During the tail-end of the last Election, Lok’s (Simon Yam) son watched in traumatized horror as his father bludgeoned Tony Leung’s Big D to death, and in the film’s sequel, the child—recently in trouble for smoking and gambling in a school bathroom—runs through the winding streets of Hong Kong after one of his father’s goons stabs a young punk in the leg for tying to steal money from the boy. This sequence feels tacked on to the film, which concerns more power-playing between members of Hong Kong’s triads, but is incredibly resonant of the story’s themes of social circumstance shaping moral character. After all, there is only so far this child can run before he caves into the pressures of the criminal world, and if he is ever seen—say, 16 years from now—trying to negotiate a position within the organization that currently consumes his father’s life, director Johnnie To will have confirmed suspicions that he was always out to make his own version of the Godfather trilogy. Alas, To’s films will never inspire the same devotion as Francis Ford Coppola’s because his storytelling isn’t nearly as significant as his visual artistry.
Triad Election is equal in precision to its predecessor, exuding a perpetual sense of danger. To’s camera adopts the point of view of a prowling animal throughout, peering in one scene through the plants inside a restaurant at different tables where men discuss business, assess potential threats, and learn of others’ deceptions, like Jimmy (Louis Koo) discovering that Mr. So (Cheung Siu-Fai) has been faking his voicemail messages in order not to speak with him. To’s focus on the minutiae of business negotiations—like the exchange of the infamous baton from the first film, the casual drive-by slicing of a man’s neck, or the grinding of a corpse into ground beef—is startling. For fans of the director’s work, you could say To’s virtuostic vision is business-as-usual, but while the director is still operating in top form, cradling character and location as if he were holding the world in the palms of his hands, there is an increasing sense of aloofness to To’s filmmaking that makes his recent work easy to resent. These films could be one in the same, like a snake shedding its skin: One film leaves behind another, only with a much stronger and slippery pelt that allows feeling to slide right past the screen.