'Demons': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
A horror film with a point.

A theater director's sadistic manipulating of his actors turns into surreal satire in the hands of Singapore filmmaker Daniel Hui.

“Why should I use you as my actress?” Daniel (Glen Goei) asks the sensitive young woman sitting in front of him, who is hoping to land a role in his new stage play. The response Vicky (Yang Yanxuan) comes up with sounds deep and heartfelt, but all the time she’s talking the hateful director is wondering to himself, "Why isn’t she taking off her clothes yet?"

That’s the intro scene to Daniel Hui’s Demons, which questions the violence behind artistic creation and the pound of flesh art exacts, putting it on a par with cannibalism. Happily, this satirical horror film is keenly funny when it isn’t being scary. Shot in English and Mandarin and spiked with offbeat humor that sweetens its dark thoughts, the Berlinale Forum title is quite the trip for those who get into it. Although a hallucinatory journey into the psychic well is not for everyone, those willing to dip into experimental cinema will probably hang on to the dazzling, mythical ending.

Hui, who has made a name for himself on the festival circuit for his innovative films with a strong social and political bent, has an idiosyncratic approach to storytelling verging on experimental kitsch. His screenplay is a far cry from realism and keeps the audience running after meaning.

Vicky does get the role in Daniel’s play, after the main actress leaves rehearsals banging the door behind her. It’s something about what Daniel wants and she won’t give. Vicky’s ambition apparently takes her into the danger zone, but at a price. She begins to see a ghostly doppelganger who identifies herself as “the person living inside you,” who mocks her for “loving what he’s been doing to you.”

Vicky is horrified and starts slipping into madness. In a creepy scene in the apartment she shares with her brother, Daniel unexpectedly shows up and he and the brother gang up on her. Later she, too, vanishes from the scene, and now it’s Daniel’s turn to be scared.

Hui wears writer-helmer and editor hats and maintains fairly firm control over some very odd material. His raw-edged critique of the exploitative nature of the director-actress relationship is unbounded by logic, so that at one moment Daniel is announcing that to mistreat and manhandle actresses is part of his business, and in the next we discover him at home with his male partner, played by Hui. Just as Daniel's sexual orientation comes as a surprise, that he becomes victim and Vicki becomes the executioner is a rather stunning turnaround, as well.

The tide turns and sympathy inexorably shifts to Daniel. The crowning scene is his classic confrontation with two ladies from the foundation that funds his plays, who suddenly tell him it’s over — they’re cutting off all his money for reasons that sound like gobbledygook. The scene is so surreal it’s funny, but one’s heart sinks for him.

In a spectacular climax filled with a primordial, tribal energy, the night of retribution comes for those dishonest, manipulative acts Daniel has indulged in. A squad of gold-masked cannibals takes him to their queen, who towers over him on a throne like Justice. While he defends himself in a rant about morality (“All I’ve done is dedicate my entire life to art!”), she bares her teeth.

The cinematography of Looi Wan Ping is as merrily schizo as the story, switching from clashing colors to black-and-white, and a bit of Super 8 seems to be thrown in. The unnatural color grading is simply extraordinary. A big role in producing the lingering feeling of constant anxiety is played by the sound effects, which seem to have no source.

The action in Demons takes place in a highly stylized world of esthetic rooms and manicured exteriors, dark nights and eerie colors — a virtual space that is a pleasure to look at, but not very reassuring.

Production companies: 13 Little Pictures, Jackfruit International
Cast: Yang Yanxuan, Glen Goei, Viknesh Kobinathan, Eshley Gao, Tan Bee Thiam, Daniel Hui, Violet Goh
Director-screenwriter-editor: Daniel Hui
Director of photography: Looi Wan Ping
Music: Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, Wuttipong Leetrakul
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)

83 minutes