Maccewill Yip examines Hong Kong cinema in response to the 1997 handover through Johnnie To’s Triad Election and its predecessor Election.

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I found out about Triad Election through The Stranger, one of Seattle’s free weekly newspapers. Kind of surprising. It’s not like I keep a close eye on current Hong Kong cinema, but usually I catch stuff that pops up in online news blogs, or, since they usually were previously screened in Asia, I would see a copy in Chinatown first. The review sounded good, and I saw it was directed by Johnnie To, who made one of my favorite cat-and-mouse action flick, Running Out of Time (1999).

So I went to one of the U-District theaters that was showing it. The first surprise I had was during the opening credits, when the title came up:

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Wait, what? Election 2? Nowhere in the review did it say that this was a sequel. I was wondering if I might get confused not having seen the first film. However, this was advertised as its own film, so I thought that this might be one of those stand-alone movie. In a way it did, but I still felt I had to watch the first movie, Election, to get what was happening in the second.

I later managed to find both on DVD and watched them at home, which was an interesting experience having seen the second film first. Triad Election can be watched on its own, but watching the first one would add some context. Election is almost a completely different movie than Triad Election. It’s more of a McGuffin film, like The Maltese Falcon, where instead of the falcon statue, everybody is after the Dragon Baton that is the symbol of leadership in the Wo Sing society, the oldest Triad group in Hong Kong. Johnnie To mentioned in the special features that the first film presents “historical elements and circumstances” through the traditional election process for their chairman every two years. It’s a faster-paced, action-packed film, but I wasn’t much a fan of it. Even the director admits that the first film is really there to set up what he wanted to do thematically in the second film.

Still, watching the first film would add context to certain scenes in Triad Election, often making them tenser or more interesting. There is one scene in Election that resonates through different parts of the second film. It happens in the end, but first, some background. Most of the film’s conflict comes about when a rash gangster, Big D, loses the election of Chairman to the Wo Sing, and threatens to splinter the gang and declare a civil war within their society. To maintain order and unity and prevent further conflict, Lok, the new Chairman, makes a deal to allow Big D to become his partner and promises to support him when the next election comes. Big D agrees, and you see a quick montage of their venture becoming successful. This leads to the main scene, where Lok and his son, Denny, go fishing at a river with Big D and his wife, uh, Mrs. Big D. While fishing, Big D brings up the idea that they can be co-Chairman. Lok, who is shown to be the more calm and rational one of the two, seems to agree. However, Lok literally goes behind Big D’s back and bashes his head with a large stone. He sees his son, who had witnessed what he has done, before seeing Big D’s wife running away. He throws his keys, telling his son to wait in the car while he deals with his former partner’s wife. After killing Mrs. Big D, he buries the couple, cleans up at the river, and returns to his car, where his frightened son is waiting.

This one part reverberates and add texture to several parts of Triad Election:

– Lok had one of his main hitman, Jet, to go after an underling who apparently is going around, claiming that Lok killed his boss. Without the first film, we would question if this underling is telling the truth, mouthing off, or being just plain paranoid. However, in Election, we know that this guy used to work under Big D, who is never mentioned in the second film.

– In Triad Election, we see Denny get in trouble in school and joining a youth gang. If seen on its own, this would seem like an ironic, apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree plot point. However, when seen in light of the fishing scene in Election, we see that Denny is mostly acting out in fear of his father.

Triad Election starts two years after the first film, in time for the next election. One of Lok’s right-hand man, Kun, mentions earlier he wants to run for Chairman. Later, we see them both fishing when Lok drops the news that he wants to go against tradition and run for a second term. Kun suggest that since Lok already wants to break custom, why not run together as co-Chairman. The scene is already suspenseful, but becomes incredibly tense if you’ve seen the fishing scene in Election and remember how a similar proposition was brought up then.

As mentioned earlier, Wo Sing was deep in tradition, which is represented by both the Dragon Baton and Uncle Teng, the most respected of the elder ex-Chairmen. The Dragon Baton is the symbol of the leadership in their society, while Uncle Teng would attempt to protect the traditions that come with it. While Uncle Teng was successful in the first film, events conspire against him during the second film. Knowing Uncle Teng would be against his attempt at a second term, Lok pushes the old man down the stairs, twice, killing the old man. And when Jimmy, who eventually becomes Chairman, was put in a position by the government that is out of his control, he hides the Dragon Baton in Uncle Teng’s casket before it was buried, and with that, the traditions of their society.

And I just realized I spent this much time before mentioning Jimmy, the real main character in Triad Election. One reason is even though he was in the first movie, he wasn’t the main character, and there were several others in similar position as he was. However, we see hints in the first film that led to the choices he made in the second film. In the first movie, he was an underling, handling the prostitutes for his boss. By the second film, he has become successful in selling bootleg pornography. In Election, we see he is studying business, where apparently he uses what he learned to be the main money-maker to the Wo Sing; so by the time the events in Triad Election happen, he becomes respected in their organization and the favored candidate to run for Chairman. But he does not want to be part of the Triad anymore. He wants to be able to leave the gang to become a legitimate businessman. However, when he was trying to start a logistics/business center in Mainland China, he got caught trying to bribe an official for building permits and was arrested by the Public Security Bureau. He is later free to go, but because of his past, he is told that he can visit, but can’t do business in the Mainland. When he ask why when there is a member of another Hong Kong gang doing business, he is told that the other Triad is a leader of his group and made a deal, whereas Jimmy is not even a Chairman. Going back to Hong Kong, Jimmy is forced to run for Chairman, hoping he can use the two years in the position to make a deal to get his business together and then get out. The Security Bureau Chief  has other ideas.

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This leads to the main theme that the director, Johnnie To, is building up to throughout both films: the events after the Handover of Hong Kong in 1997 when the British colonial control of Hong Kong was relinquished and the island was once again a part of China. Although Hong Kong, Macau, and other similar territories retain their own economic and political system while Mainland China remains socialist, there is still a lot of blowback against the reunified regions. Many directors felt uncertain on what they could and couldn’t film under China’s control, creating a lull in Hong Kong cinema for a couple of years, until a resurgence in the beginning of the 21st century. Some just left the country, most notably John Woo, who left before 1997 and came to the U.S. The others, like To, stayed low-key in the projects they worked on until they can feel out what they can do on film.

With Election and Triad Election, the theme is summed up in the trailer: A new age, a new leadership. Changes in the times would lead to the loss of traditions. In the beginning of Triad Election, we see a little early history of the Triads, who had a lot of conflicts that led to police intervention. There was a meeting set by a member named Black Ren, suggesting a way to unite the gangs and deal with disputes by themselves to preclude any involvement of the authorities. So the Wo Sing society represents Hong Kong as it is trying to deal with its own conflict with minimal intrusion by the authorities. In Election, we see this play out with the Hong Kong police, which can stand for the old British rule. In Triad Election, Jimmy had to deal with the mainland Public Security Bureau, but that department can represent the greater powers of China as it tries to affect change post-unification. As I said, Uncle Teng and the Dragon Baton could both stand for the old traditions of Wo Sing, but they could also represent the old Hong Kong before the Handover. Jimmy represents Hong Kong going forward. At first, he tries to do things his own way, going as far as claiming, “I can make you a deal. I can be a patriot.” This is not enough, and it is the path he takes that lead him to run a bloody campaign that eventually gained him his position as Chairman of Wo Sing. He feels he can do what he needs for those two years and leave the gang forever. It’s not until it’s too late that he discovers the Security Bureau chief’s plan for him: to maintain the peace by keeping the leadership within his family, forever binding him and his generation’s future to Wo Sing. The chief’s own words are, “Your leadership will make Hong Kong a safer place.” When broadening the scope, this can be seen as Hong Kong maintaining an illusion of sovereign economy and politics, but actually being under the wide umbrella of the Chinese government. As Jimmy says, “I’m deeply impressed, but also frightened by your power.”

In a similar vein, there are a few generational themes within Triad Election, emphasized through father-son relationships, or those that resemble it. Here again, we bring Uncle Teng and his traditional patriarchal role in Wo Sing, whereas Lok and Jimmy can be seen as the sons that would affect change in their society. However, Lok and Jimmy are also father and father-like figures of their own. With Lok, he has his actual son, Denny, who, by the end of the second film, is running away from his father after Lok’s men were trying to intimidate the youth gang Denny was trying to join. It’s interesting that while Lok goes after his son, that is when his own men, threateningly induced to betray their boss by Jimmy, acted upon their attack. The relationship of Chairman and his henchmen is usually that of father-son, so his son getting away and his men beating him creates a double tragedy. In fact, we can imagine most of Lok’s godsons in this role, including Kun (probably his only loyal godson), Jet, and Jimmy himself. Jimmy is the latest in the lineage of Chairman, following Uncle Teng and Lok, both of whom he would betray in different ways. By the end of the film, he is similar to Lok in that being the new Chairman means he would be the father-like figure for those below him; later, he will find out that he will be an actual father. However, the deal he made with the Security Bureau Chief now means that his own child’s future will now lead in a direction he does not want. In a way, it’s a betrayal of his optimistic vision in the beginning of the film, when he told his wife that his progeny will be doctors or lawyers.

There’s a lot of betrayal in this film, most of it very violent and very bloody. Within Lok’s own godsons, there was of course Jimmy, but there was also Jet. Jet is interesting because he was the main man Lok hired to do all the dirty work. Lok has even promised that he would support Jet as next Chairman, just like he did with Kun (and probably would break for both, another betrayal). However, it starts to change when Lok gives Jet Jimmy’s name as the next target. Lok even gives him a gun to show he is serious—it is incredibly difficult to get a gun in Hong Kong and China, which is why most of the film’s killings in the film are done with knives. However, there is a kind of connection, a kind of camaraderie that prevents Jet from going through with it. You get glimpses of it in Election when they got the Dragon Baton. In Triad Election, you see more hints through the match shot between Jimmy drinking his wine in the expensive restaurant, contrasted with Jet drinking his alcohol bottle in a paper bag in his car. Jet is close to killing Jimmy when they are both in the car, with Jimmy’s wife forced to drive. However, after Jimmy’s wife grabs the alcohol bottle, swings it at Jet’s head, and runs off urging Jimmy to escape with her, there is a moment of absurd kinship as they laugh it off.

There are other examples of bloody betrayal, including bits with caskets, dog kennels, sledgehammers, and meat grinders.

Triad Election is more or less the movie that I feel the same way about since I first watched it. It is dark and intense. I will never forget that terrifying dog kennel scene. And that tragic ending, when he finds that all the reprehensible acts he committed to be able to get out of his life of crime end up entangling him and his future. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a Greek tragedy and Godfather put together, tempered by Hong Kong’s feeling of helplessness as it is engulfed by the dominance of China.

Other Thoughts

– I own two copies of this film because of the differences in the subtitles. There are several, but the main one is a question Jimmy asks after the Security Bureau Chief told him he can’t do business in China. In my Chinese DVD, Jimmy just asks, “Why?” In the U.S. DVD and US theatrical release, he asks, “Even straight business?” It’s a small change, but it makes all the difference in Jimmy’s intention of business in China.

– Another connection you see of Jet and Jimmy. Whenever you see just them, the theme song from the first movie plays.

– I wonder if that part in the kennel scene when we see the foot being pushed in the meat grinder is a deliberate reference to Fargo.

– After the kennel parts, Jimmy literally pays Lok’s men with blood money.

– There was some stuff in the trailer that isn’t in the movie. There’s what looks to be Kun’s execution by the police, Denny at Lok’s funeral, and screaming while Jimmy was chopping away in the kennel scene (the actual movie had the score played over it instead).

– There are a couple of scenes where we see men prepare themselves to go out in the streets to attack. One is when Jet paints his fingertips, which I pretty much guessed was him covering his fingerprints. However, I don’t get the second one, where Jimmy’s hired contract killer wets his gloved hands before grabbing his knife and heading out.

– It’s not clear in the subtitles, but Jimmy is called by the elders what can be more closely translated as “Kid Jimmy,” which would emphasize the generational differences.

– The rewatch is the first time I can imagine Nick Cheung, the guy who played Jet, as a separate character, and not the goof in Infernal Affairs. That was not the same when I first saw Triad Election, when I had a harder time distancing the characters.

– There is a funny little ironic subtitling in the special features, where a line that is supposed to read “Keep on making mistakes” comes out as “Keep on kaming mistakes.”

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