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It is tremendously frustrating to see the quality of Hong Kong cinema decline over recent years. The industry was once responsible for a vibrant array of titles that showcased highly imaginative stories using groundbreaking visual techniques. Now it seems that audiences are subjected to cheap imitations with incompetent idols, making the studios’ motives far more commercial as opposed to expressing artistic merit. However there are some filmmakers doing their part to reverse the negative image. Johnnie To, who despite having had his fair share of bad experiences, is now seen as an iconic figurehead. His impressive repertoire offers a diverse mix of action, drama and comedy, catering for families as well as adults. To’s latest title Election sees a welcome return to the Triad underworld.

One of Hong Kong’s most well established Triad organisations, the Wo Sing Society, is looking for a new chairman. Two completely opposite candidates named Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Lok (Simon Yam) battle it out for the top spot. Big D is an arrogant bully, bribing and threatening the current senior members and essentially scaring everyone into electing him as leader. Conversely, the calm and good natured Lok promises significant progression, not to mention profitable investments for the upcoming term. Regardless of who wins the election, the chairman position is only confirmed once the individual possesses the Dragon’s Head Baton – a symbolic representation of the Triad leader that relates back to an age-old tradition. Supporters of both candidates race to retrieve this vital figure in an effort to end the ongoing conflict, backstabbing and corruption within the Wo Sing Society.

Election provides a much more believable outlook on Hong Kong gangsterism and is rebellious enough to discard any stereotypes and clichés. The characters are simple human beings, using their instincts to survive. There is none of this brotherhood loyalty nonsense; in order to succeed, one has to be ruthless and betray those closest to them. Johnnie To takes time to reveal the principals behind a Triad organisation; not only focusing on the business aspects but also depicting the community in its entirety, as well as mutual understandings between rival gangs and the police. A recurring theme is the battle between tradition and modern times. Many of the younger characters question the motives behind age-old routines that have been a part of the society for generations. In fact, To even provides a glimpse into the Triad’s historical roots and how it was set up to combat a corrupt government.

As mentioned, the imagery surrounding this premise is likely to dismay those who have been seduced by the industry’s portrayal of Hong Kong gangsters. In Election, there is no exploitation of designer suits, luxury cars or explosive action scenes. Interestingly, many of the Triad members are old, fat, balding men – a startling contrast to the conventional gangster image. Even the trademark choir filled orchestral score has been omitted.

The performances by Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka Fai are exquisite, helping label the film as a truly sinister character-driven yarn. The politics involved in being a mob leader forces one to mask their original intentions. Ka Fai does well to animate Big D, providing plenty of childlike tantrums that eventually expose the character’s vulnerability. Yam, on the other hand, faces the ambitious task of playing an individual with multiple faces. Upon initial inspection, he appears to be a loving father and worthwhile contributor to the organisation. However the art of manipulation is one that comes naturally to this highly experienced actor.

Johnnie To has never been shy of violence but this is the first time I have witnessed authentic ruthlessness. Some characters are prepared to go to unimaginable lengths to protect their status, as is the case in the gangster underworld. The few fights that do occur in Election do not involve guns but instead make use of blunt objects. Subsequently, the murder scenes appear even more horrific, as a victim suffers for an extended period before finally meeting their end. In order to balance the unpleasant nature of the film, the filmmaker has once again administered fantastic photography and camerawork, merging his technological and creative capabilities.

It is rumoured that enough footage was shot for Election to last around three hours. Instead we have an easily digestible 99 minute cut that suffers from a lack of character focus. The narrative structure is a little clumsy, making certain plot elements confusing and disjointed. A fully uncut version, if it exists, would allow for greater relationship development. Ultimately, it feels that Election is being weighed down by abrupt editing and rushed execution, although it marks one of Johnnie To’s finest achievements, not to mention a rise in quality of recent Hong Kong cinema.

Election is presented in a fairly bland anamorphic widescreen format, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. That is to say, it lacks a certain finish that most recent productions possess. It is unusually grainy and remarkably coarse on the eyes; one could be fooled into believing that Election was made a decade ago. Foreground details are perceptible but are not really up to today’s standards. Paying attention to the fabric texture and skin composition will reveal that the image should be considerably clearer. The print utilises an authentic array of colours, resulting in an overall believable picture. Flesh tones appear unmodified and the outdoor scenes exhibit natural shades on the agriculture and infrastructure.

The blacks are reasonably well balanced but the transfer suffers from horrendous shadow-detail. On more than one occasion, I found myself squinting to recognise objects amongst the darkness. Add to that some unnecessary pixilation and combing (from an interlaced transfer) and the image quality becomes mediocre at best, which is tragic for such a recent production.

There is an incredible choice of audio on the disc – three Cantonese tracks in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS-ES 6.1, as well as a Mandarin dub in Dolby Digital 5.1. It should be noted that as the film is heavily dialogue based, there are not too many ample opportunities to exploit the full power of surround sound technology. Interestingly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track manages to add vitality to an already atmospheric drama. Even the quietest of conversations are never ignored; the reverb balance is such that it reflects on the environment of the scene. Whether the characters in a wide open space or a claustrophobic wooden box; the volume is distributed accordingly to recreate the same effect.

Consequently, the soundtrack is not shy of keeping the rear channels busy with ambient noise. Any excuse to enhance off-screen activity is taken without hesitation. What would traditionally be an uninteresting countryside chapter is suddenly bustling with random animal, weather and environmental noises. Similarly, directional effects are fully dimensional and plentiful. The DTS-ES mix offers a slightly different experience in terms of dynamic balance. The dialogue is louder but loses some of the echo distribution between the forward and rear channels. Moreover, the score is noticeably weaker and lacks some of the push exhibited by the Dolby effort. The LFE channel easily matches the surprising integrity of its rival, but the muffled surround activity of the DTS-ES track is difficult to ignore. On this occasion, I prefer the Dolby 5.1 track to be the superior option.

Whilst the Stereo track is inevitably less sophisticated, it is not a huge hindrance considering the nature of the film. The audio is primarily forward based but still manages to utilise left and right channels efficiently. Likewise the Mandarin dub flows very well for those who require it. The dialogue has been encoded to match the dynamism of the Cantonese dialogue as much as possible. The optional English subtitles are very easy to follow and are nicely paced.

Election’s supplementary materials are placed on the second disc. The first is a detailed 30m interview with director Johnnie To, who discusses the mechanics behind a Triad organisation and how he intended to portray them. He says that the Triads have always been a part of Hong Kong culture and made Election in their memory for future generations. Other topics include To’s criticism of the Hong Kong film industry and discussions of recurring symbolisms used throughout his titles. A wide variety of fascinating answers and insights are provided, the filmmaker is not; shy of revealing his choice of actors, locations and his love for the Cannes Film Festival. He even hints ideas for the upcoming sequel, Election II.

Next there are a further three interviews with Tony Leung Ka Fai, Wang Tianlin and Simon Yam – totalling around fifteen, eight and seven minutes respectively. All three conversations are again remarkably thorough, focusing on worthwhile topics that are likely to enhance one’s knowledge of the film. For instance, Ka Fai shares his thoughts and expectations on working with one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed filmmakers. He continues to describe what it was like to film the disturbingly climatic ending. Veteran director Tianlin’s interview is more of a biographical journey of his career, discussing awards, early works and his opinions of today’s directors. Lastly Simon Yam’s interview is largely revolved around character discussion. Interestingly, he defends the Hong Kong film industry but criticises the quality of Hollywood movies. Whilst the interviews are excellent in terms of content, they are rather clumsily filmed. The cameraman is a little too trigger-happy on the zoom button and the ambience is not exactly the most professional looking – it appears that the filming took place in random corridors.

A 7m making-of documentary contains yet more interviews with Yam, Ka Fai and filmmaker To, again underlining the Triad ideals and historical origins. There are a few behind the scenes footage edited amongst the interviews but nothing overly revealing. The producer and composer manage to get one line in this featurette, but that is about it.

Election at Cannes Film Festival is a little photo montage of the Cannes Film Festival, with a Canto-pop ballad playing in the background. The images are not even full-sizes. Similarly, there is a photo gallery playing the same music in the background. This time, the images are either from the film or promotional shoots.

A few trailers finish off the supplementary materials. The good news is that optional English subtitles are provided and are very nicely paced and easy to read. The two discs are housed inside a lovely digipack and an informative booklet (with English text) is also provided.

Election is an intimate study of one of the world’s largest and complicated gangster organisations. It is incredibly rare for a film, even by Johnnie To standards, to not rush in with its “all guns blazing” attitude and romanticised view of the Triads. The principal motive is to illustrate the startling contrast between the society’s origins and modern day gangsters. Age old tradition and symbolic gestures of loyalty are negligently ignored in an era fuelled by corruption and selfishness, causing individuals to backstab and act in a less heroic manner. Johnnie To’s intention was for Election to be a cinematic landmark; he would have succeeded had he not diluted it down to a 99 minute timeslot. As a result, the film suffers from a confusing narrative and a distinct lack of characterisation. If a three hour cut were to surface in the near future then it would be warmly welcomed by this reviewer.

The DVD is a splendid package from Panorama; beautiful in ambience and quality. There are plenty of English subtitled interviews to keep one satisfied and the audio options are surprisingly dimensional for character-driven drama. The embarrassingly repetitive Hong Kong film industry still has a long climb before it can match its peak, but Johnnie To’s recent effort has provided a little nudge in the right direction.

You can purchase this title for $19.99 from Yes Asia.