That Demon Within (魔警, Dante Lam, 2014)

“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)

A Witness Out of the Blue (犯罪現場, Fung Chih-chiang, 2019)

“The world is not supposed to be like this” a failed revenger exclaims as he breathes his last in Fung Chih-chiang’s absurdist noir crime thriller A Witness Out of the Blue (犯罪現場) in which the career criminal on the run turns out to be the only noble soul. In a world like this, an eccentric policeman later suggests, good people can commit crimes while those who prosecute or are victimised by them are often no better than that which they claim to hate, eagerly taking advantage of a bad situation to take what they feel at least they are entitled to. 

It all links back to an unsolved murder, one of the many “crime scenes” referenced in the Chinese title. The dead man, Tsui (Deep Ng Ho-Hong), is believed to be part of a gang led by notorious underworld figure Sean Wong (Louis Koo Tin-lok) who was responsible for a botched jewellery store robbery which went south when the police stooge blew his cover trying to stop one of the gang members getting violent with a hostage. Wong shot the undercover policeman and opened fire on the police, eventually escaping our second scene of crime with the loot, while an old lady was so frightened she had a heart attack, and the store assistant who tried to raise the alarm was left paralysed. Police inspector Yip (Philip Keung Ho-man) who ran the undercover operation against Wong’s gang is convinced that Wong killed his associate during a dispute over dividing the loot and is fixated on bringing him in. Eccentric cop Larry Lam (Louis Cheung), however, is not convinced in part because he’s patiently listened to the only eye witness, a parrot, who says Wong didn’t do it. 

Nicknamed “garbage” and apparently a model cop until some kind of accident a few years previously, Lam is certainly an unusual law enforcement officer. For one thing, he’s in deep debt to loan sharks after borrowing money to start a cat sanctuary because he felt sorry for the abandoned felines left to cower in the rain in the face of the world’s indifference. Lam is convinced that he can get the parrot to talk, if only he can figure out how to communicate with it seeing as the only words it knows are “help me”, “genius”, and “idiot”. Based on the parrot’s testimony and his own gut feeling, Lam doesn’t think Wong is guilty so he has three other suspects: the son of the woman who died who works as a butcher at the market, the paralysed store assistant who has since got religion, and her security guard boyfriend (Andy On) who was rendered powerless in the attack, unable to protect her and apparently still carrying an immense amount of anger and resentment towards the criminals. Lam also comes, however, to doubt his superior wondering if his war against Wong is less in the pursuit of justice than revenge for the death of his officer. 

Yip and Wong are in some ways mirror images of each other, the morally questionable cop and the noble criminal. On the run, Wong takes up lodging with a cheerful woman named Joy (Jessica Hsuan) who is visually impaired but seems to think Wong is a good person even though she can’t “see” him. All of Joy’s other residents are extremely elderly, one of them sadly lamenting that the man who previously inhabited Wong’s room died peacefully in his sleep though he was “only 95”. “Money is no use after you die”, they tell him in an effort to persuade him to join in some 100th birthday celebrations, “life is all about contribution”. Quizzed on what he’d do with the money, all Wong wanted was to be able to sleep and as we see he seems to be suffering with some kind of psychosis, experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations of teeming ants and the ghostly voices of his former gang members. Yet he’s not “bad” in the way Yip characterised him to be, he never kills anyone he didn’t have to, is indignant about being accused of betraying his own, and is just as resentful towards Yip as Yip is towards him for the unfairness of his petty vendetta. 

But like all the best crime stories, all there is in the end is futility. The world shouldn’t be like this, but it is the way it is. Maybe Joy and her pensioners have it right, quietly living their lives of peaceful happiness being good to each other while evil developers breathe down their necks trying to destroy even their small idyll of goodness. Wong is drawn to them, but perhaps knows he’ll never belong in their world of infinite generosity though perhaps oddly he’s the only one who doesn’t really seem to care so much about the loot. Still, as Lam has it “Life is full of wonders” like crime-fighting parrots and eccentric policemen who stand in line buying limited edition trainers on behalf loansharks to finance their animal sanctuaries. Good people also break the law. “In memory of lost souls” reads the sign above the final scene of crime, and it’s not without its sense of irony. 


A Witness Out of the Blue streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mad Detective (神探, Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2007)

mad-detectiveThe border between “eccentric” and just “insane” can be quite a thin one but that tiny liminal space of uncertainty is where the hero of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s Mad Detective (神探) resides. The titular Mad Detective, Bun (Sean Lau Ching-Wan), is about as unreliable a narrator as they come owing to the fact that he experiences frequent hallucinations and delusions meaning that absolutely nothing of his perception can be taken at face value. Despite his unorthodox approach, Bun is a fine a detective with an almost supernatural crime solving ability but, tragically, sometimes he sees more than he would like of human nature.

The day rookie detective Ho (Andy On) joins the force, he walks in on an unusual scene. Knives and cutting implements are lined up on a table while a pig’s carcass hangs from the ceiling. Veteran cop Bun then enters into the mind of a killer by viciously stabbing the pig carcass (and lovingly caressing it afterwards), before tucking himself inside a suitcase which he asks Ho to throw down the stairs only so he can then leap out and shout “The guy at the ice-cream store did it!”. A montage of newspaper cuttings testifies to Bun’s track record, but his career is over when he suddenly decides to cut off his own ear and present it to his boss at his retirement party.

Not so long after, two cops enter a forrest and only one leaves. That’s one problem, but the missing cop’s gun has been used in a series of robbery/homicides which is another. Exhausting all leads in trying to find out what happened between gun losing Wong (Lee Kwok-Lun) and his shady partner Chi-wai (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) in a dark forest 18 months previously, Ho turns to Bun despite the misgivings of his colleagues. Bun’s wife begs him not to go back to police work, fearing for both his life and his mental state but Bun would rather live crazy than bored and so it’s back to burying himself alive and chatting with ghosts among other strange pursuits undertaken in the name of law enforcement.

Bun’s major talent is his ability to see people’s “inner personalities” which take the form of personified aspects of their psyches. We see through Bun’s POV as the figures in front of him change without warning – fighting one moment with a lady cop in a men’s bathroom but turning to see an overweight veteran in her place at the next. Bun comes to suspect Chi-wan thanks to his overly complicated personality which has seven different “ghosts” – an amusing sight when they all end up piled into the back of his tiny car. This goes someway to explaining the bemused looks Bun often attracts as he chats with people no one else can see.

Reactions to Bun’s outburst in a convenience store seem like they might just be mild embarrassment at his causing a scene, but could also easily be because he’s shouting at someone who isn’t really there. Whether “real” or not, it’s clear that Bun’s emotional intelligence and ability to read people are key to his crime solving talent. As he later tells Ho, it’s not about logic, it’s about emotion. Through “extreme profiling”, Bun “becomes” the killer, experiencing their emotions to get to the heart of the crime. Bun, like Manhunter’s Will Graham, absorbs too much of the world he sees around him and is unable to reconcile his reality with the commonly accepted one. Quite mad, but also brilliant, Bun’s genius makes him dangerous in a hundred different ways.

To and Wai create doubles and dualities left, right, and centre. Fittingly enough, Mad Detective takes inspiration from The Lady from Shanghai for its shoot out finale which occurs in a house of mirrors. This time it’s not just Bun’s vision which is uncertain even as he can see multiples of ghosting personalities, but ours too as reality fractures into tiny, reflective fragments. Ho, by the film’s conclusion, may have absorbed too much of Bun, but also perhaps of the worst aspects of his profession. Bun’s tragedy is his innocence – he literally sees the bad the in people and tries to exorcise demons through exposing their presence, but Ho’s is cowardice in his refusal to truly look at the people in front of him rather than blindly follow the nearest available leader. A supremely complex and original thriller, To and Wai’s Mad Detective is a fascinating psychological journey constructed with unusual rigour and as oblique and elliptical as it is entertaining.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cold War (寒戰, Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2012)

cold war

Reworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in June 2013.


Listen up!  You’re going to have to pay attention to this review because there’s an awful lot going on this film. If there were a prize for most subplots squeezed into 102 minutes there wouldn’t even be room for any other candidates on the nominations list. If you like your HK action thrillers super complicated (if a little on the ridiculous side) and filled with some truly explosive (!) action sequences Cold War (寒戰) is definitely up your street.

Whilst a major explosion rocks a busy public area in Hong Kong, a crazed drunk hurtles through the streets before crashing his car into the central reservation in a quite spectacular manner. Apparently unharmed, he then rants at the traffic police that his uncle is a judge so they can’t touch him – a quick phone call seems to indicate he might be mistaken in his uncle’s feelings towards him but in any case the situation changes dramatically as the police are suddenly ambushed and kidnapped. The kidnappers then attempt to ransom the officers and equipment to the HK police authorities who are already a source of some press interest regarding possible corruption and general incompetence. It is imperative that they regain their men and capture the culprits as quickly as possible to avoid their reputation being even further damaged.

However, there is also considerable friction between the leading players at HQ and some uncertainty over who is favoured to become the new police chief – the young bureaucrat or the grizzled street veteran. This situation is further complicated by the fact that one of the missing patrolmen is the son of current section chief MB Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fei). His subordinate, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok), feels this makes him unsuitable to lead the current investigation and so seeks to have Lee removed from his post and take over the position himself. The pair also attract the attention of an officer at ICAC who’s convinced one or both of them must have more to do with the case than it seems, meaning each is effectively fighting a war on three fronts – firstly trying to rescue the police officers, then unmasking the perpetrators and finding out what they want with the HK Police force, and finally sorting out who’s up for the top job at police HQ whilst also keeping Internal Affairs off their backs.

No matter which way you put it Cold War is still extremely convoluted and fails to make all of its various plot elements hang together in a coherent way. It’s also unfortunate that the culprit is a little predictable (largely thanks to the actor’s mustache twirling performance) but when the final reveal does come it’s baffling in its pettiness, not to mention the total implausibility of such a complicated plan. Perhaps its unfair to criticise a film like this for having a problematic plot structure, perhaps fans of the action genre don’t look for finely crafted plotting as much as they look thrills and technically impressive action sequences – after all, we can’t all be Infernal Affairs.

It has to be said that Cold War does deliver in the action stakes with some extremely high production values which surpass even the heights of previous HK action films. From the opening car crash to the motorway car chase and explosive finale there are several simply jaw dropping moments throughout. When it comes to the big and brassy set pieces, Cold War is pretty much unrivaled but perhaps lacks the personal, intimate touch of other genre favourites. Tonally it walks a fine line between a sort of quirky humour and slightly absurd feeling where you can’t be sure whether you’re actually watching a comedy or not – some viewers may find all this a little too silly but others may revel in its ironic tone.

Cold War is certainly a flawed film, a little ridiculous but nevertheless enjoyable. It seems as if it also wants to make serious points about the justice system, media and police force but ends up pulling all its punches. If you stop to think about any of the plot, it makes very little sense but if you can let that go and just enjoy the superb action sequences and great performances from the leads Cold War is definitely one of the more impressive action thrillers to come out of HK in recent years.


 Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)