Film Review: Johnnie To’s “Election”

Johnnie To has carved out a unique place for himself in the Hong Kong film industry. His busy, formative years in the early ‘80s and ‘90s making comedy-dramas and actioners offered the future auteur plenty of opportunities to refine his distinct brand of masculine cinema. To’s work, very much influenced by the filmic sensibilities of directors like Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Pierre Melville, and John Woo, feature an austere visual style and an ensemble of male characters often more in conflict with one another than the big bad of the picture.

In To’s 2005 Category III gangster flick “Election”, the director’s cinematic investigation into the bonds that tie men together is set in the morally relativistic world of the Triads, an ancient criminal organization entwined into the very fabric of Chinese society. Though adopting the recognizable tropes of the Hong Kong gangster genre he obliterates any of the illusions of loyalty and honor among the criminal class, a motif that is integral to heroic bloodshed films. Borrowing from Shakespeare, To frames the entire plot around a succession narrative as the Wo Luen Shing society disintegrates while its resident Macbeth, the loud and boisterous Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai), fights reason and common sense to go toe to toe against the film’s Macduff, quiet and unassuming Lok (Simon Yam).

The film’s strictly enforced narrative economy, a credit not just to the director but also to the film’s editor, Patrick Tam, keeps the plot from losing any momentum or having scenes feel superfluous. “Election” wastes no time in doling out exposition or pausing the story to telegraph to the audience the who, what, and how of the story. Even the introduction of each of the players in the film is done without waste. The movie’s practically all-male cast, save for Maggie Shiu who makes the most of her gun moll role, are coded to be easily recognizable archetypes, such as Jimmy (Louis Koo) the loyal soldier, Jet (Nick Cheung) the stoic warrior and Big Head (Lam Suet) the comic relief.  They all perform their ascribed roles beautifully like notes in a symphony. Ironically, the bonds that later tie each of the “brothers” to one another have less to do with honor and more to do with duty and loyalty oaths that the film undercuts by juxtaposing hallowed ceremonial rites and talks of tradition with gruesome acts of violence.

The only character with any dimensionality to him, Lok, is a master class in acting as Yam’s subtle gestures are not utilized to convey emotions so much as showcase an actor playing a character repressing an ocean of ambition, rage, and Iago-esque levels of scheming and deceit. (For those who’ve seen “Election”’s sequel, “Triad Election” (2006), then Lok’s great tragic flaw will be rather obvious, but for those uninitiated to the tragedian proclivities of the director it might be a shock to watch the second half of Lok’s journey, the fall to “Election”’s rise tale.)

After the film’s Cannes premiere and subsequent box office success, grossing almost HK$16 million, Johnnie To would go on to write, direct, and produce a slew of commercial and critically lauded films, a new golden age in To’s career. In the English speaking public’s purview, “Election” and its equally lauded sequel would be compared to gangster epics like The Godfather trilogy and Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Yet, what elevates “Election” to the level of masterwork is To’s deft cinematic hand, taking the skeleton structure of a gangster flick to tell a very human tale about power and its corrupting effect.

“Election” screens at the Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997-2017 series presented by Reel Asian at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 24 at 8 p.m. in Toronto.  Free tickets for this screening and the entire series will be available at  The film is also a selection in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival and will screen at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on July 7 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are available at