7. Election 2 (2006, Johnnie To)
Election 2 is one of those films which challenges the age-old adage that a sequel is hugely inferior to the original. Set two years after the award winning original, Election 2 goes deeper into the life and rites of the Hong Kong’s secretive crime societies.
It is an election year again the Wo Shing Triad society. Incumbent boss Lok is to step step down and suggests as successor top moneymaker Jimmy. but Jimmy is looking a way out of crime with a big real-estate deal in the works in mainland China. But his dreams are dented when he is entrapped by the police.
He is given a way out on the condition that he runs and wins as the next Chairman, becoming their inside man. Upon returning he finds that Boss Lok is now seeking a re-election, going against against tradition and the advice of the elders. And so friend is pitted against friend in a ruthless battle for power.
Election 2 continues to be a great analysis of the triad system and how it clashes with modern Hong Kong and with the ever changing role of mainland China in the internal affairs of the island nation. Johnnie To masterfully shows his characters being shaped and ultimately torn apart by ambitions. With a beautiful cinematography, poetic panning shots and ironic twists of fate, Election 2 really preserves the vein of the first film but with a tighter focus on the individual drama of the characters, particularly Lok and Jimmy.
What is noticeably different than the first film is the violence. And that is mostly due to one scene, where Jimmy uses torture and intimidation to get Lok’s faithful lieutenants to turn against him. Without giving spoilers away, it is safe to say that it is not a scene for the faint of heart and turns Jimmy into one of the most ruthless gangsters ever caught on screen.
6. The Killer (1987, John Woo)
The Killer is John Woo’s style of flamboyant slow-motion spectacle shootouts, emotionally tense standoffs and splattering blood effects at its most poetic. It changed the face of action movies and really defined John Woo’s style.
Chow Yun Fat plays lone wolf Ah Jong, a hitman that while on the job in a restaurant, sees how lounge singer Jenny gets caught up in the crossfire. Jenny’s eyes are badly damaged and starts to slowly lose her eyesight.
Ah Jong feels remorseful but also falls in love with her. He takes up one last job but as he runs away he is chased by loose cannon cop Li, played by lovable every man Danny Lee. As is the case with the heroic bloodshed genre, enemies will become friends, heroes become rogues and all has to end in a massive shootout somewhere slightly symbolic (here a church).
The Killer has a great pace of storytelling, some of the most incredible and beautifully choreographed action sequences ever filmed and intense emotional outbursts, that manage to be powerful plot points and not cheap melodrama. Also, Woo elevated the mexican standoff to an art form. The tense clash of glances and personalities, with leads Danny Lee and Chow Yun Fat trading sardonic remarks and threats are some of the best moments of the film.
Envisioned by John Woo as an homage to his cinematic heroes, Jean-Pierre Melville and Martin Scorsese, The Killer also bears many of his typical themes such as loyalty and friendship in an immoral world, and figures many of his trademark leitmotifs: children caught in the crossfire, catholic symbol, white doves. Woo would replicate these features in many of his Hollywood films, most noticeably Face/Off.
5. As Tears Go By (1988, Wong Kar Wai)
Auteur and festival darling Wong Kar Wai debuted with this love story on the backdrop of Kowloon’s criminal underworld. It remains even to this day his biggest commercial success in Hong Kong.
Andy Lau plays debt collector and charismatic enforcer Wah who heads up a small crew in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong. From the very beginning of the film, he has to step in for his little brother, Fly, himself an ambitious yet hapless wannabe enforcer and trickster. At the request of his aunt he hosts his shy and reserved cousin from Lantau Island, Ngor , played by Maggie Cheung.
At first, the two don’t really get along with Wah making her feel like an unwanted guest. They slowly warm up to one another and and eventually fall in love in passionate lady and the tramp love affair. As his brother gets into trouble with influential mobster Tony, Wah is at a crossroads, having to choose between being by his brother side in a life of crime and the woman he loves.
Andy Lau, here in his breakout role, renders well the struggle of a man torn between a life of crime and love. While the action scenes figure realistic street brawls, gangster sit downs and some really tense face offs between Wah and Tony, it is the romantic scenes that stand out, which sees Won Kar Wai crafting his specialty of rendering the sheltering sense of intimacy.
One of the most memorable moments of the film is where they first share their passion and kiss, all to the tune of a cantonese version of Berlin’s Take my Breath Away. Putting together a pop song and an intense romantic moment is something Wong Kar Wai would replicate in most of his films, including Chungking Express and Happy Together.
4. Exiled (2006, Johnnie To)
Exiled is one Johnnie To most stylistically beautiful and emotionally compelling works to date. It made its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and solidified To’s international acclaim.
Former triad enforcer Wo (Nick Cheung) settles with his wife Jin and their baby in Macau. His past catches up with him in the form of his childhood friends,Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) , who have come to kill him on order from Triad boss Also knocking on his door are Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung) who are there to stop the others two from killing Wo.
After a shootout and a mexican stand off the five friends sit down and realise they cannot really kill each other. Trying to find a score for their talents, they land a hit job on Macau’s top boss but soon things turn sour as they are walking into a trap.
Reuniting most of the cast from his The Mission, To puts together a much different film, different, With beautiful lush cinematography based around tones of red and gold, with snappy and humorous dialogue and beautifully choreographed and timed gun play, it feels almost antithetical to the Mission.The Exile feels more like a neo-realist tale of nostalgia and friendship than a thriller.
The great American critic Roger Ebert said that it “lacks only a score by Ennio Morricone to be a spaghetti Western”. The Mediterranean style houses of Macau, the desertic setting plus the final show-down at the hotel are clear send-offs to the western genre.
It also feels in many ways like Hong Kong’s The Wild Bunch, as the film is centered on a “dying breed” of loyal friends ready to die for friendship and is set in 1998, the end of an era for the former Portuguese colony as it was preparing it’s re-annexation to China.
3. A Better Tomorrow (1986, John Woo)
A Better Tomorrow was a complete game changer, breaking all box-office records in Hong Kong. It also made household names out of director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-Fat.
Sun Tse-Ho (Ti Lung), is living the life, running the counterfeit money racket for a Triad boss, together with best friend Mark (Chow Yun Fat). While in Taiwan, on what he hopes to be his last mission for the Triad, he gets ambushed and caught by the police.
After years in jail, Sun comes back to Hong Kong and tries to make it as an honest hard-working man, taking a job as a cabbie and hopes to reconnect his young brother Kit, now a police officer. What he comes back to is a resentful young brother, Mark living off scraps on the streets and his former chauffeur now calling all the shots. He does his best to stay away from crime
A Better Tomorrow is first and foremost a brilliant family drama. It builds up strong conflicts within friends and family members and creates the kind of characters you cannot help but root for. Tse-Ho’s effort to redeem himself in the eyes of his cop brother is particularly powerful. It also reflected the sense of dread and helplessness many people felt in Hong Kong regarding their future.
It figures John Woo’s signature slow-motion action shootouts, with the restaurant assassination scene being one of his most elegant to date. It lacks the abundance of shoot-outs and mexican stand-offs some of his later works will espouse.
The one who really steals show though is Chow Yun-Fat as tongue in cheek wild child Mark. He goes from comedic moments too really dramatic breakdowns with great ease. In the summer of 1986, as trench-coats like the ones he wears in the film became the must have of that year.
2. Infernal Affairs (2002, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak)
Infernal Affairs was a cinematic event even before it premiered in Hong Kong theatres. With a cast comprising Hong Kong’s top billing talent, a daring plot and some stunning cinemato Infernal Affairs promised nothing short of spectacular. And what it delivered is a splendid thriller about identity and belonging and the inspiration behind Scorsese’s Academy Award winning The Departed.
Infernal Affairs is essentially a story of two impostors: a undercover cop pretending to be a gangster and a triad who becomes one of Hong Kong most decorated officers. Undercover cop Yan (Tony Leung) has gained the trust of mob boss Sam and is anxious to finish his 10 years long mission. But as triad mole Ming (Andy Lau) keeps sabotaging plans to catch Sam, the two engage in a cat and mouse game of catching each other and regaining their life.
Infernal Affairs became an Asian box-office hit and a cult sensation in the US and Europe. And that is mainly due to the masterful web of plots, sub-plots and the tiny details which unveil these. It works perfectly as a high octane ride with stand-offs and suspenseful chases.
But what really makes it different is the profound sense of drama that comes from the characters’ struggle. The inner torment and restlessness is conveyed brilliantly by the two leads. Arthouse darling Leung plays undercover cop Yan in a frantic manner but one that conveys the inner torment, citing Alain Delon as inspiration throughout his career. Superstar Andy Lau plays tried-turned-cop Ming in a restrained yet uncomfortable manner, playing very convincingly the character’s dismay with being a triad sock puppet cum informant.
Another thing which sets it apart are the strong references to Buddhist culture, with torment being a rite of passage for the characters. The film was otherwise titled “The Unceasing Path”, referring to the lowest level of hell in Buddhist culture, where pain is endless.
1. Election (2005, Johnnie To)
Screened as part of the Official selection at the Cannes film festival, Johnnie To’s most celebrated film is more than a crime flick. It is a magnificent crafted fresco of the Triad way of life, with the trials and tribulations of Hong Kong crime syndicate as the understudy.
As the title suggests, the plot unfolds as the Wo Shing society prepares to elect its chairman, event which happens every 2 years. The race is tight between two very opposing personalities: Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is rash, violent and thrives on intimidation to enforce the pecking order while Lok (Simon Yam) is calm, calculated, with a strong business sense and belief in building partnerships.
The clash of the two heavily divides the crime family with the Police also clamping down on their businesses, fearing the eruption of a turf war. It is a trial by fire for some of the young Triads, and a test of loyalty for the older ones.
Election is arguably the best film ever made about the Triad system, particularly because, very much like Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Coppola’s Godfather, it really tries to explain the inner working of this culture, going well beyond stereotypes and plot devices. Like the Godfather, Election shows how an old system with set traditions can be tainted by greed and just like Goodfellas it delineates the thin line between brotherhood and rivalry that exists between all the members of the system.
Johnnie To employs his usual techniques of wide and medium shots, long sequences and deadpan humour, all used with an impeccable sense of pacing. Most of the film revolves around scenes of negotiations and back door deals such that we see the backstage of another wise glamorised culture.
The film ends on quite a nihilistic note as honour and compassion are being sidetracked by pragmatism and the hunger for power. Election is uniquely entertaining and introspective and one of the most poetic crime films ever made.
Films that didn’t make the cut but were considered:
Hard Boiled (1992, directed by John Woo) – I cut it because it feels more strongly anchored in the action genre than the other two John Woo films that did make the list
Bullets Over Summer (1999, directed by Wilson Yip)
Too Many Ways to Be Number 1 (1997, directed by Wai Ka Fai)
Long Hot Summer (1998, direct by Fruit Chan)
Cop on A Mission (2001, directed by Marco Mak)