Director: Johnnie To
Johnnie To’s films are notorious for their focus on the grittier aspect of Hong Kong, with particular focus being paid to the island’s gang population. Election is just that. The premise of the film is very much obvious from its title: the Triad is having its elections to decide who the next leader of the gang. On the ballot is Lok, an apparent family man whose sense of honor and fairness is visible throughout, and Big D, a businessman who has won the Triad a lot of money and property but whose methods are at best dark gray on the moral scale. Other important characters are Uncle Teng, who appears to be the unofficial leader of the uncles and acts as a figure of wisdom and knowledge, and Jimmy, the right-hand man of Uncle Long and who is a quiet force of justice in the film.
There is the matter of law enforcement involvement. At first, the viewer is led to believe (or at least would like to believe) that the police department is removed from the corruption that infests the Triad. Uncle Teng’s meeting with the chief inspector, however, shoves all such ideals down the drain, revealing that the Triad and police often work together. However, it is very clear that the police is the one ultimately in charge: “I decide who breaks the law.” There is a clear power hierarchy that we become privy to through this interaction—while the Triad is allowed to run itself as it wants, ultimately; the law enforcement agencies get the last say. If we go with the “Triad equals Hong Kong”/ “Law Enforcement equals China”, we become aware of the dynamic between Hong Kong and its parent (Hong Kong, as a SAR of China, is allowed to run itself without the interference of China for the most part but must always bow to its owner.)
Although Election was produced nearly a decade after the initial return of Hong Kong to China, the themes peppered throughout the film clearly harken back to the uncertainty of 1997. For one, the Triad acts as a microcosmic government: it does not follow patriarchal rules of governing; rather, it is a democratic process that directly involves the “uncles” (i.e. middle-aged to elderly members from years past). The Triad’s inner-workings serve as an allegory for the nation during and after the re-colonization process, as the two directions Hong Kong was presented with: Lok as the Mainland patriarch who values familial ties or Big D as the global power who values money and expansion. From the get go, the viewer is forced to regard Big D as the villain: he’s a sleaze-ball in the strictest sense of the term and clearly is ran by negative emotions such as greed, jealousy, and pride. Lok is the calm and rational individual of the pair and for a majority of the movie, is not associated with any of the violence that follows Big D around.
And then we see the end of the movie. The ending yanks the viewer’s sense of right and wrong, good and bad, out from under his feet. The reasoning for this is threefold: 1) Big D is shown as being on the cusp of changing for the better—he doesn’t betray his brothers for money and even accompanies Lok on a family outing. 2) Lok actively participates in violence, killing the competing gang leader. The viewer is willing to overlook this transgression with the belief that it was justified—the other leader was intent on killing Lok first, this is just self-defense. Except, the third reason proves such thinking foolish: not only does Lok participate in violence, but he is actually the one to betray his fellow brother and beat him to death. Worse, he goes on to also kill an innocent woman—and all in front of his young child.
If we are supposed to view Lok as China and Big D as the British Empire/ global entities intent on gaining control of Hong Kong, the viewer is left absolutely stumped: who is the real villain the entire time? Big D, who is obvious with his evil but willing to change, or Lok, who hides his darker sides until he has gained power? Just as the viewer is torn between men, Hong Kong as a nation is torn between paths.