Johnnie To’s Election – AN INTRODUCTION

On April 2nd 2016 Peter Munford introduced a screening of Johnnie To’s 2005 film Election at QUAD Derby, as part of the Crime – Hong Kong Style season.

Good evening and welcome to this screening of the 2005 Hong Kong crime drama Election, by director Johnnie To.

First of all, if any of are expecting Mathew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, you should probably go downstairs and get a refund right now.

This screening tonight is part of our weekend of screenings from the Crime Hong Kong Style season that has been put together by Home in Manchester with support from the BFI. I’ll tell you a little bit about Election shortly but first I’ll talk about the man behind it, director and producer Johnnie To.

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Johnnie To

Johnnie To has built up a reputation in The West primarily as a director specialising in hugely stylish and wittily conceived action movies like Exiled, Mad Detective, Fulltime Killer and Vengeance. But he actually has had quite a wide and varied career in the Hong Kong film industry. He started out in Hong Kong TV in the 70s before directing his first film in 1980. Throughout the 80s he worked as a director for various Hong Kong production companies across many different genres and by the end of the decade was seen as one of the Hong Kong’s leading directors after films like the Chow Yun Fat starring All About Ah-Long and The Eighth Happiness proved to be both critical successes as well as hugely popular at the local box office.

 

He first tasted success outside of Hong Kong in 1993 with his fantasy martial arts effort The Heroic Trio, starring three of Hong Kong’s leading actresses Michele Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung. This proved to be a hit at home and also something of a cult success among Western audiences who were increasingly getting to see Hong Kong films on subtitled and dubbed VHS tapes.

The Heroic Trio

The UK VHS for To’s The Heroic Tri

 

In 1996 To formed his own production company with Wai Ka-Fai, another director and producer. It was named MilkyWay Image Ltd and they began to produce some rather dark crime dramas with titles like Intruder and Final Justice. To’s first film as a director for the company was called A Hero Never Dies and followed the fortunes of two triads caught up in a gang war.

None of these early MilkyWay productions made much of an impact at the Hong Kong box office and in 1999 the company decided to explore other styles and genres. The To directed Running Out Of Time was a more light take on the crime action genre starring Andy Lau and the following year they also released a romantic comedy called Needing You which To and Wai Ka-Fai co-directed. Both of these films were significant successes at the Hong Kong box office and a pattern was established which the company has followed fairly consistently ever since.

This pattern is that their productions fall into one of two broad categories. The first is dark and gritty crime films which gain critical attention and play at festivals around the world, the second being much lighter and broader mainstream comedies aimed at the local Hong Kong box office and do not get seen very much at all outside of Asia.

The film we are seeing tonight falls very much into the former camp. The movie opens as the members of the Wo Shing triad society are electing a new chairman to lead them. There are two main candidates. The first is Lok, a calm, outwardly responsible man who seemingly has the respect of his peers. His rival is the volatile Big D who is quick to anger and impatient. Lok wins the election, which leads to Big D lashing out as those he believes responsible for his loss.

As the society sits on the edge of civil war, the dragon head baton which symbolises the power of the leader and without having it in his possession, no elected leader’s authority can truly be respected, goes missing. The two factions within the society then pursue its recovery with the intention of putting their man in the top job.

 

For his two stars in Election To employed two actors who had long been around the Hong Kong movie scene. As Lok we have Simon Yam, who had been on screen in Hong Kong since the early 80s and had worked with To previously in films like The Mission, Full Time Killer and PTU.

The 2009 Cannes Film Festival - Day 5

Simon Yam

Opposite him as Big D he cast Tony Leung Ka-Fai, who had been a well known face in Hong Kong cinema for over a decade but had only worked with To once before, on the previous year’s Throw Down.

tonyl

Tony Leung Ka-Fai

With these two leads characters and the various hordes of underlings To seeks to depict Triad characters as he believes they truly are, undercutting the notion of the noble hitman and gangster characters that had become something of a cliché in Hong Kong action and crime cinema since John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow in the mid -80s.

The lead characters in those films, as notably often embodied by Chow Yun-Fat, might be gangsters and killers but they abided by a code of honour, making it much easier for an audience to root for them to take down their rivals.

 

In Election, the gangsters are all selfish and petty and have little interest in anyone’s wellbeing other than their own. Of the leads, Simon Yam’s levelheaded and thoughtful Lok might be more of a relatable character than Tony Leung Fa-Kai’s short-tempered Big D, but by the film’s conclusion any audience member that mistook him for the hero will definitely have had their pre-conceptions challenged.

Upon the film’s release in 2005 Election was a surprise hit at the Hong Kong box office despite it receiving a category III rating which restricted its audience to over 18s. It went on to receive seven nominations at the Hong Kong film awards and won best film, best director for To, best actor for Leung Fa-Kai and also best screenplay.

Internationally the film was quite a success too. The film was sold to over 20 territories for cinema release, including the UK, and was able to take advantage of the Asia Extreme wave that was briefly in fashion around this time.  International critics were also impressed for the most part, with many being quick to suggest that the chaos, betrayals and infighting engulfing the triad election in the film were not too far from how more legitimate political elections are run.

To returned to make a sequel, Election 2 (released as Triad Election in the states), the next year. I will not say anything about Election 2 here for fear of ruining the surprises in store during tonight’s screening, except to say it is well worth seeking out.

To has talked about returning to make an Election 3 catching up with the characters 10 years later but this idea has yet to come to fruition. Hopefully it will do as To and his screenwriters are sure to come up with something equally interesting and unexpected.

So that’s a little bit of background on Johnnie To and his film Election. I hope you will be sticking around for some of the other films this weekend. Later on tonight we have one of the first UK screenings of That Demon Within, the cop thriller from one of Hong Kong’s 21st century action cinema maestros, Dante Lam.

Thank you very much for coming. Enjoy Election!

 

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