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Review Roundup - The Society

ELECTION (2005)

Bureaucracy isn't generally a compelling subject matter, unless it's subject to a certain type of scathing perspective. Elections? That hardly seems like an interesting topic either, even in a crime thriller. Surely the triads don't have such respect for tradition and democracy. But there's the root of all the concern in this instance; what it means to have loyalty in a world of keeping 'your friends close and enemies even closer'. As a result this is a story that exceeded my expectations as all the moving pieces, which were initially rather jumbled, started to move into place. The results are a dark and murky underworld tale in which many different figures struggle to maintain their positions in the hierarchy. Simply placing a ballot is only the beginning of their problems.

The confusion seems very intentional as the story opens, and cops begin arresting gangsters for simply having criminal ties. What was the crime? Triad association apparently. But perhaps the police are trying to avoid the sort of problems that will happen later. The details are all very opaque at first, particularly who is involved. There are a lot of uncles and a lot of nicknames. Who is voting for who and how much are they bribing one another? Why do they even need a new chairman in such a power structure? Why is everyone obsessed with an antique baton which is hidden away on the mainland? There's a lot of talk about keeping up old charades and being a good 'brother' or 'son'.

The style of the film itself builds on this mysterious atmosphere. There's a grainy sepia infused look to many of the sequences early on. It's very different from the cold blue photography of Running Out of Time. Characters sit gambling in grubby back rooms. Money is passed between eerie figures surrounded in darkness. Their silhouettes can just be made out through all the cigarette smoke. Of course it's probably best to do shady deals behind closed doors, though in some cases perhaps someone should open the curtains a little. But perhaps this is all just theatre? After all, the police raids seem to be causing more trouble than any organised crime. However like many scenes this is just misdirection.

Lok (Simon Yam) is one of two candidates up for the position of society chairman. He's always calm and spends plenty of time with his son. He keeps a level head when he's taken away by the cops and seems to be a good fit for such a position of authority. The organisation's family ideals match his home life. Elsewhere Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is the polar opposite. In some ways the build up to conflict between factions is a fairly slow burn. But in other ways Big D is already on the warpath even before the results are in. If the broad strokes of the narrative feel like a mixture of The Godfather and Goodfellas, then these two leads parallel the attitudes of Jimmy and Tommy from the latter. One is calculating and the other is a volcano with a short fuse.


Of course it's not all glacial machinations and chess pieces being moved around. There are rivals trapped in packing crates and lured into shadowy bars. Ceremony gives way to chaos and violence on the streets and in rural fields. While the cops try to decide who can do business, and who breaks the law, a series of triad underlings are also making their plays. The two would-be leaders have enough screen presence to carry the story but it helps that these supporting cast members are a colourful bunch. Jet (Nick Cheung) seems particularly unhinged, as he chews on a china spoon just to prove to Big D that he won't be intimidated. Eventually there are machete fights and truck chases as the line between ally and traitor becomes wildly blurred.

It's not an action movie by any means but it's never dull in between these sudden cracks in the fa├žade. Is there really such a thing has honour and loyalty in brotherhood of pushers and loan sharks? They might like to think so despite seeing a lot of evidence to the contrary. Big Head (Lam Suet) recites his oath to the cause even in the face of being beaten by someone who was supposed to be coming to his aide. The pageantry of the election itself feels like it must have a higher purpose, and it's shot with an emphasis on the grandiose history of the proceedings. But underneath the surface there's a long game being played in which either patience or lunacy will succeed in the end. The conclusion seems like an obvious outcome when it finally arrives. But the ongoing misdirect is part of what makes this all so interesting.

In the end it might all just be one long effort to catch the bigger fish, but it's incredibly compelling. Perhaps because it's satisfying when the figures who spent so much time in silhouette take their decisive action. The idea of who holds the baton seems silly in the earlier parts of the story, but it becomes much more serious when it's down to who holds the sharpest knife and the biggest rock. Any brief moments of peace highlighted by the few overtly happy tunes in Lo Ta-yu's score are very short lived. When all the moves are made the only thing that remains is a shallow grave, and perhaps it's still there waiting for the victor. But that's a story to be explored in Election 2. In terms of this first chapter it's a classy, well measured underworld thriller, with plenty of moody vibes and a lot of bite.

BONUS REVIEW
PTU (2003)

Johnnie To previously explored the themes of confusion and chaos, to a much larger extent, in this tale of dirty cops and inexplicable goings on. There's a lot of miscommunication and a larger number of mishaps. Maybe he's saying something about the usually tidy nature of procedural dramas and detective stories. In the opening scene alone it's unclear who is meant to be seated where at a restaurant. Then there's confusion about phones ringing (a recurring image). Then it's a case of who is committing petty acts of vandalism, and who is responsible for brutal murder. What is the connection to an unseen but often discussed gangster called Eyeball? Or are these simply a lot of disconnected incidents which nobody wants to investigate?

Sergeant Ho (Simon Yam) is the ruthless PTU team leader, who is fine with assaulting delinquents and covering up for his own team. He's at odds with the CID as he tries to clear up a problem caused by Sergeant Lo Sa (Lam Suet). Like all the nicknames there are plenty of acronyms. Lo Sa, or 'Fatty' as most characters call him, was distracted and failed to witness the murder at all. Instead he found his car covered in paint, before slipping on a banana peel and finding that his revolver was stolen. Very little investigation into real issues seems to happen as credit card fraud is overlooked and women being imprisoned are ignored. In some ways it's a farcical series of random events that sometimes intersect. But perhaps it's weirdly realistic in terms of how many crimes get solved.

It's a weird mixture of the mundane and the dream-like. Apparently inconsequential scenes go on for a long time, such gang members being slapped (gaining almost no information) or the search of an apartment stairwell (without a result). In some ways it feels like being stuck on an all night patrol that never seems to end. Eventually strange people in phone boxes and kids riding around breaking car windows are forgotten, since it all comes to a head in one of the strangest shoot-outs ever depicted. Coincidences, contrivances and accidents all merge in one bizarre tale, accompanied by strange guitar music and bloody imagery. Like the trash filled alleys the cast find themselves in this is kind of a mess. But some of that seems by design, which mean it's often fascinating.

3/5