Bearing the mantle of "Hong Kong's last great action director" appears to have been more liberating than burdensome for Johnnie To, who over the past several years has felt confident enough to approach the cops-and-crooks genre via half a dozen different stylistic filters, from "leisurely art-film" to "slick blockbuster comedy" to "neo-Western." In his two-part epic Election and Election 2 (the latter of which is being released in the U.S. as Triad Election), To tries making gangster pictures in which no one fires a gun. The bad guys still beat and hack each other to death, but their most powerful weapons are cell phones and a knack for politicking.
In the first Election, a dispute over who should become chairman of one of the triads' largest societies develops into overt and covert intra-gang war, with a lot of the action taking place in boardrooms. In Triad Election, the ultimate winner of the previous bloody campaign, Simon Yam, decides to break tradition and run again, against rising star Louis Koo, whose plans to modernize and decriminalize the triads have earned the police's tacit approval. Once again, most of the maneuvering takes place behind the scenes—with the exception of a few bloody brawls—and once again, the theme of the movie is driven home by a climactic funeral, in which the old ways literally get buried by the new.
Triad Election is arguably more a remake of its predecessor than a sequel. The second can be easily watched without the first—which is good, because only a few theaters will be showing them together—with just some business about the chairman's official baton losing some resonance in the transition. And while Triad Election's message about the stain that power leaves on men's souls is a little hackneyed, To supports it with an unbroken string of well-observed, well-acted scenes where rich villains jostle for position and try to maintain the illusion that they're just trying to build a better life for their offspring. Triad Election echoes The Godfather Part II, The Sopranos, and Goodfellas, but it's resolutely a Chinese story, reaching back to the origins of Hong Kong crime syndicates, and showing how they struggle to keep a foothold in a modernized world. To covers it all, from the remnants of tradition to the new technological wonderland where citizens still live in fear of bird flu. Like the best crime stories, this one isn't about how the bad guys live, it's about how we live.