Hong Kong's one-two punch
Perched somewhere between "The Sopranos," "Dilbert," and a union meeting gone horribly wrong, "Election" and "Triad Election" are gangster movies in which the war of personalities spills blood onto the streets. Directed by the veteran Hong Kong action stylist Johnnie To, they're essential for fans of the genre: moody, brooding dramas about men getting what they want while (sometimes) getting what they deserve.
Don't arrive expecting the hyperkinetic two-gun gymnastics of a John Woo movie, though -- both these films are sneakier, more sober affairs. Both pack an elegant punch, too, but only the sequel leaves a bruise.
Did you know that some Asian criminal gangs hold a biannual vote to determine which mobster will run the show for the next two years? Me neither, but the Wo Sing Triad in "Election" has kept internal peace using this method for decades. Until now. Two men are vying for the loyalty of underlings and the respect of the semi-retired "uncles" of the gang. The front runner is Lam Lok (Simon Yam), a smooth diplomat with a personal touch that almost disguises his stainless-steel ambition. If this were Alexander Payne's 1999 "Election," Lok would be Reese Witherspoon.
The dark horse is Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), the film's designated young hothead, and behind these two are a multitude of gangsters with colorful nicknames: Uncle Cocky, Big Head, Four Eyes, Uncle Whistle. Eventually they sort themselves into postures of submission or treachery, with two young up-and-comers poised to take bigger roles. Jimmy (Louis Koo) is a handsome Triad member with the grace and moral bearing of a born leader, while the troubled Jet (Nick Cheung) opts for invisibility, becoming one of the main character's secret weapons.
The film's violence erupts in rare, staccato bursts, all the more horrifying for coming out of nowhere. Mostly "Election" tracks the shifting of power among men for whom power is all that matters, no matter how much lip service they pay to loyalty. The final sequence is a shocker but it's also completely logical, and it sets up "Triad Election" to probe more deeply into the chasm between honor and naked self-interest.
Set two years later, the sequel's the better film. The characters have sorted themselves out by now, and Koo's Jimmy is a compelling, complex figure: a sensible man urged by circumstances toward greater and greater evil. (Yes, there's more than a touch of Michael Corleone here; as though they were tailoring a high-end suit, To and his writers have cut their story to classic lines.)
Jimmy is running an illegal DVD factory across the border, and his negotiations with Chinese locals matter more than any Wo Sing popularity contest. "What's the point of becoming the biggest gangster? I'm only in it for the money," he insists, before finding out the two can't easily be disentangled. Eventually Jimmy is forced into the campaign, and the sequel follows his rise and moral downfall at a dispassionate remove, using light, shadow, and mournful string ensembles on the soundtrack to set a mood of growing entrapment.
If Jimmy is snared by his own ambitions, though, it's possibly because he doesn't see who's setting the trap. "Triad Election" unveils a disquieting political metaphor toward the end, when the gangster's contacts in the People's Republic of China suddenly smile and flex their muscles. Forty years before Hong Kong rejoins the mainland, the movie says the biggest gangster may not even be on the ballot.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.