That Demon Within (Mo Jing): Berlin Review
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 Lee, Yue Ren
Co-producers: Hong Tat Cheung, Stephen Lam
Executive producer: Albert Yeung
Director of photography: Kenny Tse
Production designer: Kin-wai Lee
Editor: Patrick Tam
Music: Leon Ko
Sales Agent: Emperor Motion Pictures
No rating, 112 minutes.