug into a full-on Hong Kong cinema addiction. It is a lean, mean, snarling machine of a film, but there is also something strangely beautiful about its savage austerity.

Both Simon Yam and “Big” Tony Leung Ka-fai give classic, career-defining performances as the diametrically-opposed Lok and Big D, respectively. There scenes together are pure movie magic—those who have seen it will instantly know what I mean.

They are indeed the bosses of bosses, but Election is fully loaded with first-rate supporting turns. Lam Suet and Gordon Lam are terrific as Big Head and Kun, two henchmen initially on opposite sides of the factional divide, who meet rather awkwardly. It is amazing to see superstars like Louis Koo and Nick Cheung getting relatively limited screen-time (at least in the initial film), but they burn up the joint with their hardboiled intensity. It is also cool to see Shaw Brothers mainstay David Chiang as the commanding Chief Superintendent. Yet, perhaps the late, great Wong Tin-lam’s quietly droll turn as Uncle Teng, the Uncle of Uncles, best personifies the crafty film.

Election would be followed by two sequels that would continue and deepen the story, reaching Shakespearean levels of tragedy. Hubris: it’s a killer. Yet, Election ends on a perfect note that certainly does not lack for closure. There is no question it is a contemporary classic. Very highly recommended, Election screens Friday (7/7) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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