That Demon Within


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

That Demon Within
"Wu keeps us caring with an intense yet nuanced performance, as if relishing the chance to break out of the romantic hero mould that characterised his early career."

Dante Lam has made his name with high octane thrillers that go to very dark places. Recently he's been trying to expand his ouvre and extend his abilities. That Demon Within is at its most successful where it plays to his strengths, but it's a brave experiment in venturing into new territory and, on the strength of it, we can look forward to interesting this from him in the years to come.

This film follows two men wrestling with their personal relationships with evil. Hon (Lam regular Nick Cheung) already has a reputation as a vicious gangster but his latest venture involves making sacrifices to ancient demons, dressing up his crew in demon masks (the cultural taboo involved here is difficult to emphasise strongly enough, even though it may make Western viewers think of Point Break), and casting himself as the Demon King, otherwise known as the Spirit of the Burning Face (Lam goes all out with the fire motifs). Dave (Daniel Wu) might seem more straightforward, a gutsy but essentially decent cop trying to do the right thing, but he's wrestling with mental health problems following an incident in his childhood, and colleague's well-intentioned intervention is about to make them much worse. What's more, when he unwittingly volunteers his blood to save a hospitalised Hon, something that infuriates his colleagues, he starts to have terrifying dreams whose true nature is difficult to pin down.

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Like many an experimental work, the film struggles with incoherent plotting early on, and its central mysteries are poorly introduced. Towards the end it becomes a little heavy handed as if trying to make up for this. Wu keeps us caring, however, with an intense yet nuanced performance, as if relishing the chance to break out of the romantic hero mould that characterised his early career. His physical acting is also impressive as he conveys Dave's mental disintegration in part through showing us an increasing physical fragility, and skillful make-up work makes him appear more and more gaunt. It suggests a hollowing out of a man ho has always struggled with his sense of self and who now finds himself intermittently confusing himself with Hon, who, in turn, is starting to behave like a man possessed.

The action scenes are well spaced throughout the film to hold the attention of fans who may not be fully ready for the transition to psychological horror, and they're expertly delivered with some stunning stunt work. Lam avoids the cheesiness associated with much other recent Hong Kong output, keeping these scenes believable, and he also avoids the common Western error of ignoring what happens on the sidelines. When a car is struck, we don't just see its occupant stopped - we follow its full trajectory and the sum of the violence rippling out from it. All of this is beautifully shot and lit in a way that strengthens the film's central themes, with sepia-noir default visuals stained red in the presence of the possibly-supernatural or yellow as Dave wrestles with his own mind. Giant orange flames leap against black or white backgrounds and black ink dissolves into water in a series of sinister motifs suggestive of corruption. As Dave hunts down the man he blames himself for saving, the man with whom he increasingly identifies, there's a sense that the demon which may inhabit Hon is getting closer to its true target.

In the film's final scene, we watch Dave help an old woman to recover spilled fruit. It's a simple footnote, a hint at Lam's still unexplored range, and it's also a reminder of the sort of day to day work police officers do. Just as Dave has been torn between good and evil, so the cinematic representation of the police in Lam's work, and more generally, tends to focus on the dark and violent, but perhaps this is how it might be in a better world.

Reviewed on: 15 Feb 2016
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After a policeman unwittingly saves the life of a notorious gang leader, he sets out to try to dismantle his criminal network.

Director: Dante Lam

Writer: Dante Lam

Starring: Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung, Sixuan Chen, Kai Chi Liu, Ka Wah Lam, Andy On, Kwok-Lun Lee, Stephen Au, Kuan-Chun Chi, Ken Wong, Deep Ng, Sammuel Leung, Lam Tsing, Philip Keung, Astrid Chi Ching Chan

Year: 2014

Runtime: 112 minutes

Country: Hong Kong, China


BIFF 2014
Glasgow 2016

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