People have been telling me for some time now that I really should see some movies by Johnnie To. Well, I have responded at last. Election (and its sequel) are films often recommended as a good starting point and, through a fortunate turn of events (a film club nomination), I finally got to see what all the fuss was about.
Simon Yam plays Lam Lok and Tony Leung plays Big D, two men vying for the position of Chairman of Hong Kong's Triad society. Lok is a calm man who shows foresight and patience and will look after the elders while Big D is a quick-tempered and aggressive man who, nonetheless, could make a good leader with his fearless attitude and his blunt approach that so often gets results. After some discussion, the position goes to Lok. Big D isn't happy about that, not one little bit, and he starts to cause trouble, trouble that may very well lead to widespread in-fighting and division in the society. A chase is on for the special baton that is handed over to each chairman as a symbol of the power being passed along and, in the meantime, Lok also tries to come up with a solution that will placate Big D and keep everyone else happy too.
It's all about politics and traditions, but Triad politics and traditions are a damn sight more interesting than anything that may be happening in the Houses Of Parlaiment here in the UK (or on Capitol Hill, for my American friends . . . . . . did I get that right? Forgive me if I just showed off my ignorance once more).
The script by Nai-hoi Yau and Tin-Shing Yip is good at sketching out the characters and guiding the viewer into the Triad world before moving around amongst various factions, but it falls down during a middle section that spends far too much time putting more and more individuals onscreen just to have them chasing after that coveted baton.
The direction from To is very good, despite the dip in that middle section he never really lets things slow down to a standstill and he strikes a nice balance when showing some of the more violent moments onscreen. Viewers get to see what's being done, but nothing feels as if it's overly gratuitous. The other great thing, in terms of both the writing and direction, is how natural he motivations of the characters are. Nobody does anything that seems out of character and even any plot twists and turns make complete sense when considering the bigger political game being played.
The cast all do a great job, but it's really all about Yam and Leung, two men who are almost polar opposites and create a great crackle of static electricity between them. Chung Wang, Tian-lin Wang, Bing-Man Tam, Louis Koo, Nick Cheung and Ka Tung Lam are amongst the many other great actors all doing their bit to keep the Triad political wheels in motion and all deserve a mention here, which is why I have reeled off their names. There are more I could list, of course, but I think the names mentioned provide a great representative sample of the talent.
This may not be the very best that Johnnie To has to offer, but as a starting point . . . . . . . . . it gets my vote (sorry, pun intended).