In this Hong Kong Triad society, the top job is much sought after, and the talk of the town is who will be taking over now that there is a position open. At this meeting between a selection of the high up members, they try to decide on who they will vote for, as they pride themselves on running their system like a democracy: the two candidates are family man Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) who is more of a loose cannon, but can get the job done. However, the more they discuss, the more the election turns into a power struggle...
Election, not to be confused with the Alexander Payne comedy drama, was one of Johnnie To's many gangster movies, a style he had made very much his own over the years he had been active. By this time he had honed that skill with the genre to a fine point, but what was that point? Was he taking a satirical swipe at actual politics in the form of his Triad tale, or was he actually showing up the gangsters to be violent thugs whose moves towards sophistication and sticking by some kind of rules were no more a gloss on some pretty ghastly activities? Whichever, the results were a criminal yarn some distance from the norm.
That meant there were no balletic gun battles, or extravagant action sequences with car chases or any other type of chases, here it was strictly business. There was a curious tone to these dodgy dealings, almost self-amused in its portrayal of characters who like to think of themselves as respectable businessmen but actually revert to brutality when they find they cannot get their way through any other methods. No matter how they dress up their machinations as deriving from centuries of tradition and tribute to their ancestors, the fact remains there was very little laudable or noble about how they go about their dealings.
The police are constantly arresting them, seeing that there is a power vacuum in the Triad society and hoping to undermine them before they get a chance to regroup under a skilled leader, but the fact remains they are doing a pretty good job of messing up their structure all by themselves. In an odd development, that aforementioned tradition rests upon the ownership of an antique baton which after all this is set up sees the plot resolve itself into both Lok and Big D attempting to marshal their resources into getting hold of it. Perhaps it's symbolic, but there's very little symbolic about the way the underlings end up dying for it, or at least being seriously injured.
Election is not a comedy exactly, but in observing these gangsters from a notable remove you do get to see them as if this was some kind of wildlife documentary taking notes on how the Triads react to one another and treat their rivals, and there is an element of bleak humour here. Not enough to have you laughing out loud, but it all feeds into a keenly presented examination of what could have been in other hands a straight send-up of ruthless business methods, as if this gang were a high-earning company which went to harrowing lengths to secure not only their territories, but whoever gets to pull the strings. Along the way there were many memorable moments - in the first five minutes one gangster eats a spoon to prove how tough he is, for example - but the grim ending ties this all together in what has been a complex, yet remains possible to follow even if new characters are restlessly introduced every five minutes. Music by Lo Tayu.