Once again, Hong Kong film director Dante Lam turned the city itself into the main actor of his new motion picture, “That Demon Within”. His work caught my interest first in 2009, when he presented “The Beast Stalker” at the Berlinale film festival.
Despite the predictability of the action movie genre with all its exaggerations, climaxes and showdowns, I was mesmerized by the fast-paced yet precise glance on the complex, shadowy metropolis behind. No matter the rush and tricks of the antagonists, the surrounding city would outsmart them all along, watching their upcoming final collapse in a patient, threatening silence.
“The Stool Pigeon” (2011) elaborated on the topic of guilt as a driving motive for both “good” and “evil” characters, blurring this cliché distinction itself. Hong Kong movies often treat the uncanny embrace between the underworld and forces of order, where corruption and entanglement seem almost inevitable. Similar to the falling man who keeps repeating to himself that everything’s still going fine until he crashes, Dante Lam sends his protagonists towards violent collisions of interests where nobody wins, and everybody gets to sacrifice something dear. Having seen two of his filmic variations on this topic, I was curious to find out whether and how the new Dante Lam movie would handle this familiar pattern.
My first surprise already awaited in the trailer: the dramatic soundtrack and the cut remembered me of silent movies. The screening at the Berlinale enforced my impression. Some almost black and white key scenes, abrupt cuts and musical accents to emphasize the emergence of evil – it seems like the director of cutting edge action movies found inspiration in the origins of cinematography to create a fresher, less foreseeable narration.
“In order to ease your pain, you must try to open up to the past”, says a psychologist to the main character, tormented policeman Dave. The fact that he saved the life of a criminal leader through a blood transfusion has triggered further violence in the streets, yet a bigger darkness awaits in the depths of the policeman’s own consciousness. What if looking back just reveals how little control one has over the present, haunting demons and inflicted scars in mind?
Those who saw Fritz Lang’s “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (1933) will have a moment of recognition when the policeman faces his own, personal demon. In a story that keeps accelerating from the very beginning of the film, the psychological dimension of the crime adds a layer of suspense that the two former Dante Lam films were missing. When a main enemy lurks in one’s own mind, it is clear that it won’t be defeated with mere physical strength, technique or malice. Something needs to be confronted, even though it may be an abyss.
The scenery couldn’t be less appealing, yet it fascinates: An urban space is turned into a civil war zone by combating forces of crime and law, and the inner mind landscapes of the involved people don’t look any better. When Dave tries to calm himself down by drawing square dots on a simplistic pattern paper, he suddenly loses his patience and pushes the brush into a glass of clear water, staining it in deep dark tones. Just like the water, a stained soul won’t be easily cleared up again. This kind of lucid communication through visual metaphors characterizes asian cinema, and it clearly differentiates such an action movie from mere blockbuster entertainment.
“Do you intend to explain everything in your films?”, asks a viewer in the Q&A session following the screening. Dante Lam says yes, and effectively the puzzle gets quite complete for those attentive enough to gather all the pieces. Beside the obvious storyline, the movie outlines the difficulty of a definitive moral judgement where the personal reasons of a development become clear. I avoided the spoilers here so you will be able to see the film enjoying to put it all together, the pieces of a broken image.
The one who had asked whether everything needs to be explained sat next to me in the theater, and it was clear that he would have welcomed a story with more room for interpretations. From what I could notice, he actually missed some central points in his (first) perception of the film. Once again, a Hong Kong film director has achieved a capturing tribute to his hometown, and there is still much more left to say. Skyscraper city keeps calling out and makes me want to see its depictions in yet another good genre movie. Or better yet, to go and take a fresh look at it in real life.