Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mo Jing (That Demon Within)

I was actually getting a little nervous as I scanned the film listing sites last week: China Lion's Facebook page promised Boston Common as one of the places running That Demon Within, but Fandango, Google, and all the other listing sites said nothing about it, even once the full slate was up rather than just the first matinee and evening shows of the new releases. Heck, even on Friday, neither Google nor MoviePass was listing it; you had to go straight to the ticketing sites to see any evidence of it playing. Not sure why that was, but there was actually a pretty decent turn-out at the 5:15pm show on Friday, so I guess the word got out to Chinatown and Chinese students well enough.

It's a bit of a surprising release for China Lion, though, in that it is very much a Hong Kong film in Cantonese. They don't exactly avoid those movies (they did release Vulgaria, after all), but most of what they release is stuff from the Mainland in Mandarin, which is also something of a reflection of where the Chinese film industry is: A lot of the Hong Kong studios, wanting a piece of the billion-person audience to the north, will make sure that they play nice with the PRC's rules, which generally means Mandarin language and adhering to some strict self-censorship. That Demon Within, though, is a throwback to the heyday of John Woo-style Hong Kong action, taking place entirely in the former crown colony, with folks speaking Cantonese, and there being plenty of corrupt cops, a distinct no-no for China; the only real concession seems to be how it's pointed out that David started in the police force while Hong Kong was still under British control. I've read that there's been a certain amount of pushback by Hong Kong filmmakers and artists recently, attempting to re-assert their own identity as they see the mainland swallow them, and this is a pretty fantastic example of that if so.

Mo Jing (That Demon Within)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 April 2014 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

You can tell from the opening moments of That Demon Within that it's not going to be your standard cops 'n robbers movie, and it's sure not going to stand out for how grounded and realistic it is. This is Hong Kong, and while they may not have invented the operatic crime drama, they do it like no-one else, and nobody is doing it bigger than Dante Lam right now. Like they say, bigger doesn't always mean better, but this is one case where going for it yields something pretty great.

The demon of the title is Hon Kong (Nick Cheung Ka-fai), an infamous and ruthless leader of a gang of armed robbers known as "The Demon King" and the obsession of soon-to-retire Inspector Mok (Dominc Lam Ka-wah), and whose latest score is a fortune in diamonds, the sort that gets crooks at each others' throats, even when their wounded leader is more trustworthy. Or is he? Uniformed policeman David Wong (Daniel Wu Yin-cho) is wracked with guilt over the fact that he gave Hon a blood transfusion in the hospital, and while his former academy classmate and new captain (Christie Chen Si-xuan) notes there isn't a blemish on Wong's record, those who worked with him say that his many transfers have been due to personality issues.

And, yes, David certainly has personality issues; he mentions in his opening narration that he appreciates the low-key nature of his job manning the police post in a hospital, and when he's on the other end of the transfusion tube from Hon, he sees the man as almost a monster - well before he has any reason to know he's a criminal. But just in case you miss that, Lam is going to make sure that you know that David is not all right with bombastic music, screens that take on a red cast, grainy flashbacks, and any other signal he can give. Oh, it ramps up, especially on the pressure on the officer grows, but whenever Lam and co-writer Jack Ng Wai-lun bring the audience inside David Wong's head, it's very clear that this is a place fraught with danger.

Full review at EFC

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