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Election Series' Political Allegory

Written by Siu Heng Tell a Friend

Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai founded Milkyway Image in 1996. Their early productions such as Too Many Ways to be No.1, The Longest Nite, and Expect the Unexpected all echo with Hong Kong people's worries over Hong Kong-Mainland relations after the 1997 handover. Some critics also interpret later Milkyway Image films such as PTU, Running on Karma, and Breaking News along the line of post-1997 Hong Kong politics, and actually most film noirs directed or produced by Johnnie To have struck Hong Kong people's over-sensitive political nerve. In Election and its sequel, Johnnie To openly claims that he is trying to explore how the triad society evolved with Hong Kong's post-handover transition. As compared to the hidden political subtext in earlier Milkyway Image films, the Election series has made its political message more explicit than any other Johnnie To films.

The title Election has already deciphered the political code of this movie. Wo Luen Sing, one of Hong Kong's triad societies, elects its chairman every two years. This year sees the competition between the calm and low-profile Lok (Simon Yam) and the temperamental, conspicuous Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai). Election never bothers to conceal its comments on Hong Kong politics, as evident in Inspector Hui's (David Chiang) remark, "Triad societies started electing their chairman a century earlier than you elected your Chief Executive!" His line unquestionably reveals the film as a political allegory and requires no further interpretation. As such, tracing the paradigm shift from Election to Election 2 might produce interesting insights to understanding Hong Kong's political climate.

The Uncles, senior triad members who were once Chairmen, have all the say in the election of the new Chairman. In Election, the respectable Uncle Deng (Wong Tin Lam), in an attempt to balance different powers in the gang, decides to groom Lok for the leadership position. As beneficiary of this "small-circle" election, Lok defends the triad's traditional order, as opposed to Big D whose subversive suggestion of establishing a "New Wo Luen Sing" actually marks the beginning of his downfall.

In Election 2, however, Lok's greed for power prompts him to challenge tradition and seek a second term, and leads him to follow Big D's footsteps in the end. His cool-headed and promising role in Election is taken over by Jimmy (Louis Koo). Lok's son perhaps foretells what will happen in the next generation. From witnessing his father's violence without panicking, to joining a frivolous triad gang for protection like Jimmy did in his teens, the brief appearances of this kid in the two films indicate the possibility of him following his father's and Jimmy's example. Power struggle will pass on from generation to generation without an end.

The fact that power struggle never ends does not necessarily mean that old order will perpetuate. In Election, Uncle Deng's seniority qualifies his authority and he can thus negotiate between Lok's and Big D's camps. But in Election 2, Uncle Deng's seniority becomes useless against Lok's ambitious plan. For Lok, his opposition no longer comes from his peers, but from Jimmy who had once called him "godfather" in Election. Wo Luen Sing's seniority-based order quickly collapses in Election 2; seniority no longer guarantees power - only money does.

Lok's decision to run for the Chairman position originates from his desire for power, and only when elected Chairman does he discover the importance of making money. On the contrary, Jimmy only wants money, but power inevitably comes with wealth. Yet Jimmy's craving for power, driven by economic incentives, eventually pushes him even further than Lok. In Election 2 Jimmy manifests a brutality more horrifying and perverted than Lok's surprising bursts of violence in Election. Lok's desire for power eventually leads him to "do business", as he remarks to Jimmy, whereas the case for Jimmy is just the opposite. The desire for economic gain is no longer the result of seizure of power, but something that motivates one to seize power. The existence of Jimmy's money-loving assistant (Mark Cheng) in Election 2 reminds us of this subtle reversal in which money has taken over as the determining factor in the power struggles.

Failing to recognize economic interests as the foundation of authority may not be fatal, but will surely not bring one success. Kun (Gordom Lam), Jet (Nick Cheung), and Big Head (Lam Suet), adhering to the traditional virtues of loyalty and righteousness that triad members three centuries ago looked up to, remain just ordinary gangsters. Only lawyer Mr. So (Eddie Cheung) who starts doing business in Mainland China may have some hope in his future. As for Jimmy, from an economic major who admits to looking up to Lok as "godfather" for practical interests, to an aspiring leader who runs for the Chairman to guarantee his businesses in Mainland China, he is obviously far more money-oriented than any of his peers.

Economic factors are determining Hong Kong-Mainland relationships nowadays. Mainland China changes from a mere geographical reference in Election to a political and economic entity which Hong Kong people depend on in Election 2. In the opening scene of Election 2, Jimmy's funny and over-sloppy Mandarin (or Putonghua if we insist on political correctness), the Chinese dialect used by most Mainland Chinese, hints at his lack of identification with Mainland China. But in fact he is the most active one in building up relationships with Mainland officials and businessmen. Of course, Big Head's telephone conversation with his Mainland lover offers an amusing supplement to this point.

No matter to what extent Hong Kong people want to distinguish themselves from Mainland Chinese, they have to establish close connections with them for economic reasons. Mainland China will sooner or later assimilate Hong Kong. No wonder Mainland Deputy Chief Inspector Shi (You Yung) takes over from Election's Inspector Hui to represent the law-enforcing agent combating Wo Luen Sing. Ten years ago, Milkyway Image productions started to explore the Hong Kong-Mainland relationship after 1997, and, ten years later, Election 2 clearly indicates that Hong Kong politics can only be understood in the context of Mainland China's current situation.

No one knows what Hong Kong will be like in the next ten years - Deng Xiaoping's famous saying for Hong Kong "to remain unchanged for 50 years" remains merely a beautiful legend. Having "Uncle Deng" as the most influential man in Election is perhaps way too obvious a symbol. However, the moment when Uncle Deng tells Lok how he repaired the Dragon Baton when he took over as Chairman in 1970, Deng's role all of a sudden reminds us of Hong Kong's colonial government. The colonial government's economic and social policies since the 1970s brought about a prolonged period of prosperity in Hong Kong until the eve of the city's reunion with Mainland China. In Election 2, the Dragon Baton is buried with the dead, and Uncle Deng, who upholds the triad conventions, bids the gang forever farewell. It does not take 50 years - a mere 5 is enough - for the things that Hong Kong people have once been proud of to disappear, just as the effective triad order will be gone forever in Election 2.

In face of Hong Kong's gloomy political future, there seems to be very little that Hong Kong people can do. Constitutional development has made no progress; democratic election has a long way to go; businessmen continue to dominate politics. While Hong Kong people have many grievances, Election 2's last sequence appears to be particularly soothing and appealing. However, precisely because Johnnie To has voiced out the grievances that many Hong Kong people are sharing, he leaves no room for an alternative interpretation of Election and Election 2 except as an allegory of Hong Kong politics. Right when the theater lights came on after viewing Election 2, my excitement from the very last scene immediately vanished and a feeling of hopelessness for Hong Kong's political future prevailed.

(Originally published in a.m. post Issue 28. Reprinted with permission.)

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Published July 3, 2006

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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