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Where EAST meets the Northwest

TRIAD ELECTION. Director Johnny To’s Triad Election will be shown as part of the 30th annual Portland International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Tartan Films)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #8 (February 13, 2007), page 11.

A dark day for triad democracy

Triad Election

Directed by Johnny To
Produced by Dennis Law and Johnny To

By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter

Prolific director Johnny To both epitomizes and transcends modern Hong Kong filmmaking. He has put out over thirty movies since 1993, mostly action thrillers with plenty of blood and gore, but sometimes touched with comic moments. As his career has progressed, To has gone beyond the stereotypical scripts often churned out by the Hong Kong movie machine, employing a more fractured method of storytelling, and he shows a strong Western influence in his brooding, deliberate pacing.

To’s latest film, 2006’s Triad Election, is one of the Hong Kong films featured in the 2007 Portland International Film Festival, and it displays his talent as well as his flaws. As much violent tragedy as gangland thriller, Triad Election may be too dark for more squeamish, or more nearsighted, viewers. Regardless, it should bring in its share of Scorsese and Coppola fans, though it’s debatable whether To has superseded these Western directors with his latest effort.

Triad Election is also called Election 2, since the story picks up where To’s 2005 mobster movie Election left off. The first film traced the violent rise of gangster Lok (Simon Yam) to the position of chairman of the Triads, Hong Kong’s Mafia-style gangs. In Triad Election, Lok’s two-year term is about to expire, and the bosses are maneuvering their personal favorites into position to be his successor. Though nominally a democratic process, the election involves just as much violence and back-alley deals as the Western Mafia’s battles for dominance, if not more.

Lok wants to return for an unprecedented second term, while the ambitious Kun (Ka Tung Lam) says he’ll do anything to secure the chairmanship. Most of the bosses favor Jimmy Li (Louis Koo) as the new chairman, but he initially declines the nomination, wanting to rise from his bootleg-porn roots to become a legitimate businessman. He has plans for a logistics center in China, but an arrest during the bribery of local officials forces him into a quandary: if he becomes the chairman and cooperates with Chinese police, his permits will be granted. Otherwise, they will consider him a criminal, cancel his construction plans, and his dreams of legitimacy — along with children free to become doctors or lawyers — will be gone.

In the twisted and tragic logic of police-informer relations, Li must become more of a criminal to avoid being prosecuted as one. Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies, Li is a good man who is forced to do evil in the service of greater good. He reluctantly accepts the nomination, forcing Lam and Kun into an alliance against him and setting the bloody Triad election gears in motion. Many unsettling scenes follow, even for those accustomed to American gangster films. But the plot and action are tense, well crafted, and enjoyable, creating a movie capable of transcending the East-West barrier and marking another milestone in To’s remarkable cinematic career.

The film is by no means perfect, however, lacking the tight craftsmanship and meticulous artistry of Scorsese and Coppola. Part of the problem is To’s dark cinematography, a liability magnified by the low-quality screening print provided by Tartan Films. Many scenes were swallowed in darkness, the subtleties of character expression and gesture lost in a dark, muddy screen, leaving us to sometimes guess at which characters are in which pivotal scenes.

One hopes that a better quality print will be shown in later screenings, but some of the problem still lies with To’s style. Artists since Rembrandt have delighted in the interplay of light and shadow, but To seems to dwell far too often in the shadow, leaving no room for contrast and definition. The mark of a still-developing filmmaker, this flaw is not utterly fatal — some viewers may even be relieved that the goriest moments are hidden by a cloak of shadow. The most violent scenes cannot compare to the outré gore of splatter flicks from either Hollywood or Hong Kong, but they are unsettling nonetheless.

Even dim cinematography or poor viewing conditions, however, cannot hide To’s deft hand in unraveling the twisted threads of this tragic gangland tale, one which goes well beyond average genre fare on either side of the Pacific. Koo’s performance is brilliantly restrained, and the cast is littered with memorable secondary characters both psychotic and magisterial. Triad Election may not get everyone’s vote for the best PIFF film, but it is well worth the time of anyone with a moderately strong stomach and an abiding love for gangster movies.

Triad Election will be shown as part of the Portland International Film Festival February 13 at 6:15pm and February 17 at 1:15pm at the Regal Broadway Metroplex, located at S.W. Broadway and S.W. Main Street in Portland. For more information, or to obtain a complete festival schedule, call (503) 228-PIFF (228-7433) or visit <>.