Video Essay. Two Takes on Strategy in Johnnie To’s "Election"

An audiovisual essay exploring Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s film about organized crime now playing on MUBI in the United States.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin

The tenth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. Johnnie To's Election is now playing in the United States through January 17.


Election (2005) marked an unexpected move in the illustrious career of Johnnie To. As a film about organized crime operating across Hong Kong and China, it has scenes of violence, but no guns are fired; as a story of winning, holding, or losing power, it is less about open, bloody confrontations of gangs or sovereign individuals (the law of the urban, gangster jungle) than backroom manipulations of opinion and allegiance (i.e., politics). And it is a movie in which To’s regularly vertiginous, experimental style is pared right down to a minimalistic concentration on the utterance of words, the performance of small gestures, the conveyance of signs and objects that always have a precise, codified role to play in the proceedings.

Nowhere more than in the two Election installments in To’s filmography (the sequel appeared a year later) do we find such intense concentration on plotting, on the precise leakage of information, on the geometry of actions and counter-reactions in an elaborate game. These are not only the defining characteristics of the world depicted in Election; they are also the terms of how To tells and constructs the narrative and its form, and the way he means it to work on us as spectators.

Election is a film that makes it essential for you to understand the significance of every plot detail, but not necessarily on a first viewing, where you may find yourself quite lost or confused or behind the eight ball—at least at the instant when something happens, as distinct from some subsequent moment when its background context is revealed or unfolded. The more you dig into it, however, you come to place and comprehend the shifting status of each character—from whom they take their orders (which can change with a single mobile phone call), and under which configuration of leaders in higher levels of the organization. 

Johnnie To adopts here one very classical theme that we associate, especially, with the legacy of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather series (1972, 1974, 1990) in global cinema: tradition (and respect for tradition as what truly organizes, coheres, and holds together organized crime) versus modernity. Tradition tends to associated (with different trappings according to the home culture) with values of family, loyalty, honor, civilization, ritual, remembrance, endurance; modernity with violence, individualism, fragmentation, destruction, and above all, encroaching capitalism. Election eventually leads us to ponder (and its sequel then takes our pessimistic conclusion for granted) that this structural, thematic opposition is never so clear-cut: for everyone, it seems, the ‘best bet’ is what is going to win the day, regardless of ideology old or new.

From its opening images of mahjong tiles being moved around in preparation for their next round, Election offers itself to us under the master metaphor of game play. Crime/gangster cinema has often enlisted this metaphor, but never so systematically as here. Games involve strategy, and the politics of organized crime are, in To’s vision, nothing but strategy. The film contrasts the violent impulsiveness of Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai) with the calm strategizing of Lok (Simon Yam)—who appears to have learnt this lesson well from his traditionally-minded mentor, Uncle Teng (Wong Tin-lam). Their style of rational, even-tempered strategy is based on waiting, on the virtue of patience: time is required to plant the seed, or stir the pot, to prepare the dramatic moment when a decision will be made.

These moments of decision take many forms in Election, from the show of hands in a voting procedure, to the choice between staying in or exiting a car when the traffic light turns green. The director, likewise, plays with the cinematic time of waiting, of suspense and anticipation, in his masterful ways of staging, framing, and cutting these constantly varied scenes. 

However—and this is the added, all-important chaos factor that has always underpinned the gangster genre—there is also the role of chance, of the unforeseen occurrence that takes all players by surprise. Chance can arrive from anywhere: by coincidence (benevolent or malign), from the surrounding environment, from a hothead’s unpredictable impulse. And to illustrate how absolutely no detail in Election is merely incidental, take careful note of what the seemingly insignificant economics lecturer is saying in the background of a university classroom scene—because, if narrative film is a game-space for Johnnie To, it is also a fully economical (measured, balanced, parceled out) craft and art:

"In economics, a model is a theoretical construct that represents economic processes by a set of variables, and a set of logical and quantitative relationships between these variables. In general, economic models are simplified, given the enormous complexity of economic processes. Economists must make a reasoned choice of which variables, and which relationships between these variables, are relevant, and which ways of analysing and presenting this information are useful. Economic models can be used to forecast…"

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