Posts tagged ‘dante lam’

Mean As Hell: That Demon Within movie review

 

Badness, That Demon Within, 2014

Badness, That Demon Within, 2014

That Demon Within, which had a day-and-date opening in Hong Kong and the U.S. last weekend, is the latest in a series of overwrought and intense thrillers from director Dante Lam (Unbeatable; The Viral Factor; The Beast Stalker), The movie starts off with a bang with a bloody firefight in the streets of Hong Kong as a masked gang of jewel thieves shoots up the cityscape. Hon (Nick Cheung), the gang’s ringleader, ends up in the emergency room where Dave (played by the East Bay’s own Daniel Wu), the beat cop on duty at the hospital, volunteers to donate blood to the not-yet-recognized criminal. The transfusion saves Hon’s life and Dave is subsequently wracked with guilt and berated by his superiors for resuscitating the ruthless crook. The film follows Dave’s tribulations as the repercussions of his impulsively charitable act catalyze his increasingly disturbed responses.

True to director Lam’s recent output, TDW includes fraught family issues, extreme car accidents, and graphic violence with guns, clubs, blunt objects, pointed objects and other nastiness. Lam also ruthlessly exploits Chinese taboos about death as the ring of jewel thieves operate out of a mortuary and wear Chinese demon masks while perpetrating their heists. Lam makes good use of this creepy morbidness, pushing his primary audience’s superstitious buttons to heighten the film’s dark and fatalistic mood.

Two of a kind, That Demon Within, 2014

Two of a kind, That Demon Within, 2014

Lam also shows off his trademark grittiness, making good use of his mostly nocturnal Hong Kong locations and effectively utilizing his supporting cast of unglamourous character actors, as well as making the usually suave and pretty Daniel Wu look psychotically unbalanced. However, Lam’s recent box office successes and perhaps greater creative leeway have also brought his more melodramatic and overwrought tendencies to the fore, as this film’s storyline and direction at times veer far into Grand Guignol excess, with an overall sense of visceral unpleasantness resulting from Lam’s generous use of bloody violence including immolations, shootings, rape, beatings, and stabbings.

What makes the film more than a mindless shoot-em-up is Lam’s examination of a fatefully linked pair of antagonists, the guilt-ridden cop Dave and the smirking gangster Hon. Lam is known for his action set pieces but he also specializes in wounded souls who bear the collateral damage of the wreckage of their lives, such as Nick Cheung in Unbeatable tending to a traumatized mother mourning her lost child, or Cheung lamenting his lost wife The Stool Pigeon. In TDW Daniel Wu is a similarly troubled soul, looking disturbingly haggard and gaunt as he carries on the tradition started by Cheung in Unbeatable of extreme physical transformation as a badge of honor in Dante Lam films. Wu’s emblematic opacity here serves him well as his character has quite a few secrets to hide. However, it strains credulity that Dave would ever be accepted into the Hong Kong police force in the first place since it seems unlikely he’d pass the psych screening. But then we wouldn’t have a movie, I suppose.

In TDW Lam reunites with his current favorite actor, Nick Cheung, who’s fresh from winning this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards Best Actor statue for his outstanding turn in Lam’s popular MMA flick Unbeatable. Here Cheung plays a supporting role but he delivers another solid performance, as usual doing a good job as the evil gangster haunting Daniel Wu’s cop character.

Bloodies, That Demon Within, 2014

Bloodied, That Demon Within, 2014

Lam’s been one of Hong Kong’s most bankable directors of late and his recent successes have granted him a lot of leeway in his stylistic tics. In TDW Lam indulges himself quite a bit, at times to the point of caricature, with the film’s narrative detours and winding plot twists wandering through hypnotherapy, Chinese burial rituals, Jungian analysis, and other meandering explanations for the protagonist’s erratic behavior. However, TDW has an undeniable intensity that works more often than not and makes it eminently watchable. Hopefully it will find an audience in its U.S. theatrical release so that more Hong Kong product makes its way to the big screen in this country in the future.

That Demon Within

now playing

AMC Metreon

San Francisco CA

 

and at selected theaters in the U.S. and Hong Kong

 

April 22, 2014 at 6:42 am 1 comment

Slippin’ Into Darkness: Agneepath and The Viral Factor film reviews

Hrithik Roshan, tattered, Agneepath, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex last week—both of the number one movies in China and in India were playing simultaneously at Bay Area theaters. The Viral Factor, director Dante Lam’s latest actioner, and Agneepath, a remake of a classic 1990s Bollywood revenge drama, both made their way to the U.S. with day-and-date releases in the U.S. and their respective countries of origin.

Agneepath, starring the remarkably hot and handsome Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan, set a record for highest opening day grosses in India and is on its was to joining the 100 crores club, along with blockbusters like Aamir Khan’s Three Idiots and Ghajini, Shahrukh Khan’s Ra.One and Don 2, and Salman Khan’s Bodyguard and Dabangg.

The flick is an old-school vengeance story with new-school stars, including the aforementioned Hrithik, pouty-lipped former Miss World Priyanka Chopra, and hulking villain Sanjay Dutt. It also features an item number with another rising star, Katrina Kaif, who shows off her amazing articulated torso in a fast-paced dance sequence.

The original Agneepath is a cult classic in India and stars OG bad boy Amitabh Bachchan. Both the original and the remake take their title from a well-known poem written by Bachchan’s father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, and it’s featured prominently in both films. Agneepath roughly translates as “the path of fire,” referring to persevering in the face of great struggle.

Sanjay Dutt, evil, Agneepath, 2012

In the new Agneepath the intensity is turned to up eleven for the duration as first-time director Karan Malhotra brings the high melodrama on a grand scale, including child slavery, beatings and hangings, tattooed villains both bald and hairy, machete-wielding transvestites, and a bride who gets gunned down on her wedding day. Not to mention Hrithik Roshan’s smoldering green eyes simmering with rage throughout the movie. At the plex where I watched the show with a mixed crowd of both desi and non-desi audience members, the stoned teenager in the projection booth had jacked up the theater’s volume to “deafening,” but this only suited the movie’s thundering score and accentuated the general more-ness of the storyline.

In contrast to the theatrics of the plot, Hrithik turns in a subtle, intense performance as the tortured hero bent on avenging his father’s wrongful death. Despite being astoundingly hot, as always Hrithik’s on-screen persona is fairly low-key, downplaying his tousled hair and perfect profile. He’s the dreamboat with a heart of gold who is incredibly handsome, cut and toned, yet remarkably unassuming. At the show I attended, Roshan’s first appearance thirty minutes into the movie was greeted by an elated fan calling out, “I love you, baby!” Her sentiment was quickly echoed by a happy murmur from most of the female viewers in the audience.

Producer Karan Johar’s Sirkian aesthetic is all over this one, thought it’s nominally directed by Karan Malhotra. The film’s emotional palette is completely saturated, with every scene staged for maximum dramatic effect. Yet despite the overall fever pitch, some sequences manage to stand out, including a harrowing lynching that sets the dark and violent tone of the film, and a gorgeous orange-toned set piece that takes place during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Malhotra makes excellent use of the festival’s spectacle, skillfully intercutting the riotously colorful celebration with a cat-and-mouse assassination attempt. The film’s sleek production values, its gorgeous and charismatic leading man, and its bloody tale of violent retribution make it a good candidate for crossover success in the U.S. and worldwide.

Nic Tse, misunderstood, The Viral Factor, 2012

The Viral Factor, China’s number one movie last week, is a horse of a slightly different color. Part intense and violent actioner, part family melodrama, and part reunification allegory, the film boasts an amazing amount of property and vehicle destruction, and copious quantities of flying bullets, sheared-off limbs, and characters leaping from high ledges. In other words, it’s a typical Dante Lam movie.

The story concerns a pair of estranged brothers, one raised in Hong Kong by his father, and one raised in China by his mother, who of course end up on opposite sides of the law. Fai, the cop, stiffly played by Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou, and Yeung, the thief, more energetically rendered by Hong Kong pop superstar Nicholas Tse, meet cute after Yeung busts out of police custody in Malaysia. Intertwined with their nascent reunion is a plot involving a mutant smallpox virus, corrupt cops, and a sleek English-speaking gangster clumsily played by Andy On (here billed as Andy Tien).

Jay Chou, cornered, The Viral Factor, 2012

Director Lam keeps the pace cracking throughout, starting with a blistering car chase and shootout in the streets of Jordan—clearly someone’s been watching The Hurt Locker. Yet in true Hong Kong style the action sequences, smartly choreographed by Chin Kar-lok, are interspersed with a melodramatic family subplot. The hoary cop-criminal brothers theme has a long and venerable history in Hong Kong action movies, perhaps most notably essayed by Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung in A Better Tomorrow. Here the conflict is much less dramatically rendered, in part because neither Jay Chou nor Nic Tse possess the passion, chops, or sheer charisma of either Chow or Cheung, and as such the brotherly relationship is more friendly than fraught. Tse manages to be convincing as the hotheaded criminal, despite his slight and wiry stature, but Chou doesn’t bring a lot to his role as the cop. Without much fraternal tension the familial dynamics don’t possess a huge amount of urgency, so the storyline’s resolution ultimately lacks impact.

But the action sequences more than make up for this dramatic slackness, and veteran director Lam makes excellent use of enclosed spaces full of whizzing bullets, hand grenades, and sharp objects. As with his two previous films, The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon (both of which also star Nic Tse), all of the lead characters suffer grievous bodily harm from car wrecks, gunfire, blunt force, and other physical trauma, with each eventually sporting the facial scars that have lately become Lam’s signature. Although he handles the fancier set pieces effectively, including a helicopter chase that weaves through a dense jungle of skyscrapers, Lam seems most at home down in the mean streets of Kuala Lumpur. It’s there that the film really gains some traction, with corrupt cops and scraggly gangsters populating neon-lit outdoor food stalls not unlike those found in Lam’s native Hong Kong. Along with Herman Yau, Lam is one of the few directors in the former Crown Colony still making streetwise commercial cinema, and the success of The Viral Factor both at home and abroad will hopefully enable him to find future financing for his gritty, kinetic Hong Kong-style movies.

Bonus beats: Here’s a clip of Chikni Chameli from Agneepath with Katrina Kaif and her amazingly flexible abs. Props for lighting a match on her forearm. Also includes nice cutaways of Hrithik brooding prettily and Sanjay Dutt getting his mean on.

February 3, 2012 at 8:39 am 4 comments

Kinda Like A Big Deal: The Beast Stalker, Full Alert and Greatness in Hong Kong Movies

Nick Cheung with wonky eye, The Beast Stalker, 2009

Nick Cheung and wonky eye, The Beast Stalker, 2008

Just saw The Beast Stalker (Dante Lam, 2008) at the San Francisco International Film Festival and, although it held up pretty well and wasn’t an embarrassment, it wasn’t quite all that. Introduced by the Film Festival as “perhaps the best Hong Kong action film since Johnnie To’s Election,” this gritty thriller demonstrates that the former Crown Colony can still crank out hard-ass crime dramas. But the field has been mighty thin in Hong Kong of late and in other, more fruitful years, The Beast Stalker might’ve been just one of the crowd.

Former teen heartthrob Nicolas Tse plays a tough cop (!) haunted by the death of a child hostage he accidentally kills in a chaotic shootout/car crash involving malevolent gangsters, innocent bystanders and much shattered glass. Nick Cheung plays a kidnapper-for-hire in charge of snatching the dead girl’s twin sister whose lawyer mother is involved in prosecuting the crime. Their meshing stories play out in a dizzying spiral of guilt, honor, fate and obligation.

The Beast Stalker has several full-on child-in-extreme-danger moments and the cast realistically sports facial scars and other mementos of mortal peril, but somehow the film falls short of greatness. Nic Tse, further distancing himself from his youthful idol years, shrieks angrily at his subordinates, but he still can’t nail the crying scenes. Likewise, Nick Cheung, who won Best Actor statues from both the Hong Kong Film Critics’ Association and the Hong Kong Film Awards for this role, glowers menacingly but doesn’t quite bring the extra layer of pathos and complexity that might have deepened his portrayal. As my pal Laura, aka redbean, aka longtime Hong Kong movie fanatic, noted, “Anthony Wong would’ve eaten this role alive.” Unfortunately Anthony wasn’t cast and in this case Nick Cheung only makes a so-so substitute.

Lau Ching-Wan shoots straight, Full Alert, 1997

Lau Ching-Wan shoots straight, Full Alert, 1997

I recently purchased a copy of Ringo Lam’s brilliant crime thriller Full Alert (1997), which bears some similarities to The Beast Stalker in its depiction of the complex relationship between a cop and a criminal. But Full Alert has the inestimable actors Lau Ching-Wan and Francis Ng in the lead roles and their sublime skills breathe life into their stock characters and make the film’s cat-and-mouse story vibrant and believable. Francis brilliantly creates a strangely sympathetic yet reprehensible character and Lau Ching-Wan’s finely tuned fits of anger and frustration show a cop dangerously on the edge of sanity. The final confrontation between these two driven characters beautifully brings their fraught relationship to a stunning conclusion. On the other hand, The Beast Stalker’s antagonistic pair never fully reach the heights suggested by their intertwined destinies and their anticipated showdown is merely a tease.

Nick & Nic mix it up, The Beast Stalker, 2008

Nick & Nic mix it up, The Beast Stalker, 2008

Full Alert and The Beast Stalker both have magnificent car chases as their centerpieces, the work of car-choreography specialist Bruce Law. The action direction in The Beast Stalker, however, unfortunately succumbs to the closeups and nausea-inducing jerky camerawork now in fashion, whereas Ringo Lam understood the need for distance and framing in an action sequence. Attesting to its greatness, Full Alert more than stands the test of repeated viewings, even more than a decade after its release. The Beast Stalker is a exciting, smartly-made movie but if, as several critics have suggested, this is one of the best of recent Hong Kong films, then the bar has been seriously lowered.

Dante Lam will soon have another chance to make a great Hong Kong movie. His next project, Most Wanted Terrorist, has just announced its cast, which includes the dream team of Lau Ching-Wan, Anthony Wong and Francis Ng, along with Nick Cheung. Hopefully Nick Cheung can keep pace with his illustrious co-stars, as they’re widely held to be among the best actors of their generation. He did just fine opposite Anthony and Francis in Exiled, and even in The Beast Stalker he showed glimmers of potential. but if he’s not careful the rest of the cast is going to blow him out of the water.

Interestingly, Dante Lam has indicated that he will forgo any Mainland Chinese financing for Most Wanted Terrorist in order to preserve a Hong Kong sensibility in the film. Several recent HK/China co-productions, including Sammi Cheng’s recent Lady Cop and Papa Crook, have suffered from the restrictions of Mainland film censors, so Lam’s decision to avoid PRC money is an interesting one. With Hong Kong film financing languishing due to the economic recession it’s a bold and risky move, but Lam is determined to retain his artistic freedom without having to answer to the Mainland government.

Let’s hope Most Wanted Terrorist gives everyone involved the chance to strut their stuff to their fullest capabilities. With its killer cast and seasoned director, if all goes well, we could once again see greatness in Hong Kong films next year.

The Beast Stalker opens Friday, May 15 at one of the last places in the Bay Area to see Hong Kong movies on the big screen, the 4-Star Theater, 23rd Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco.

May 15, 2009 at 5:40 am 2 comments


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