Election (Hak Se Wui)/Triad Election (Hak Se Wui Yi Wo Wai Kwai)

It all glistens off the screen, this simmering, lurid tableau composed of Hong Kong's lowest lives.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by c.Tartan/Everett / Rex Features ( 604571A )
ELECTION 2, Lam Suet, Nick Cheung, Simon Yam, Louis Koo, Eddie Cheung, Lam Ka Tung
'Election 2' film - 2006
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I must start with an admission: I'd never sat down to a Johnnie To film until this DVD arrived on my desk - and my fluency in Hong Kong cinema falters after the existential-cool of Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs and Wong Kar-Wai's filmography of missed connections (the sub-pop of Happy Together being a personal favourite) have been recited.

Now, it seems, with Election and its sequel Triad Election, I'm graduating to a richly coloured - but, ultimately, unevenly drawn - set of features. Both films revolve around the struggle for leadership in the Wo Sing society, a Hong Kong triad. On one side there is the cool-as-ice Lam Lok (Simon Yam), up against hot-headed Big D (Tony Leung, in a surprisingly oversized performance that plays well to his film's soap operatics). I wouldn't be giving much away by saying that Lok prevails, setting Big D off on a charge that involves rolling impious society members down a mountainside in coffin-like crates.

Triad Election picks up the power-play two years later with the story of the reluctant Wo Sing member Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), sharply-suited and pretty wife in tow, who sees running for leader as merely a concession to keep his burgeoning business booming. As, however, with any sequel worth its salt, Triad Election takes its original film's starting point - the contest for primacy - and burrows deeper, taking territory of all sorts of allusions between capitalism and corruption.

It all glistens off the screen, this simmering, lurid tableau composed of Hong Kong's lowest lives. The location work in the city is exceptional, assisted by the director of photography Cheng Siu Keung's masterful widescreen camerawork that soars and circles and glides like light-play. By night, Siu Keung's Hong Kong is a bruise: a transient palette of purples, blues, browns and black, bleeding into each other with requisite messiness. No other photographer has previously dared venture so deep into the Hong Kong night, urged on by Lo Tayu's suitably discordant score that is, essentially, strumming and plucking on stringed instruments.

The first part of this film duet was in contention for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Together with its better half, they become an audacious gangster epic by a director working on a striking stage within his chosen genre. Yet, the thing is, Election and Triad Election - which do, in fact, benefit from being seen back to back - play like an extended feature that is cast solely around To's fascination for flashy, splashy, eye-popping violence. At no point do we get the mythmaking, piano/fortissimo editing of The Godfather's machine gun massacre, for example.

And there I go again. I can't help but feel To is merely doodling here. These are genre exercises - bloody and beautiful ones but still no more than handsome models for how to lose triad members and alienate people. Any story ingenuity here is left sleeping with the fishes.