“Election” is so hard-boiled you’ll need a shovel to crack its surface. It’s so male they should have a warning sign for female audiences. And not just any male either, but the silent, unexpressive, tradition-entrenched ASIAN male. Directed by Hong Kong actionmeister Johnny To, “Election” reveals the inner workings of the Hong Kong underworld with much more grit and a lot less swank that what we’ve come to expect from gangster movies. There are no impeccable tuxedos and expensive cigars, no opulent weddings or even three-star restaurants (The bosses are content to slurp noodles at the stall like everyone else.) And, strangely enough, there are no guns.

The gangsters in “Election” go at each other with bare hands, knives or baseball bats — in one sequence two traitorous bosses are abducted, then unceremoniously shoved into packing crates. The crates are then kicked down from a steep hill — and they bump and crash against rocks during the hurtling descent. Upon reaching the bottom, the crates are then hauled back up and the same procedure is repeated, again and again. The screams of the bosses are muffled by the rolling/thudding sounds from the crates and the panting of the men as they laboriously pull the bloody cargo up the hill. Obviously, these guys think machine guns are boring.

“Election” is based on the real-life, democratic custom among the Hong Kong mafia to decide the next boss among a handful of elite candidates. In this film, the organization is called the Wu Shing Triad, whose history goes back centuries and is therefore heavy on rules and respect.

Director Johnny To
Run Time 101 minutes
Language Cantonese and Mandarin
Opens Now showing (Jan. 26, 2007)

The film opens with some elders discussing two candidates: the quiet and cool, single dad Lok (Simon Yam) or the tempestuous and violent Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Lok is trusted as someone who would keep the 50,000-membered organization tight and smoothly running; Big D on the other hand, is business/money-oriented and bribes some of the elders to back him in the election. But Lok wins out, which sets off a bloody internal feud and wild quest for “The Dragon’s Head,” a carved ebony baton that has traditionally been passed from old boss to new boss.

Johnny To tells the story in much the same way the crates are pushed down the hill and hauled back up again — the defining factors here are crudeness, chaos and an overwhelming haphazardness. Whereas the gangster-flick genre tends to emphasize plans, strategy and discussions, “Election” is fueled by random acts of senseless violence (in one sequence an underling responds to a dare by grinding up his china soup ladle into tiny fragments and then chewing them), brutality and mayhem.

It’s hard to believe the Wu Shing can afford to keep so many members; the guys on top seem to have no idea of how to run an operation and, more importantly, wield little authority or charisma. As it is, Lok is the only one with a semblance of calculating intelligence; quietly he lurks on the sidelines watching the others go at each other. Big D is a mess; loud, bluffing and neurotic, he literally begs to be assassinated and you wonder how, with such an attitude, he survived in the underworld this long. His wife (Maggie Siu, the only female sighted in the entire movie) seemingly has some sway over her husband’s rages, but her screen time is way too limited for her to do any more than look worried and bark orders at D’s henchmen.

The dust settles, however, once Lok gains possession of the Dragon’s Head and is officially elected as the next boss. The film then takes on a different texture — the frames become tighter, the camerawork more concentrated. Lok, who had spoken little and done less, emerges from the shadows as a formidable presence who can go from having a calm discussion to bashing a rival gangster’s head with a floorboard in one graceful movement. And then we see that the story really had been about Lok and his slow but relentless scheming for the position of No. 1. Big D comes off as mere low-life in comparison: transparent, flimsy and ripe for slaughter.

Apparently, the Wu Shing was originally a quasi-Buddhist organization created to liberate Hong Kong from mainland China and the induction-of-the-new-boss rituals attest to its traditional values of discipline, absolute loyalty and reverence. The events that follow give this elaborate ceremony the lie; betrayal turns into bloodbath, which is all witnessed by Lok’s young son.

Not that it stops Lok from any of his gory deeds. Johnny To saves the most harrowing scenes for the last 10 minutes, before abruptly cutting to the end credits. In the end we understand this much: Power is vested to those who crave it, and can best conceal that craving.

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