Vote or die

Party lines get bloody in Johnnie To's Triad Election

Now that the wave of Asian horror films (and subsequent American remakes) seems to have crashed under the weight of too many spooky kids and ladies with long, wet hair, are Asian gangster flicks the new hotness? Practically everyone in the United States has now seen a Hong Kong cops 'n' robbers thriller or at least a film once removed from such, thanks to Martin Scorsese and his Best Picture–winning Infernal Affairs remake. But while The Departed pilfered from director Andrew Lau (this fall look for his English-language debut, the Richard Gere–starring crime drama The Flock), HK's most exciting director, Johnnie To, remains largely unknown stateside.

For now, that is: with films such as 1999's The Mission and 2001's Fulltime Killer, To earned notice among genre buffs. Last year's Exiled screened at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and is due for local theatrical release this summer; I think it's the film poised to earn To a fan base beyond the cinema-geek crowd. But until Exiled emerges, there's Triad Election, a.k.a. Election 2, which offers enough stylish direction and underworld shenanigans to tide over the To faithful — and maybe snare a few new devotees along the way.

Haven't watched the first Election? Me neither, so rest assured that you don't need to have seen it to follow Election 2. HK's oldest triad, Wo Sing, puts the organized in organized crime, holding elections for chairperson every two years. Current boss Lok (Simon Yam) doesn't want to step down, especially for front-runner Jimmy (Louis Koo), whose lucrative ventures in mainland China have left him yearning to leave HK's crime biz behind. Trouble is, the crooked higher-ups in China won't let Jimmy continue his dealings unless he becomes head of his mob family; they see his cooperation as an asset they can exploit to everyone's advantage. So the race is on, and it's way dirtier than anything Karl Rove could dream up. Campaign strategies include kidnapping, double-crossing, limb severing, and putting assorted hired killers on the payroll.

To aligns the viewer's sympathies with Jimmy, but he's as morally ambiguous as they come, as movie mobsters tend to be. And on that note, a few delicious torture scenes aside, there's not a lot going on here that hasn't appeared in gangster dramas past. But even if its themes are familiar, Triad Election does feature one particularly unusual element: no gun battles whatsoever. Exiled is as bullet-riddled as the films of John Woo's late-'80s prime, but Election's characters dole out their punishments with an array of blades.

It's actually appropriate, since you really have to get right up on someone to stab 'em good. This visceral, intimate choice raises the stakes of Election's all-in-the-family violence. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer indeed. *


Opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters

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