‘Curry and Pepper’: Theater

Jan. 31, 2024, 10:24 p.m.

Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers for “Election” (2006).

“Election” (2006) is probably my favorite Hong Kong gangster movie. I can never think about this movie without its final scene: Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka-Fai, two gangsters who have spent the entire runtime trying to become the head of the gang, sit fishing by a lake. One of them beats the other’s brains out. 

Violence, the real bold and gory kind, is by no means a rarity in movies of this lineage. “Election” does not hold back on the spectacle either. Earlier in the movie, for example, Tony Leung seals two of his enemies into wooden boxes and rolls them down the hill. Once they hit bottom, he orders people to haul them up and kick them down again. But the word “spectacle” is important. It is not necessarily that the violence looks fake, exaggerated, sometimes cheaply-made. Often the gore on screen feels real, almost sincere. Pain or even loss is vicariously inflicted on the audience, but also in a way that follows a narrative arc that’s ultimately feel-good, be it through tragedy, comedy or pure “coolness.” 

What sets the big killing scene in “Election” apart from a lot of its cinematic siblings that I have sampled is its messiness. It almost stands independent from the rest of the movie, which is full of theatrical power-play, a play within a play, where you wake up at the end and find actual blood on your hands. This is what happens to Simon Yam’s character, Lok. “Election” was also my introduction to Yam, and I remember feeling surprised and impressed at his calm demeanor, a big contrast from the gang of short-fused and restless hoodlums, and especially his opponent, the floundering tyrant Big D played by Tony Leung Ka-Fai. Lok seems so well-composed, so careful in his underworld errands, treating it like just any other job. When he gets the news that he has been elected as the new gang leader, he hangs up, makes an incredibly middle-aged-dad victory gesture and tells his son to get him a beer from the fridge. 

His distance from the typical gangster figure, both in terms of character and screen image, also seems to render him immune from a lot of the movie’s melodrama — or at least this I was led to believe. One of the most striking things about “Election” is its beautiful dark lighting, a fusion of crime-ridden nights and the dim rooms where the gangsters religiously perform their blood pacts. It’s a rule of Lok and Big D’s gang that new leaders can’t begin their term without being passed down a ritualistic wooden stick carved in the shape of a dragon. So the bulk of the story sees Big D trying to obtain this Maltese Falcon before it gets rightfully gifted to Lok. But the stick is by no means special enough to justify the herculean struggle and bloodshed resulting from its pursuit. It’s only a symbol of power, an object that insufficiently links a string of events together. The characters’ obsession over it often feels over the top, absurd. Bathed in that rich darkness, their faces standing out pale and vicious-looking, but empty. I feel that they don’t really know what they’re doing either. The plot is only a vehicle for their emotions. 

As all the action goes on, Lok is spared from a lot of the leg work. He is playing defense. But when the dust settles near the end, and his ruling power is restored by the return of the symbolic stick, they all gather for a blood pact ceremony, celebrating Lok’s newly gained position. Big D, a simple soul after all, has been converted to Lok’s side as his second in command. All seems well, and Lok is now seen amid their spotlit adventures, hand in hand with his enemy and on the rise. 

Then he wakes up — and Lok, I think, is the only one that wakes up. Maybe along with his son, who, on the fishing trip, witnesses his dad brutally murder Big D and his wife. When I say brutally murder, I mean so slow and terribly anxious and real and dragged out that I’m getting goosebumps just recalling it. He takes a rock from the river bank and smashes Big D in the head, and again and again and again, until there can’t possibly be any life left in that skull, but he smashes a couple more times, less out of prudence, I think, and more because he is dizzy with his own cruelty. This is the first time we see Lok out of control, out of his facade of composure. The cruelty surely tastes funny in his mouth, because it’s no longer dark, the scene hardly set up, and he’s in the real world. 

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