It’s one of the fondest conceits in pop mythology that organized crime has as formalized a structure and is as steeped in tradition as the clergy â€” that there’s not just honor among thieves, but ritual as well. Inherent to this theme is the assumption that these old structures are, like the Spanish Empire, eternally in decline, constantly threatened by a young, soulless new guard that doesn’t care about brotherhood or loyalty, and doesn’t understand what it really means to be a gangster, or yakuza, or conperson, or, in the case of Johnny To‘s lean, fleetfooted "Election," triad member.
To’s film is concerned with the Wo Sing society, the oldest triad in Hong Kong, during their biennial election of a new chairman. The candidates are Simon Yam‘s unflappable, competent Lok, and Tony Leung Ka Fai‘s volatile, flamboyant Big D. Big D’s been bribing various senior triad members, but Lok has the respect of the godfatherly Uncle Teng (Wang Tian-lin), and as the elders drink tea and argue in a shadowy restaurant back room, we know that Lok will win out.
Except…Big D wants a recount, or such. He has his men kidnap two of the uncles who took his bribes and didn’t vote for him, boards them up into crates and rolls them over and over down a hill while announcing to Lok on the phone that he’s going to start his own triad, the New Wo Sing. It’s tantamount to a war declaration, but to hedge his bets, Big D sends some of his men to intercept the Dragon Head Baton, the old symbol of Wo Sing leadership, which is being transported from the Chinese mainland for the triad’s handover of power.
Much of the tension that runs throughout "Election" like the film’s omnipresent, lithe guitar theme comes from the amount of damage Big D’s petulance could inflict â€” no one wants to go to war. It would destroy their business and the symbiotic relationship they have with the police, who, knowing they can’t possible take down the deeply entrenched triads, are willing, to an extent, to look the other way as long as everything runs smoothly. They’d all go down together â€” and so some of the elders seem willing to support Big D, despite what it would mean for Wo Sing’s century of democratic tradition and for their own pride, simply to avoid trouble. "Times have changed. Business is everything now," one somberly observes.
"Election" is the least violent film about the triads we can think of â€” not that there isn’t a fair amount, but it’s always practical and carefully chosen. Johnny To’s film moves fluidly through the city â€” meetings are made on street corners, in restaurants, on a boat crossing the harbor, in homes. This is the city in which these men live, in which their families live, and they’re not going to go running out of alleys with guns ablaze. Outside of a scrabbling race across the border from China in which Lok and Big D’s men hand off the baton to one another as if it were, well, a baton, the main action takes place in dialogue â€” an epic power struggle conducted over cell phones, which should (thankfully) forever remove the film from any threat of a US remake.
It’s hardly a spoiler to let on that in the end, the old ways prevail yet again, and Lok is sworn in with the thirty-six oaths of loyalty, parts of which we’ve heard earlier in the film, repeated by different men as an ineffectual incantation to ward off a betrayal, or to justify an act of brutality. "Honor will bring prosperity," the ceremony goes, and as the film skims ahead, that certainly seems to be the case â€” which makes the final, cynical twist with which To punctuates "Election" all the more gratifying. After all, brotherhood is all very well and good, but business is business.