'Dealer Healer': Film Review
Lau Ching-wan headlines a cast of seasoned veterans in retelling the true story of a junkie trafficker turned drug counselor.
Hong Kong’s rampant police corruption and gangster domination of the 1970s and early-’80s provides the colorful backdrop for Dealer Healer, a bad-boy-makes-good drama based on the true story of junkie and dealer Peter Chan Shun-chi (who is executive producer), who served five years in prison, found God and opened a rehab facility for guys just like him. Meticulously designed and costumed — sometimes too much so — to recapture the grimy, gaudy ’70s, director Lawrence Lau has done a fine job of recreating the period, but he’s let down by an overstuffed script by Chan Man-keung (Kung Fu Hustle) that can’t decide on what it wants to be. A strong cast of some of the industry’s most reliable actors (and it is largely about men) helps make the film watchable, but not even they can breathe life into the flimsy characters or rise above the disjointed storytelling. Dealer Healer could find an audience at home in Hong Kong, where the material will probably stoke curiosity, but its chances for a life outside the SAR seem grim.
Dealer Healer begins in 1987, with Chen Hua (Lau Ching-wan) firmly on the healer side of his life, defending his nomination for a Junior Chamber International award for outstanding youth contribution to Hong Kong society. As Chen explains why he’s deserving, the film flashes back to 1974, when he was a scabby drug addict and the unofficial leader of the 13 Warlocks gang in the Tsz Wan Shan public housing estate. Also in his gang are his best buddies and fellow junkies Bullhorn (the criminally underrated Gordon Lam) and Cat (SPL 2: A Time of Consequence stand-out Zhang Jin). But Chen gets greedy and starts double-dealing in the notoriously lawless Kowloon City, and soon finds himself the target of a rival gang, led by the polished drug lord Harley (Louis Koo). Long story short, though Harley tries to have Chen killed, he also gives him an escape route that lands him in jail for five years.
One of Dealer Healer’s great ironies is the fact that the first half of the film, unfolding when Chen, Bullhorn and Cat were mid-level thugs dumb enough to use the product they dealt, is the more compelling tale. Production house Sil-Metropole is a Chinese state agency, and anything that remotely glamorizes drug abuse is verboten. But the ins-and-outs of dealing, the police collusion and drug chain hierarchy are vividly drawn; you can almost smell the dank hallways and dark corridors (there’s a toilet here that would give Trainspotting a run for its money). The trio’s bond is solidified during this phase, and Chen’s inability to see how his behavior is destroying his relationship with his wife Carol (Jiang Yiyan, The Bullet Vanishes) lingers in the margins. Drugs or no drugs, this is when Dealer Healer is at its best.
Sadly, the film shifts gear in the second half to follow Chen on his mission of redemption. He begins working with a former client, Lau (Patrick Tam), and the two earn a reputation for fairness and tolerance in their rehab program. He gets Bullhorn and Cat clean, and makes an genuine effort to win back Carol. Oddly, he falls into a close friendship with Harley and later into a triad mediator role too, all in the bright light of day (just in case you didn’t remember his gangster life was behind him). Even with all this action Chen’s arc is thin — Who turned him onto Jesus? Why does he feel the need to play peacemaker? What’s drawn him to Harley? — and isn’t nearly as interesting as his life in the bad old days. As a story, Chen's drug-free life is a dull slog that never illuminates his change of heart.
And that’s where Dealer Healer falls down. Writer Chan is never able to settle on a message or single through narrative to hold the film together. Each element, the dealer years, the healer years and Chen’s crumbling marriage could easily be their own film, but with all three crammed into a brief (yet somehow drudgy) 100 minutes none gets the treatment it needs to have any meaningful impact. Lau, who helmed Lee Rock and Queen of Temple Street during the ’80s heyday, is adept at navigating Hong Kong crime dramas, but here is reduced to scattershot vignettes as opposed to cohesive filmmaking. The cast is the film's bright light: Lau is typically dignified as Chen, and manages to squeeze a modicum of nuance out of the sketch he's given. The dynamic that he forges with Lam and Zhang in their brief scenes together hints at a more engrossing story, and Lau and Koo have officially become Hong Kong’s De Niro and Keitel. Their chemistry justifies 90 minutes for a low-key drama about the healing. As it stands, Koo's given a glorified cameo as a throwaway character.
Technical specs are fine with the exception of some unfortunate wigs, and Renee Wong’s production design emerges as the real star. However, Yue Yat-yiu and Edgar Hung’s hyper-dramatic, often distracting score could stand to be taken down several notches.
Production company: Sil-Metropole Organisation, Golden Gate Productions
Cast: Lau Ching-wan, Gordon Lam, Jiang Yiyan, Louis Koo, Zhang Jin, Ng Man-tat, Patrick Tam, Lo Hoi-pang, Chen Kuan-tai, Billy Lau, Stephen Au, Ben Lam, Vincent Wan, Nora Miao
Director: Lawrence Lau
Screenwriter: Chan Man-keung
Producer: Julia Chu
Executive producer: Peter Chan
Director of photography: Zhang Yin
Production designer: Renee Wong
Costume designer: Bobo Ng
Editor: Wong Hoi
Music: Yue Yat-yiu, Edgar Hung
World sales: Sil-Metropole Organisation
No rating, 101 minutes