Johnnie To was one of the directors that got me into Hong Kong cinema, with Election 2 [Hak Se Wui Yi Wo Wai Kwai] being one of the first films that convinced me modern Hong Kong cinema was something worthwhile discovering. It's also one of the films that prompted me to delve into To's rich oeuvre, but I never really rewatched Election 2 since that first viewing. A gap of 12 years is quite significant, so I sat down to give the film another go. Turns out the film had no trouble winning me over again.
The mid 00s are a clear highlight in To's career. Hong Kong was righting its back again and rather than settle for another martial arts renaissance, it was the action/crime genre that took the lead. Johnnie To was co-fronting this movement (also props to the efforts of Wai-Keung Lau) that started in the late 90s, paving the way with films like The Mission and Fulltime Killer. It wasn't until the mid to late 00s though that it would come to full fruition, with Election 2 being one of the first films to reap the rewards.
Even though Election 2 is a direct sequel to To's 2005 Election film, it's easy enough to enjoy by itself. The concept is pretty simple and contained, spanning another Triad boss election. Just like the first film, To ignores some popular genre antics and aims to deliver a more serious film. The focus isn't so much on action, posing or crime cool, instead the film presents the election like a game of chess, highlighting wit, politics and betrayal. Not quite unlike Takeshi Kitano's more recent Outrage trilogy.
When Lok's 2-year term is up, he decides to have another go at the chairman election. This to the dismay of some of his earlier supporters, whom he promised would take over when his term ended. Jimmy on the other hand has no interest in running for chairman, but he is forced to run by some crooked Chinese cops. His only option to expand his business in the mainland is to get rid of the current management and to take control of the Wo Shing Triad. Jimmy accepts reluctantly, but turns out to be a relentless opponent for Lok.
With years of practise and countless movies in his pocket, To has had plenty of time and opportunity to hone his visual skill set. While some of his other films from around the same period are a bit more visually pronounced, there's still plenty to enjoy here. Moody settings, refined camera work and a desatured look give they film some extra class. Most importantly though, it gives the film the exact balance of seriousness and flair that helps to define Election 2.
While Hong Kong cinema isn't really known for stand-out soundtracks, To's work is a welcome exception. An extremely stylish theme piece is used throughout with great effect, while the rest of the soundtrack keeps you on your toes. It's quite minimal and it's not the kind of music that has a big impact when listened to by itself, but within the context of the film it grounds a superb atmosphere that brings an extra level of gravity to the film. To truly is a beacon of light when it comes to proper use of a soundtrack.
Acting-wise there's really nothing to worry about. When you have seasoned actors like Simon Yam and Louis Koo facing off against each other, you can pretty much rest assured that the characters will possess the necessary charisma to pull off an epic battle of gritty wits. With some great supporting roles from Nick Cheung, Andy On and Suet Lam To gathered a somewhat predictable but established cast, all able to give the right accents to their characters.
While crime is one of Hong Kong's favored genres and the Triad setting is almost a given, To succeeded in giving an established genre a new spin. Most Hong Kong crime films are coupled with action, sometimes comedy, but rarely do you find a film that wanders outside the typical genre boundaries. Election 2 a film that takes a couple of nods from the established Western crime films and merges it with Hong Kong influences, keeping the typical Hong Kong speed and flair while adding a bit more weight.
Election 2 may not be the best introduction to Johnnie To and it's not one of his defining films, but it's a must see when you're digging for great crime cinema. It's a stylish, smart and balanced Triad film, sporting a great cast, a characteristic soundtrack, a couple of witty setups and a fulfilling finale. It's hard to find anything wrong here and hopefully To will return one day with a third film to complete this potential trilogy. Until then, seek this one out or watch it again, the quality is still very much present.