“Every man has his own fear, and different ways of hiding it. But fear will never go away” according to the hero of Dante Lam’s That Demon Within (魔警), a twisty, metaphysical take on the futility of violence and inevitability of karmic justice. Hong Kong cinema has often held that cop and criminal are merely two sides of the same coin, but rarely has it taken its mistrust of authority and nihilistic cynicism to such great heights as in Lam’s B-movie-inflected psychological thriller.
The hero, Officer Wong (Daniel Wu Neh-Tsu), is a fearful man. Now 35 and a 17-year veteran of the Hong Kong police he’s still a lowly beat cop currently occupying the police box in the reception area of a less than busy hospital. He tells us, paradoxically, that he puts on the uniform because it makes him feel safe. His life begins to change, however, when he makes the selfless offer to give some of his own blood to a man who staggers in badly injured after a bike accident. What Wong didn’t know is that the man is Hon (Nick Cheung Ka-fai), a notorious local gangster known as the Demon King responsible for the deaths of two fellow officers during the escape which led to his accident. Wong gets a dressing down from the Inspector in charge, Pops (Dominic Lam Ka-wah), and is thereafter haunted by his ironic action of being a policeman who saved the life of a cop killer.
Of course, others might say Wong did the right thing so that Hon can face justice and in any case it would be wrong to deny someone lifesaving treatment because of a moral judgement, but Wong can’t see it that way and continues to punish himself (quite literally) for his “mistake”, remembering the authoritarian father who taught him that mistakes are a sin. It turns out that Wong’s career has floundered because of “personality issues”, those being that he’s a bit of a prig, overly serious and by the book when most his fellow officers are anything but. His new commanding officer is, as it turns out, an old academy classmate who perhaps remembers what those issues might be but doesn’t see why they should have disrupted his career to the extent that they have and actively wants to help him get over them with the aid of a hypnotherapy psychologist.
Wong, however, is like everyone else dealing with his own demons but his decision to face them by chasing down Hon who has escaped to presumably do even more crime proves increasingly problematic as his sense of reality begins to unravel. There is something quite ironic in the fact that Hon’s “gang” (well, bunch of guys he hired for the job) is based in a funeral home and mostly involved with the rituals of death which, whichever way you look at it, is particularly convenient for their side business. Lam’s Hong Kong is a grimy, film noir land of dread and violence, a shadowy hellscape where no one is safe from the fire of karmic retribution. Wong has been in hell all along, waiting for the flames to consume him, but is only just starting to notice that it’s beginning to get warm.
Overcome with rage, Wong’s world literally glows red around the edges while Lam shifts to a steady cam closeup on his final mental break in the face not only of tremendous grief but the sudden impossibility of redemption and the manifestation of his guilt. Becoming a policeman was to Wong a way to protect himself from himself, an ironic form of atonement for past transgression. The source of all his trauma is echoed in the present plague of low level thuggery that sees “repo men” splash grease and paint on the homes of mostly elderly poor people presumably to pressure them to move while a single act of (accidental) police brutality at a protest against forced eviction changed not only his life but those of several others forevermore, kickstarting a chain of karmic retribution that leads us right back into the flames. If Wong is “mad” it’s because the world made him that way. Treading firmly within the realms of the B-movie with its comicbook-style aesthetic, incongruous score, and pop psychology take on the legacy of trauma, Lam’s nihilistic psycho-supernatural thriller leaves no doubt that cop or criminal there’s a demon within us all looking for an excuse to raise hell in a land of fear and violence.
Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and possibly elsewhere.
Original trailer (English subtitles)