Film review by Lee Alon

Cynicism and sarcasm can be wonderful tools in the creative arts, but when wielded with all the finesse of a five-year-old, they amount to little more than an irritation in the best of situations. To wit, Johnnie To's very long-anticipated and touted Election, the first major HK release in a sizeable chunk of time to receive the city's hallowed Category III rating. Roughly the equivalent of NC-17, Cat III cinema outings come with numerous bells and whistles, like warnings on ticket stubs and special bulletin-type alerts before the show starts. Naturally, every such product gets an added buzz doing the rounds on its behalf, probably helping to generate bigger box office intakes.

Surprisingly or not, there's nothing even remotely mature about Election, and to all intents and purposes it's almost identical in the gruesome department to every other crime flick done in Hong Kong over recent years, with the Infernal Affairs series coming to mind. We went in there anticipating substantive violence, nudity, colorful language and the like, only to be sorely disappointed, leading us to conclude someone managed to convince the ratings board to stick a handily sensational label on Election, immediately putting it apart from the competition (most of which falls under tamer categories). This type of cynical, conniving trickery does not win points with anyone gullible enough to build up expectations, and disappointment indeed featured prominently among members of the audience of which we were a part.

But that aside, Election's in no way a bad triad movie. It manages to feel like a well-researched documentary more than a fast-paced action campaign, and distinguishes itself via several relatively penetrating insights into the backstage dealings involved in secret society culture. However, once you're done appreciating the film's underworld history and politics lesson the flaws begin to surge. First among them is the pacing, slow and dry to the point of making it hard for non-enthusiasts to sit through Election wriggle or nod free. Furthermore, To's penchant for low key filmmaking grates quickly when you're looking for the dazzle and glitter of blockbuster artistry. Although expensive to make, Election appears grainy and cheap, not a problem for serious pundits but unhelpful in winning over less in-depth mainstream laypersons.

Another hiccup comes from the plot proper, where not much transpires, really. Simon Yam's himself again, bottled up and ready to explode behind his perpetual smirk. He plays Lok, a mover and shaker in the Wo Sing triad society, an organization dating back to Ming loyalists and their fight against the Qing. Lok squares off against Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai in his third major role this year), a flamboyant mobster with less of an ethical composition, who believes in vastly more underhanded tactics than his rival's. The two compete for votes in a societal election where so-called uncles choose the next chairman. The movie makes a few references to political issues affecting HK in its dealings with Mainland China, and perhaps fancies itself a simile of sorts. This attempt is commendable and duly noted.

Other than that, we must conclude the movie to be lukewarm and too anemic for its own good. Lok and Big D's struggle lacks a compelling impetus, and their supporting cast brings little to warrant applause. Henchmen like Louis Koo as suave and sophisticated mob captain Jimmy miss the sweet spot by a mile, and even usually apt Lam Suet (who ruled in One Nite in Mongkok among many others) isn't up to par.
There's also a whole cavalcade of mafia old timers, hence the uncles, who're slightly more interesting, not least because of names like Uncle Cocky and Whistle. Chief among this posse is Uncle Teng, played by Wong Tin Lam. The latter, of course, provides a link to two of Johnnie's better expeditions, i.e. classic The Mission and eerie nighttime police drama PTU. Both of these older projects put Election to shame, and neither enjoyed even remotely as much fanfare and exposure. Lam Ka Tung (Infernal Affairs, World without Thieves) fares better as efficient soldier Kun, but most everyone else in supportive roles does not rise above average.

Much of Election revolves around the two antagonists' search for a mythical baton, the Wo Sing's symbolic talisman without which no chairman can ever be accepted, and although this pursuit seems trivial it at least provides the film with an excellent panorama of HK as the search goes on, from rural border area Lo Wu to teeming night district Tsim Sha Tsui, so at least we have that. Not much else, though. For all the trumpets and heralding, Election's Cat. III sticker produces no discernible results. There's little blood, not a single gunshot rings out, and even the language, while somewhat triad-authentic, shies away from the mature with only two or three exceptions. And for Pete's sake, machetes can't be taken seriously any more in something billed as the biggest hope for HK crime blockbusters, a problem Infernal Affairs also faced. This lack of gunplay presents a huge heartbreak for To fans weaned on bullet-tastic magnum opus The Mission.

A couple of moments spell doom for Election's adult contingent when violence is toned down ludicrously (two people magically survive being rolled downhill in crates repeatedly), and even the climax made us chuckle at the lack of red sauce. There are two close-up death scenes, but they're nothing to faint over. We were also hoping for a bit of the hanky panky, and except for one big tease there was none of that. However, since both Andy On and loveable Cherrie Ying are credited yet never seen in the film, we surmise an uncut edition may be forthcoming on DVD to rectify many of the above-mentioned faults. But then, wouldn't that be cynical?

Rating: 6/10

Directed by Johnnie To
Starring Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Louis Koo, Wong Tin Lam, Maggie Siu
2005, Cantonese/Putonghua, 99 minutes

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