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Action & Adventure movie directed by Johnnie To

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The consequences of power - potent storytelling from a Hong Kong film master

  • Aug 5, 2009
The Wo Shing triad is the oldest and most powerful gang in Hong Kong; they are also unique in their time-honored tradition of holding democratic elections among the various leaders for the big boss or chairman of the triad.This time around, succession will not happen without a fight. The two leading candidates have very different approaches to leadership, and neither can effectively lead while the other retains his strength. While "Big D" craves power for its own sake, "Lok" is a shrewd businessman and devoted father who sees crime as a means to an end and values stability, peace and tradition. When it comes time for a new leader, and "Big D" refuses to accept defeat, it looks like civil war within the triad is imminent.

Hong Kong director Johnnie To can do violence While I tend to prefer the stylistic flourishes of another major Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-Wai, there's no denying that Johnnie To's approach has a broader appeal, but doesn't dumb things down in the Hollywood blockbuster style. What is remarkable in this film is the restraint and the emphasis on the difficult choices that a leader, even a criminal leader, must make. There is no gun play, which is not to say that there is no brutal violence, but much of the action involves conversation. In the world depicted here it's not brutality but intelligence that prevail - though part of what the film shows is that a leader in this world has to be prepared to get his hands dirty. Since it is about the succession of power and the meaning of honor among organized criminals, "Election" deserves to be compared to Coppola's The Godfather (though a more apt comparison may be with GoodFellas). While they are very different films, both in tone and context and cultural background, they are both very effective in conveying the weight of tradition as it comes into conflict with greed and ambition. Both also focus on the moral impact on a leader of the means necessary to consolidate power. Finally, both are shot in a distinctive and effective style, and put the importance on character over chaotic action, but don't shy from conveying the brutality of mob violence. When violence does erupt in this film, it's not stylized and it's not pretty. Unlike a good deal of Hong Kong film, the criminals are not glamorized here, though neither is the law. It all comes to a devastating and powerful climax (about which I'll say nothing to avoid spoilers), where it is the subtle touches (the frightened monkeys, for example, and the son's looks) that add weight and poignancy together a violent episode.

Highly recommended for lovers of inventive Asian cinema and for its fresh take on the gangster film.

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About the reviewer
Nathan Andersen ()
Ranked #68
I teach philosophy at Eckerd College, in Saint Petersburg, Florida.      I run an award-winning International Cinema series in Tampa Bay (www.eckerd.edu/ic), and am co-director of … more
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About this movie


Every two years the senior members of the Wo Shing Triad, the oldest gang in Hong Kong, elect an up-and-coming younger boss as their chairman. The two candidates they are voting on couldn’t be farther apart in personality; Lok (Simon Yam) is a levelheaded businessman and Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) is a loud, obnoxious, violent criminal. When the voting does not go how some people would have liked, lines are divided and a gang war begins to form.
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Director: Johnnie To
Genre: Action, Adventure
Screen Writer: Nai-Hoi Yau, Tin-Shing Yip
DVD Release Date: November 6, 2007
Runtime: 100 minutes
Studio: Tartan Video
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