Election/Hak se wui – A Review
Ahh, gangster movies, a genre that has been around just as long as cinema itself. Movies that deal with mobsters are a particular favorite of mine. People who live a life of crime have always been captivating: who wouldn’t want to get rich quick, walk around being respected by others, being able to do whatever you want whenever you want? In a way, people in organized crime are examples of the American dream, taken to the extreme. Of course, with high reward comes high risk, and the life of a criminal bears its many employment hazards, one of which is death.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS
Election (2005), or Hak se wui in China, is the story of the Wo Sing triad organization of Hong Kong. To say that the members of the crew are hardcore is an understatement: at one point early in the film a character proves his toughness by taking a porcelain spoon, grinding it in to dust, and then eating it (talk about a strict diet). The triad is in a transitional period: the lead position is up for grabs, and two of its best candidates, Lam Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) want the position. At the start of the film, we see many men from different levels of the crew discussing the pros and cons of each of these candidates. From smoky restaurant halls to locations out on the street, it seems every member (or “brother,” as they like to call themselves) all have an opinion of each man. Not surprisingly, their opinion is based on what they can get out of it themselves; will their territory be protected? Will they continue getting their fair share of the wealth? Will their interests be supported? All these factors go in to whether or not a certain person gets their vote.
But wait a minute, did I just say, “vote?” Is this a criminal organization, or a Senate race? Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but the idea of a leader being elected by majority rule seems a little preposterous, especially in a world where one can kill another without hesitation, but lets see where this takes us.
Lok ultimately wins the race, much to the dismay of Big D, who demands a recount. Unhappy, Big D decides to perform an act of disapproval, by kidnapping two members of the group, hammering them in to crates, and rolling them down a hill. Obviously, this is not looked upon highly by the upper members of the organization (or “uncles” as they like to be called) and sets up the stage for a little family tension. Despite his act of hostility, the only way Big D can steal the leadership role from Lok is to possess the sacred triad Baton.
Wait a minute, did I just say, “Baton?” Is this a gangster movie or a cheerleader flick? Much is made of this so-called Baton, and many people die brutally to hide and protect it, but in the end, it looks nothing more than a throwaway prop from Prince of Persia. Anyway, what proceeds is a gangster movie that looks great and at times is entertaining, but ultimately has a shallow core. There are simply too many characters that act too much alike to be memorable, save for the main actors. Lok and Big D are two characters who seem to have been lifted from previous gangster movies: Lok being the quiet, smart one (ala Michael Corleone from The Godfather) and Big D being the loud, spontaneous firecracker (can we say “Tommy DeVito”?). In fact, the entire movie seems to be an ode to other gangster movies of the past, especially The Godfather and Goodfellas.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed watching this movie. The director, Johnnie To, has a keen and confident eye. His camera moves fluently through the action, the pace keeps a headstrong momentum, all the lead actors do well in their roles, and the guitar score evokes a sense of the old west, these are all good things. However, there are a number of elements that prevent it from being a very good movie. All of the characters are two-dimensional; we never get to really know any of their backgrounds except wanting to get money and be the man. Lok has a kid, but we lose the chance of developing their relationship due to the script focusing too much on the plot. As for Big D, he has a girlfriend, or is it a wife?
Uncle Teng (Tian-lin Wang) is the fat, wise, mob councilman, always tugging at his pants and speaking of tradition and the good old days. Has there ever been an old, wise gangster that wasn’t heavily obese? If the gangster is so wise, wouldn’t he be wise enough not eat that third helping of dinner? But I digress. Here is one of the few interesting characters of the film, and for some reason he simply disappears three quarters of the way in to it. The action is sparse yet violent, much of it sloppy and messy, just like the real violence of gangster life. However, at one point about midway through the film, the director takes a different approach to an action scene, and choreographs it like a kung fu movie, completely wrong for the kind of realistic tone this movie is trying to set. As for the resolution between Lok and Big D, the set up to it comes off as too unbelievable. Let me put it like this: if I had a member of my crew threaten me with death, I would certainly not be quick to call him my friend and invite him to go fishing, and if I do, he better not be that stupid to accept my invitation.
All in all, Election is just an ok movie, made for those who simply want to be entertained with slick visuals, paper-thin characters, and a story where comprehension is not a requirement. Is this a factual account of the triad gangs of Hong Kong? I don’t know. On IMDB, Johnnie To’s profile page says that he has made a sequel to this film, called Triad Election, which is rated higher than this. I look forward to watching that movie; hopefully To has improved on the good things that were in Election, and put everything else in a pair of cement shoes.