Tuesday, October 6, 2009


One of the troubles with democracy is that the losing side never seems to take it well. Take the anger directed towards the Obama administration in the US, or its predecessor, the anger directed at the Bush administration. In fact, right now, the entirety of Canadian politics is structured around the bitterness of the losing side. If Election is to be believed, even the triads (they're kinda like the mafia I guess, for a parallel more familiar to North American audiences) in Hong Kong have to deal with election problems, as the loser just doesn't want to admit they're not in power. It's like regular politics, except with machetes.

Election starts as just being about an election, between two potential chairmen of a triad. One is Lok, as portrayed by Simon Lam. His platform is based on loyalty, brotherhood, and the expansion of property. The other is Big D, by Tony Leung Ka Fai, easily the second best Tony Leung. His platform is based on a solid foundation of giving everyone lots of money. There's also a symbolic baton, which is very important in a very traditional outfit like the triad. Big D loses, so he decides to hijack the baton and start a war, leading to two separate yet equally important storylines. One is the journey of the baton, as the two opposing sides in the battle attempt to gain control and give it to the person they like best. The other is the older people in the triad trying to convince Big D to stop being so foolish and prevent the triad from being destroyed. Caught in the middle are the police, who, more than anything, just want to make sure there's not too much trouble on the streets.

The fantastic thing about the story is that director Johnnie To has created genuine tension in this story. First, there's a side to root for, since Lok is a bit less of a jerk than Big D, and he won fairly. This makes you care about what happens to the baton, and whether or not the triad can survive. Yes, it's still a criminal organization, but considering the alternative Lok is someone you want running it. Second, as Lok and Big D play their respective influences and change the minds of other triad bosses, there's a sense of complete unpredictability. Someone's side can change in the space of a phone call. Add Big D being a complete loose cannon, and you honestly don't know what's going to happen, or whether or not peace or chaos will reign. From beginning to end, it's a complete unknown what's going to happen next.

The story is tense, but it's helped along by an insistent guitar score. In essence, you know something is soon happening, even in what might appear to be a relatively banal sequence. Since anything can happen, it keeps you on your toes, and since there's payoff early and often, it never feels like the movie is lying to you. Car chases aren't high speed, and there's really only one extremely elaborate fight scene, but there's always a sense of violence lurking under the surface, a necessary component to keep the viewer curious.

The closest the film has to a weak point is the ending, which flops around not knowing when to call it a finish. It's certainly not a bad ending, and a succession of twists are all worthwhile, but it gives a sense of someone who didn't quite know how he was going to piece together the ideas he needed to express. Even the editing and cinematography get a bit haphazard at this point, but it doesn't make it bad by any means. Besides which, the final twists are worth whatever inconsistency there is.

The best thing is that it takes the mud slinging and back stabbing of normal politics and makes it literal, and that's fantastic to watch. As a demonstration of the problems of democracy, it's pretty spot on. That's not to say that democracy is a bad thing by any means, but that every time your party loses, you should just let it go and start preparing for the next election.

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