Having recently become acquainted with Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To with the his latest effort "Vengeance" (an unusual and intriguing genre picture), I've been seeking out his earlier pieces. After being delighted by the thoroughly unique "Mad Detective," I stumbled across a pair of movies that, to me, epitomize grand and sophisticated storytelling. I consider myself, at least, conversant in Asian cinema and its masters--but To seems to have flown completely under my radar. But no more! With 2005's "Election" and its sequel 2006's "Triad Election," To has captivated me with two terrifically complex thrillers that stand in worthy comparison to "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part 2." Okay, I know that comparing the "Election" films to two cinema masterpieces may seem like unnecessary hyperbole--but, in truth, I was so impressed that I have share that passion. And the character arcs are quite similar. Much as I consider the two "Godfather" films as one experience (I'll leave Part 3 out of the discussion), I have to lump "Election" and "Triad Election" together for the purposes of this review. Either film can be appreciated on its own merits--but together, they are a truly special experience (I literally watched them back to back).
"Election" revolves around the passing of the power baton within one of Hong Kong's largest crime syndicates. With two principle candidates in the running for the looming election, there seems a clear division about the future of the Triad. There's the old-school man of action, Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fei), and the more contemplative choice, Lam Lok (Simon Yam). Each has his supporters and each has a different vision for the future of the organization. When one wins the election, the other refuses to relinquish his claim and this political battle takes to the street. But this isn't a mindless shoot-em-up, this is a grim dance for power. The action sequences are well done, but "Election" is a mental challenge as well as a visceral one. I loved the final conflict resolution and the last minute betrayal is pure magic. The two leads, mentioned above, are extraordinary--but Yam's evolution into a power player is surely one of the most chilling things I've seen in a while.
"Triad Election" takes place a couple of years later when guess what? That's right, it's election time again! But the victor of "Election," (and I won't name him) despite custom, might not want to be unseated. Louis Koo as Jimmy Lee takes center stage in what is also referred to as "Election 2." Jimmy Lee was a supporting player in the first film, a reluctant henchman who wanted to legitimize his life. Set up in a successful business venture, Jimmy Lee (much like Michael Corleone) can't extricate himself from the Triad life. Put forth as a candidate for the new boss, he has no interest. But it's not easy to defy expectations and the future he wants seems dependent on him ascending to the throne. With a detached intelligence, he's able to see where the true danger lurks. And as the current boss manipulates others to take Jimmy down, it's not going to be an easy task. Koo is absolutely fantastic here and the power of the "Election" films is to see men who are trapped, despite all instincts, into an inescapable violence.
There is brutality, even graphic bloodshed, within these two films. But it serves a greater purpose and fits, however surprisingly, into the machinations of the principle characters. More politically and strategically savvy than comparable genre pictures, the "Election" films are largely distinguished by smart and believable scripts. Yam in "Election" and Koo in "Triad Election" give startling performances. They evolve and transform before your eyes and if you don't think Koo is the Hong Kong equivalent of Pacino in "The Godfather," I don't know what to say. Each film certainly stands alone (and individually I might rate them at 4 and 4 1/2 stars respectively), but together they are epic. Watching them together helped to showcase the undeniable brilliance of Johnnie To, my new favorite. KGHarris, 1/11.