Since around the turn of the century, the mass-productive Hong Kong director Johnnie To has been churning out gadgety actioneers, rom-coms, and bizarre genre hybrids faster than you can shake your head at his apparent disinterest in fully articulated, tonally sustained moviemaking. 2005’s Election and its 2006 stand-alone sequel Triad Election (the former is playing matinees at Film Forum in support of the latter’s opening) have been hailed as a sort of breakthrough for To: less loopy pastiche than for-lack-of-a-better word “maturity,” in the form of somber, structurally disciplined thriller mechanics, and a Gordon Willis-aping palette seeping gravitas from every black-pooled shadow.
The myth-busting angle is the fallacy of honor within Hong Kong’s oft-romanticized criminal underworld: the rituals of a faction’s biannual Chairman elections are undercut by the gruesome slapstick of the candidates’ backstage power plays. Triad Election, which improves on its predecessor’s pasted-together script, works through the dapper person of Jimmy (Louis Koo), a young Triad coerced into running for Chairman to facilitate his legitimate business concerns in mainland China. Initially sympathetic, Jimmy’s navigation of zero-sum gangland is successfully repellent, the sadism in To’s escalating set pieces edging from titillating to curdled to outright animalistic.
Then again, the Elections’ stone-faced scores and parallel arcs of father-son disappointment are surface trappings as sure as the bulging wide-angle shots in his outré shoot-em-ups, albeit surface trappings in a classical mode. Election and Triad Election are less an evolution of To’s (eminently Netflixable and highly recommended) back catalogue than proof-of-concept, demonstration he has it in him to make credible versions of the movies he’s been riffing on all along.
Opens April 25 at Film Forum