In crime movies, whenever gangsters talk about what's "good for business," it's time to set up the splash guard, because the blood is going to start spraying.
The Hong Kong crime thriller Triad Election begins with a flashback to the founder of the "triad" criminal organizations preaching the importance of unity and peace in Hong Kong's underworld. As he speaks, a montage shows vintage photographs from Hong Kong's early days, supporting the notion of traditional values among mobsters.
You don't have to be an expert on the mob genre to know that another shoe's going to drop, and it may well have a severed foot in it. A sense of inevitability hangs over the plot of Triad Election, director Johnny To's otherwise engrossing portrayal of criminal politics. Apart from a fiendish final twist, the general lack of surprise prevents Triad Election from entering the ruling ranks of mob movies.
Although the film serves as the sequel (and reportedly a semi-remake) of To's 2005 film, Election, the film stands well on its own. Perhaps some character relationships are clarified if you've seen the original, but Triad Election never feels like a story begun in the second act. The election in question names the chairman of Hong Kong's gangs every two years. The current chairman, Lok (Simon Yam), seems intent on maintaining control even after his term runs out, while slick, successful heir apparent Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo) disdains the job.
After selling pirate DVDs in mainland China for years, Jimmy intends to parlay his criminal enterprise into a legitimate land development. Corrupt Chinese police, however, will prohibit his venture unless he becomes the chairman.
Jimmy's dismayed reaction contains a seed of rueful humor: "There's no point in being the biggest gangster – I'm only in it for the money!" (You can practically hear Little Steven's Al Pacino impression, "Just when I thought I was out, they keep pulling me in!")
Cosmopolitan Jimmy and earthy Lok match nicely as antagonists, particularly in the contrast of Koo's icy acting vs. Yam's smoldering style. Both characters have close "civilian" relationships, with Jimmy supporting a beautiful young wife and Lok raising a young son in private school. And both employ ruthless, charismatic enforcers to do their dirty work.
Much of Triad Election's power struggle takes place in soft-spoken conversations in dimly lit restaurants, which make the violent outbursts all the more startling. The hoodlums' weapons of choice are small machetes, frequently used for slashing hamstrings. In the most memorable sequence, Jimmy kidnaps members of Lok's crew and threatens their lives to win their loyalty; without giving away his methods, let's say that Fargo's wood chipper comes to mind. Jimmy's cold determination doesn't just terrorize his enemies, but even sickens the guys on his side. Despite his youth and class, Jimmy emerges as such a vicious bastard that it's hard to sympathize with his predicament.
It's interesting to see the Asian equivalent of mafia-style rituals, and Triad Election mentions nicknames like "Brother Snake" and points to the "Dragon Head Baton" as an important badge of office. It still falls a little short of the standard set by the major Hong Kong crime movies. To's efficiency at quietly building tension plays in a lower key than the operatic set pieces of John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow. Nor does Triad Election match the intricate plotting and divided loyalties of Infernal Affairs (remade last year as Martin Scorsese's Oscar winner The Departed). Johnny To proves a student of Scorsese's use of music, and the film features English-language lounge versions of "Amazing Grace" and "The House of the Rising Sun."
The most fascinating relationship in Triad Election is the dynamic between Hong Kong and China. At first, Jimmy views the mainland as a kind of rural paradise compared to the mean streets of home. But China proves to be something other than the sanctuary of legitimacy and opportunity he assumes it to be, and the film ends with grim implications about the dealings between the two nations, which resembles a Faustian bargain.
But it'll probably be good for business.