HKMDB Daily News

February 10, 2014

That Demon Within (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 3:45 pm

That Demon Within
FEBRUARY 9, 2014

Action auteur Dante Lam delivers his darkest work to date with this ghoulish supernatural thriller.

Maggie Lee

A psychodrama set amid funeral parlors, graveyards and creepy old tenement buildings, “That Demon Within” owes as much to Hong Kong’s vintage horror genre as it does to the strong noir style of Dante Lam’s superior cop thrillers “The Beast Stalker” and “The Stool Pigeon.” Working from a real-life criminal case but steeping it in ghoulish Chinese supernatural lore, the action auteur turns a policeman’s battle with a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality into an exploration of the evil instinct latent in everyone. The result is Lam’s darkest work to date, one where violence is not just graphic but ugly, and Hong Kong symbolically comes to resemble a charnel house. It should do gangbusters biz in Asian-friendly genre markets, though mainstream domestic audiences may not embrace the grim content as readily as they did his heartwarming 2013 hit, “Unbeatable.”

Set to open April 18 Stateside through China Lion, “That Demon Within” recalls Lam’s “Fire of Conscience” (2010) in the way it draws on fading Hong Kong folk-religious icons in service of a retro aesthetic. Here, Lam invokes the Demon King, a spirit that is associated with the Festival of Hungry Ghosts and, like the fire dragon in “Conscience,” reps a manifestation of one’s inner darkness.

Shrouded in mystery and superstition from the outset, the film opens with a gang of robbers, known as the Demon King Gang, preparing for a heist by burning incense to their chosen idol — a subversion of a scene familiar from other Hong Kong thrillers, in which police and triads alike pray to Guan Yu, the deity of righteousness. Led by Broker (Liu Kai-chi), the crooks get into a loot dispute with freelance thug Hon Kong (Nick Cheung), who is subsequently injured in a police ambush.

Hon stumbles into a hospital where beat cop Dave (Wu), unaware of his identity, gives him a life-saving blood transfusion — to the chagrin of Inspector “Pops” Mok (Lam Kar-wah), who’s bent on putting the gang behind bars before his imminent retirement. Racked with guilt over having saved a man who callously killed his comrades, Dave starts to hallucinate about Hon merging with him as one; upon learning of Hon’s escape, he believes it’s his destiny to track down and destroy his malevolent alter ego.

Meanwhile, Dave’s supervisor Liz (Christie Chen, cold and stiff), notices that despite his faultless performance, he’s been passed over for promotion and shuffled around precincts due to “personality issues.” She enlists her therapist sister, Stephanie (Astrid Chan), to counsel him, unwittingly opening a psychiatric Pandora’s Box during their hypnosis sessions. Dave’s dramatic arc hinges on a mystery related to his unusually close relationship with his ailing grandmother (Fung So-bor) and his traumatic upbringing by a didactic and sadistically strict father (Chi Kuan-chun).

Lam’s best works have always infused action with stirring emotion, and the fight scenes here, though topnotch, are not even the driving force in what is essentially a character study — an anatomy of a tortured sinner who disturbingly resorts to ritual self-flagellation as a form of anger management. Fire is a key leitmotif (no coincidence that the Demon King is also known as “Spirit of the Burning Face”), as visions of human immolation — which could be flashbacks or nightmares — overlap with Hon’s apparition goading Dave into expressing his savage instincts, dragging him into a sort of mental inferno. Images of swirling blank ink dissolving in water stylishly express the character’s fears and gradual corruption.

Although the film was reportedly inspired by notorious police officer Tsui Po-ko, who robbed banks and murdered his colleagues, Lam has shaped his protag as a tragic figure struggling to hold onto his identity and values. Frequently framed in his squalid housing estate, a lonely prisoner behind metal gates and sealed windows, Dave elicits real sympathy. Wu is initially buttoned-up in a way that recalls his past persona as a heartthrob in numerous romances, but he steadily invests the character with palpable pain and unease, as well as an increasingly gaunt, cadaverous physicality. And even as Dave’s mental condition deteriorates, Lam maintains a riveting ambiguity about Hon, whose terrifying presence suggests that demonic possession is not entirely out of the question; though Cheung takes up less screentime than his co-star, his demonic grin all but devours the screen.

The film achieves a truly Stygian vision through the excesses of the Demon King gang, as Dave, under the apparent influence of Hon, sows seeds of doubt among Broker and his cohorts (Lee Kwok-lun and Stephen Au). But these men need little prompting to stab each other in the back, consumed as they are by greed, and smugly unrepentant as they are about their crimes. Theirs is a profession rooted in the moribund world of undertakers and cremators, and production designer Lee Kin-wai conjures a suitably chilling mise-en-scene of funeral parlors, morgues, coffins and arcane rituals. The banality of such evil is neatly captured by Liu as Broker, dialing down his performance to a very pragmatic level of malice.

Tech credits are exemplary, with particular kudos to car stunt designer Thomson Ng for a Grand Guignol gas-station finale with a blazing symbol of hell as its centerpiece. The primarily nocturnal backdrop takes on a nebulous glow in d.p. Kenny Tse’s subtly lit lensing, though blacks dominate the alternately richly saturated and wanly sepia images. Under the editorial supervision of Hong Kong New Wave stalwart Patrick Tam, Curran Pang’s seamless dissolves and complex montages blur the lines between imagination and reality, while Leo Ko’s unnerving score alludes to Chinese ceremonial performances with its drum and gong combinations.

Berlin Film Review: ‘That Demon Within’
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 8, 2013. Running time: 111 MIN. Original title: “Mor king”

(Hong Kong-China) A Emperor Motion Pictures (in Hong Kong)/China Film Group (in China)/China Lion Film Distribution (in U.S.) release of an Emperor Film Prod. Co., Sil-Metropole Organization presentation of a Film Fireworks production. (International sales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong.) Produced by Albert Lee, Ren Yue, Candy Leung. Executive producers, Albert Yeung, Song Dai. Co-producers, Cheung Hong-tat, Stephen Lam.

Directed by Dante Lam. Screenplay, Jack Ng, Lam, based on the story by Lam. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Kenny Tse; supervising editor, Patrick Tam; editor, Curran Pang; music, Leo Ko; production designer, Lee Kin-wai; costume designer, Stephanie Wong; sound (Dolby Surround 7.1), Phyllis Cheng; re-recording mixer, Phyllis Cheng; special effects supervisor, Chi Shui-tim; visual effects supervisors, Ho Kwan-yeung, Alex Lim Hun-fung, Lin Chun-yue, Yee Kwok-leung; visual effects, Free-D Workshop; stunt choreographer, Philip Kwok, Ku Huen-chiu; car stunt choreographer, Thomson Ng; assistant directors, Jay Cheung, Jeff Cheung; second unit camera, Samuel Fu Ga-yu.

Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung, Liu Kai-chi, Christie Chen, Fung So-bor, Lam Kar-wah, Andy On, Astrid Chan, Lee Kwok-lun, Stephen Au, Leung Cheuk-moon, Chi Kuan-chun. (Cantonese dialogue)


Journey to the West (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 2:31 pm

Journey to the West
2/9/2014 by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line
A piece of curious performance art as beautifully photographed as it is sleep-inducing.

Taiwanese cult director Tsai Ming-liang takes his snail-paced monk to Marseilles.

One has to ask if the English title of cryptic Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West is a sly reference to Stephen Chow’s demon-hunting hit of last year, with which it has nothing but the title in common. Instead Tsai returns to his Buddhist monk who walks through the city at a snail’s pace to the general indifference of the populace and, of course, most of the film-going public. Yet there will be followers of this short but patience-trying film, and its message to get off the grindstone of unhappiness and find inner peace will fly at selected festivals after its Berlin premiere. It’s hard to imagine other audiences.

This is the third installment of the series, after the Asian-set Walking on Water (part of the film Letters from the South) and the original Walker (part of Beautiful 2012) with Lee Kang-sheng returning to the role of the stooped, red-robed monk who treads through streets and squares and up and down staircases in exaggerated slo-mo with his fingers in a blissful mudra. All around him Antoine Herberle’s hidden camera captures the bustling life of the city, which in the present case means Marseilles, as busy people ignore him or politely look the other way.

One man, however (played by Denis Lavant), decides to imitate his penitential steps and follows him like a disciple. We have previously seen the man’s suffering face in extreme close-up and profile, in fixed long-held shots emphasizing his unhappy heavy breathing. Now he seems to have found a purpose in life.
The setups are often startling, even witty, like the monk passing by a store dummy or entering an empty screen where red paint literally seems to be drying. Tourists furtively snap his picture and the bemused idlers in an outdoor café watch him until they lose interest. The final shot turns the city upside down in a huge mirror.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special), Feb. 9, 2014.
Production companies: House on Fire, Neon Productions, Resurgences, Homegreen Films
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Denis Lavant
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Screenwriter: Tsai Ming-liang
Producers: Vincent Wang, Fred Bellaiche
Director of photography: Antoine Herberle
Editor: Lei Shen Qing
Music: Sebastien Mauro
Sales Agent: Urban Distribution
No rating, 56 minutes.

That Demon Within (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 1:00 pm

That Demon Within

2/10/2014 by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line
A cagey mixture of action and horror, with a standout performance from Daniel Wu, will get audiences into the theater.

Cult HK director Dante Lam combines genre thrills and horror elements in a police actioner.

The Hong Kong cops and robbers genre provides an inexhaustible source of inspiration for imaginative directors like Dante Lam, whose police actioner That Demon Within adds enough horror for a respectable Stephen King novel. He stamps his very personal mark of psychological complexity on the protag, shrilly portrayed by American-born HK star Daniel Wu (The Last Supper) in an eerie but highly effective performance. And the Emperor production does not leave out any of the genre must-haves: shoot-outs in the middle of the street, car crashes, a bit of acrobatics and a beautiful policewoman boss worried about the daredevil hero. With all bases covered, including a bow in Berlin as a Panorama Special, the road is open for diversified audiences to enjoy the fun. The movie is being released in the U.S. and Canada on April 18, day and date with Hong Kong.

A seductive title sequence leads us into the den of the Demon King. Behind the old-fashioned rice paper devil masks are a criminal gang led by Hon (Lam regular Nick Cheung from The Beast Stalker and Stool Pigeon), a cold-hearted villain whose own men hate him. Their latest heist has yielded $80 million in diamonds, which change hands so often in the course of the story, it will take a sharp viewer to keep track of who has them at any given moment.

Watching the film, one has the feeling that the streets of Hong Kong are littered with dead pedestrians who had the bad luck to be passing by when the police opened fire on the bad guys. Lam opens on one of these high adrenaline scenes that leave cars riddled with bullets and dead drivers. (And it’s not the last; a similar scene on an overpass later on in the film is even more spectacular.)

In the heat of the shoot-out, Hon tries to escape on a motorbike, but crashes. Seriously injured, he stumbles into a police station for help, so smeared with blood he’s unrecognizable. There, young cop Dave Wong (Wu) dutifully volunteers to donate blood to save Hon’s life. Obviously a mistake, at least in the eyes of Inspector Mok (Ka Wah Lam), who wants him dead. Hon escapes from the hospital without much ado and from that moment the chase is on.

Now for the psychological interest: Dave is a problem cop, a stubborn loner with anger management and paranoia issues and, we gradually discover, much more on his mind. It’s not reassuring that Wu plays him like a nerdy Norman Bates, walking stiffly and bottling up his feelings. His new boss at work is Liz, a smart, pixie-like beauty (Christie Chen) who tries to stay professional but clearly has a soft spot for the guy. Concerned about his nightmares, violent impulses and some episodes of self-flagellation, she introduces him to her psychologist sister, who teases out his considerable childhood traumas under hypnosis.

Working on his own, Dave stays a step ahead of Inspector Mok as he closes in on the Demon King gang. Lam brings horror elements increasingly into play, particularly a recurrent image of people burning to death as human torches and a truly creepy scene in a funeral parlor. The final apocalypse is unapologetically over the top, but as great to watch as the last burst of fireworks.

Though the cops and robbers are so low-tech they seem retro (there’s nary an electronic device in the story), Lam’s filmmaking team deliver thrills on schedule with solid effects, crisp shooting and fast cutting.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production company: Emperor Motion Pictures
Cast: Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung, Christie Chen, Andy On, Kai Chi Liu, Ka Wah Lam, Kwok-Lun Lee
Director: Dante Lam
Screenwriters: Jack (Wai Lun) Ng, Dante Lam
Producers: Candy Leung, Albert Yeung, Yue Ren
Co-producers: Hong Tat Cheung, Stephen Lam
Director of photography: Kenny Tse
Production designer: Kin-wai Lee
Editor: Patrick Tam
Music: Leon Ko
Sales Agent: Siehe Produktion
No rating, 112 minutes.

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