Johnny To‘s "Election" was a nimble examination of the Hong Kong triads post-changeover that neatly punctured the myths of loyalty and brotherhood in organized crime; the New York Film Festival seems to believe you don’t need to have seen it to appreciate its sequel, the better if more bombastic "Triad Election," and they’re probably right (the two films will be released in some way by Tartan next year â€” God knows what they’re going to do about the titles). "Triad Election" focuses on Jimmy (the ever-dapper Louis Koo), a minor character in the first film who’s grown into a major if reluctant figure in the Wo Sing society.
Jimmy’s made his fortune running a bootleg DVD empire, and now he has plans for a big real estate investment deal in China and a legit life ("Our children will become doctors or lawyers," he expansively informs his girlfriend). While greasing the wheels of mainland property development with a bribe, he’s picked up by the cops, who know perfectly well who Jimmy is, and who inform him he’s no longer allowed to conduct business in China â€” at least, not while he’s just another Triad member. If he were to become chairman, say, it might be another story.
The bleak suggestion at the center of "Triad Election" is that all the violent gangster machinations that unfold as Jimmy tries to free himself from Triad life by putting himself in charge of it are dwarfed by the terrifying force of the capitalism-embracing Chinese government. Jimmy is manipulated into competing with former mentor Lok (Simon Yam), who in the first film fought off Tony Leung Ka Fai‘s Big D for the chairmanship, and in this film finds himself unwilling to let go of the position now that his term is up. Lok, a mild-looking family man with a prodigious capacity for violence, is a formidable opponent, but Jimmy proves himself even more ruthless. The two gather their forces and grind each other to grist (literally, in one scene that’s not for the squeamish), while the Triad’s old guard, the elders gathered in shadowy tea rooms discussing tradition, seems all the more ineffectual and out of touch.
To is a brilliant manipulator of unexpected tension â€” an early scene in a restaurant and another in a car with a would-be assassin are masterpieces of suspense simply because they expand in seemingly unchoreographed directions. His action sequences are just as unflinching and unromanticized, men beating each other to a pulp, slashing each other with knives, and dying messily. The film is plagued by a sense of emotional remove that lowers the stakes somewhat; we’re given the story of Jimmy selling his soul without ever being convinced he had much of one to begin with. The ending comes across as less tragic than ironically just; everyone gets exactly what they deserve.
Screens October 10 and 11 at Alice Tully Hall; will receive a theatrical release from Tartan Films in 2007.
+ "Triad Election" (NYFF)