Shadow Government: Dark forces rule in To?s Election films.

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The international reputation of the Hong Kong gangster flick rests mostly on a few ’90s John Woo films, thrillingly stylized male-bloodying fantasias in which Chow Yun-Fat plays characters who are masterful tough guys yet lost souls. Woo left the former British colony a decade ago, as the Chinese takeover loomed, and his chair is now occupied by Johnnie To, an astonishingly prolific filmmaker who works in many genres but is most himself when depicting the mobs known as triads. While To can move a camera as gracefully as his predecessor, his best movies are even darker than Woo’s. And To’s work doesn’t get any blacker than his Election movies, which begin with pure mayhem and end on a note of political despair that recalls Hard Boiled, Woo’s final Hong Kong film.

The two-part series begins with a counterintuitive notion of gangland succession: Every two years, the elders (or “uncles”) of the Wo Sing Society vote for a chairman to lead their rackets in protection, drugs, porn, and other illicit businesses. Yau Nai-Hoi and Yip Tin-Shing, who wrote both films, present this custom as rooted in the Shaolin monks’ ancient crusade to overthrow the Manchu dynasty. (The Shaolin monks are the basis for hundreds of kung fu flicks that range from abstruse to silly.) The Wo Sing traditions are thus a matter of great honor, and yet the campaigns for the triad’s chairmanship are less than honorable. They involve bribery, intimidation, and more than a few murders.

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Released in Hong Kong in 2005 and 2006, the two Election movies can be seen separately, but they’re more powerful as a package. The first seems comparatively slight and depends mostly on its wealth of details—including a gallery of evocative hoodlum mugs—and its shocking final sequence. The second substantially expands on the series’ political idea, moving into the realm of allegory. Like Woo’s pre-1997 protagonists, the winner of the latest Wo Sing election must ultimately face a force that’s hostile to any election: the government of mainland China.

Election’s central battle is between the strutting Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai, not to be confused with the Tony Leung of such films as In the Mood for Love) and the seemingly mild-mannered Lok (Simon Yam), a single father who’s devoted to his preteen son. Their competition becomes a race to find Wo Sing’s symbol of authority, a dragon’s-head baton that’s hidden across the border in China. The search for the baton, and the sprint to return it to Hong Kong, introduces Jet (Nick Cheung), Kun (Lam Ka-Tung), and Jimmy (Louis Koo), all of whom figure in the second installment. Throughout the action, which is graceless and not at all romanticized, Lok observes at what seems to be an ironically amused distance. He doesn’t reveal the true extent of his ruthlessness until the final minutes, and his detachment becomes all the more chilling.

In Triad Election (also known as Election 2), Lok decides to run for an unprecedented second term as chairman. Both Jet and Kun believe they deserve the post, while Jimmy, a matinee-idol type with designs on normality, opts out. He thinks he’s found an escape route: a massive land development in China that will allow him to become a true “businessman.” But powerful forces want Jimmy to be the next chairman, and he finds he has little choice but to compete. Both movies build to a violent shock sequence—the second film’s is even more brutal than the first—but Triad Election’s bloody set piece is more potent because it underscores Hong Kong’s political dilemma. Jimmy may be handed a license to make money, but only if he accepts a system in which money does not equal freedom.

Johnnie To has emulated Woo’s ’90s mode in such films as Fulltime Killer (co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai) and the recent Exiled, which emphasize speed, flash, and camaraderie as well as fatalism. With their dynamic editing, gliding camera, and elegant compositions, Election and Triad Election are no less stylish. Yet they venture beyond cool into a world where no individual can win. The sword battles are not swashbuckling, guns are less useful than logs and boulders, and brotherhood is no refuge. (Women? Forget it. There are only two wives in these movies, and one ends up dead and the other essentially imprisoned.) The struggle for the dragon’s-head baton ends with the talisman’s meaninglessness, which symbolizes the death of all Chinese traditions. The most severe Hong Kong gangster films look sentimental next to the Election series, a vision of the future in which only power matters.