The idea of a democratic election within an organised crime society seems a contradiction in terms. But Johnnie To's 'Election', which focuses on the complex struggles for power between two members of a dominant Hong Kong criminal gang, shows the real and bloody face of democracy, triad-style.

The weight of tradition has to contend with modernity as calm, old-school Lok (Yam) and the more psychotic Big D (Leung) compete for the chairmanship of the Wo Shing Society in the biannual election. Even after the "uncles", the triad leaders, decide that Lok is the best candidate, there's still everything left to play for. The Dragon's Head Baton - Wo Shing's ancient symbol of leadership - is missing and the power will go to whomever can get to it first. In a chase that reaches across the border into China, a trio of younger henchmen (Koo, Nick and Tung) single-mindedly pursue the wooden emblem. Meanwhile, back in the city, Big D threatens war within the triad.

Complex characters - with great names like Whistle, Uncle Cocky and Big Head - give flesh to a flimsy but nonetheless slightly confusing plot. Surprisingly for a Hong Kong triad film, there are no guns on show here but, as a result, the violence is more personal and brutal with the camera lingering disturbingly on episodes including a rock being repeatedly smashed into a man's head or a woman being hacked to death with a shovel. These don't all sit happily with the many considered discussions about brotherhood and the institution of the Wo Shing Society.

Although much of the film takes place in near-darkness, there are some strong images from cinematographer Cheng Siu Keung, complemented by Lo Tayu's innovative score. An intriguing twist on criminal power play dramas.

Caroline Hennessy