Johnnie To's masterful gangster movie Election is a formidable contender heading into Saturday's Hong Kong Film Awards, but could be knocked off its pedestal in the top acting categories by strong performances in Perhaps Love and Everlasting Regret.
Election doesn't have the most nominations. The musical Perhaps Love and Tsui Hark's kung fu epic Seven Swords each have one more at 11, but To's film is a nominee in most of the top categories, including best film, best director and best actor.
In a tightly told story, To tracks the rivalry between two Hong Kong gangsters and their respective bosses in a battle for leadership. The movie boasts an outstanding ensemble cast that create a brilliant mosaic of individual performances against the intrigue of Hong Kong gangsters, also known as triads.
Both best film and best director could be a tight race.
Peter Chan's Perhaps Love, a unique cultural creation blending Broadway-style musical sound, Bollywood choreography and a multinational Chinese and Korean cast, poses the most credible threat in the best film contest.
Seven Swords is a technically superb and beautifully crafted movie, but falls thin on plot.
Initial D, a comic book-inspired movie about Japanese street car racers starring Taiwanese pop star Jay Chow is a solid overall production, but lacks the originality and tight pace of Election. The movie is directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, who also did the 2002 crime thriller Infernal Affairs.
To's chances are boosted by the fact that he's on home turf. In Taiwan in November, Election got 11 nominations at the Golden Horse Awards -- the Chinese-language equivalent of the Oscars -- but only netted two prizes.
The best actor contest is more complicated. Election has two nominations for Tony Leung Ka-fai and Simon Yam, who play rival gangsters. Leung is also nominated for Everlasting Regret, in which he plays a man with a crush on a lifelong friend, a Shanghai beauty.
Leung nails the wistfulness of his character in Everlasting Regret. By contrast, in Election, he just had to be loud and reckless. Yam also delivers a subtle performance as Leung's calm, calculating gangster rival in the same movie. There's also Aaron Kwok, an upset best actor winner at the Golden Horses for playing a burnt-out police officer in Divergence.
Election, a male-driven story, is unsurprisingly absent in the best actress category.
The woman to beat in this category is Chinese mainland actress Zhou Xun, who deftly handles the role of a once-struggling youngster-turned-movie star caught between her present and past loves in Perhaps Love.
Also watch out for Everlasting Regret lead actress Sammi Cheng, a Hong Kong pop star who gave a breakthrough performance as a melancholy Shanghai beauty who endures personal and political upheaval in China.
It's not a knockout performance, but Cheng's total immersion in the character is evident and she may get points for attempting such a drastically different role from her usual happy-go-lucky persona in romantic comedies like Love on a Diet and Needing You.
Looking at the winners in the Hong Kong Film Awards over the past five years, no clear pattern emerges. Jurors seem to consistently honor quality, whether it's commercial or art-house fare.
Wong Kar-wai's slow-paced, restrained romance In the Mood for Love was a big winner in 2001.
The next year it was Stephen Chow, who dominated with his mainstream comedy Shaolin Soccer. Lau and Mak's blockbuster crime thriller Infernal Affairs, remade in Hollywood by Martin Scorsese, won big in 2003.
The Hong Kong Film Awards are voted on by movie industry insiders and film critics, with weighting given to the professional organizations in each category. For example, the local directors' association's input is given priority in the best directing category. The local performing artists guild gets a preferential say in the acting categories.
(CRI April 7, 2006)