March 31, 2014
Johnnie To: Triad Election (2006)
After the gut punch ending of Election that put Lok (Simon Yam) firmly in power, it’s clear he won’t be ready to give up the throne two years later. The sequel’s credits sequence focuses on the traditions of the Wo Shing society, yet there are questions about their validity in our modern society. Power-hungry guys like Lok use the old ways as words to grab control. There are interesting parallels with the world of the mafia on shows like The Sopranos. Characters frequently violate the rules yet act like they mean something. Traditions provide the framework but only if they suit their ends. Lok believes the hype and thinks he’s bigger than the society, but he doesn’t shield it well. His serious mask hid the lust for power in the first movie, and that’s disappeared since he murdered his ally in brutal fashion.
Released in 2006, Triad Election picks up in time for the next election two years after Lok’s ascension in the first movie. There are multiple contenders for the spot, and the current triad chairman isn’t allowed to continue. Once he starts cutting out the candidates, Lok begins making the case to skip the rules. His biggest competition is Jimmy (Louis Koo), a straight-arrow guy who wants to go legit. This election is his means to an end to get his family out of crime. Anyone who’s familiar with this genre knows the end result of this plan. Johnnie To and screenwriters Nai-Hoi Yau and Tin-Shing Yip set up Jimmy as the counterpoint to Lok. Of course, this world can do scary things to any guy. He wants to ditch the traditions in a different way, but the leaders don’t share those lofty goals.
The first movie set the framework and introduced the characters, so To doesn’t need to do the heavy lifting in that sphere. This gives him the opportunity to dig right into the new conflict. Jimmy helped Lok to gain power to avoid the turmoil, but he needs the chairman post this time. To shifts our perspective away from Lok and makes Jimmy the lead with identifiable goals. After setting him up as the better man for the first half hour, To spends the final hour revealing the cracks in that persona. Jimmy’s forced to take out a possible mole and then tortures Lok’s lieutenants to gain their loyalty. He’s been corrupted by the need for power, and even his plans to go straight feel hollow. Stringer Bell may have wanted to make their business legitimate, but he was still a violent gangster at heart.
Many familiar faces remain in this world, and several also want the top job. Jet (Nick Cheung) is an interesting guy because he believes Lok’s lies about rewarding his support. You get the sense from his eyes that he isn’t entirely convinced, however. There aren’t as many pieces to move around the chess board this time, but To keeps us engaged through figures like Jet. He’s still willing to trust that an ally cares for his interests, but he can only take so many empty promises. To also shows how Lok’s willing to take the extra steps to maintain his grip on power. He won’t sit back and wait for the guys to bring him the baton. Instead, he’s taking an active role and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
This is an even bleaker story than Election and shows little joy within the gangster life. Even when Jimmy appears to win the day, it’s a Godfather III moment where they keep pulling him back into the fray. The brutality’s enhanced, and even the older traditionalists like Uncle Teng (Tian-ling Weng) are in danger. The shots from above the spiral staircase reveal one of the main themes. It’s a downward spiral for everyone involved in this society, and the end result is a deadly trip right to the bottom. Jimmy gets that look of detached melancholy as the violence grows and decides it’s worth the mess to finish the race.
Triad Election feels like a death knell for the idea of the Wo Shing society. They’re essentially just thugs who battle for power and have few rules about who gains it. To also shows how the legitimate world isn’t any better. They’re willing to let the gangsters battle as long as the right person ends up on top. Jimmy does terrible things to gain control, but his business partners don’t mind the collateral damage. They essentially green light everything that happens by promising him a false escape. His family will suffer the consequences, but there are few better options in this devastating world.
The most telling support for the brutality of this world is a lengthy sequence with Jimmy and his men doing everything possible to convince Lok’s men to join them. After words fail, they pelt them with large mallets to change their minds. The next step is even nastier and doesn’t bode well for these unfortunate victims. What makes this scene tougher is the presence of dogs within the cells of the prisoners. Their constant barking just adds to the ugliness of these moments. There’s nothing but violence and cruelty, and these scenes reveal how far down the spiral they’ve fallen. The election tries to bring order to the chaos, but it’s merely an outdated method that has no chance within this battle for dominance.
Next week, I’ll close out this marathon by looking at To’s most recent film Drug War.