11 May 2007

Triad Election

Directed by: Johnny To
Written by: Nai-Hoi Yau & Tin-Shing Yip

Grade: A-

In Triad Election’s most memorable scene, a kidnapped gangmember is beaten to death with a sledgehammer by members of a rival gang, then delimbed with a butcher knife, put through a meat grinder, and fed to caged dogs. (This might explain the recent poisoned petfood epidemic that originated in China.) After this long, sickening ordeal, To cuts to a shot of a pile of blood-soaked cash on the floor; the symbolism's a little heavy-handed but, for a film about the parity between criminals, politicians and businessmen, essential.

Set where capitalism, democracy and crooks intersect, Triad Election, the stand-alone sequel to To's previous film, Election, is, narratively, simple enough—a Triad Society, essentially the Hong Kong mafia, is having its biennial leadership election and Lok, the incumbent chairman, is running for a second term against the charismatic Jimmy. Though Jimmy wants to become a legitimate businessman and cut-off his ties to the crimeworld, he is coerced by the government to enter the race; they prefer his level-headedness to Lok's mercuriality, and won't let him do business if he doesn't do what they say. The elections bring out the worst in both sides, as an amicable relationship ("everyone looks up to you," Lok tells Jimmy early on, presumably including himself) turns sour in light of their competition; a string of increasingly brutal kidnappings and killings ensue, each leader surrendering any ethical sense they may have once possessed for the goal of victory. With power and money on the line, anything goes.

It's a film swimming in melancholia, from its dominantly brown and black color scheme to the deliberate pacing, patient editing, and plaintive soundtrack. In essence, Triad Election is a string of brilliant set pieces, alternatingly violent, tense, and funnier that you'd expect; like some other recent Asian genre films (eg. Memories of Murder), it escapes from feeling contrived despite its clear American influences (Gordon Willis should feel flattered) by nailing the essence of the crime picture while sprinkling fresh flourishes in the margins. If Triad Election were an English-language film, it’d be Number One at the Box Office and racking up Oscars. But as it stands, playing in scattered little art houses across the country, it'll be lucky, unfortunately, if anyone sees it at all.

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