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)

The Rescue (紧急救援, Dante Lam, 2020)

The rescue poster 3

It’s tempting to see Dante Lam’s latest foray into big budget mainland action as a continuation of his previous hits Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea which paid tribute to the police and navy respectively, but it is also the latest in a series of films featuring China’s finest bravely battling against the odds to save the day. Like Tony Chan’s The Bravest which celebrated the selfless heroism of China’s firemen as they risked their lives to stop a potentially catastrophic fire in an oil refinery, The Rescue (紧急救援, Jǐn Jyuán) pays tribute to another undersung arm of the emergency services – China’s Coast Guard.

Our hero, Captain Gao Qian (Eddie Peng Yu-yen) of China Rescue And Salvage, is a devil-may-care hero who throws himself into danger without a second thought where lives are at stake. The motto of China Rescue And Salvage is “we risk our lives to give others hope”, but some feel that Gao Qian is too reckless with his and fear that he’s forgotten that you can’t save anyone if you get yourself killed playing at heroics. That’s something that’s temporarily brought home to him when the pilot of his helicopter is badly injured during a rescue on an oil rig engulfed by flames, leaving the inexperienced co-pilot to fill-in on his behalf. Gao Qian works his magic in the nick of time, but both of the pilots quit the team immediately afterwards, the pilot struck by the proximity of death and the co-pilot by his sense of inadequacy in feeling as if he failed to live up to the job.

Luckily the team soon get a new pilot – a lady, Yuling (Xin Zhilei), who clashes with Gao Qian in true disaster movie fashion in her desire for rational action and the kind of heroics that are strictly by the book. Against the odds, however, they make a good team, eventually bonding in mutual admiration for their complementary skills. Meanwhile, Gao Qian is also dealing with some home drama in that he’s just brought his young son Congcong (Zhang Jingyi), who had been staying with his grandmother, to live with him. Congcong seems to be suffering with some kind of illness, but is otherwise cheerful enough and hoping that his dad will get him a new mum, like, for example, the beautiful Yuling.

The death of his wife, his son’s illness, and the loss of colleagues he was forced to leave behind, haunt Gao Qian like a cosmic joke, as if he’s being “punished” for snatching so many other lives from the jaws of death. No matter how hard he tries, there are lives which cannot be saved – no helicopter can rescue you from terminal illness or debilitating disease. Nevertheless, he continues to do his best no matter the personal costs. “Everyone has their own battleground, mine is rescue” he tells a superior with determination after his priorities are questioned. In training, the coach reminds the rescuers that their enemy is nature. They push their bodies as far as they can go, willingly risking all to let others know that someone is always looking out for them and will come in their time of need. Faced with certain death, Gao Qian enters an eerily beautiful existential space born of liminality in which he is perhaps able to feel everything that is to be alive while his son, fighting his own battle, does something much the same.

The strangely poetic quality of life in extremis is directly contrasted with the hokey comedy of Gao Qian’s home life and the brotherly comradeship of the base which are both much more of the typical “New Year Movie” mould. Lam fares much better than Chan in heading off the obvious melodrama, though he too resorts to the obvious foreshadowing of a young man daring to get wedding photos taken while planning to risk his life for the greater good, while the quirky production design and wholesome warmth of Gao Qian’s home life as he attempts to make the world safe for his son offer a much needed escape from the anxiety of his disaster-fuelled existence. Unlike that of Red Sea, the world of The Rescue is a more open and hopeful one in which Gao Qian does his best to save everyone who needs saving no matter their nationality, feted far and wide as a hero even if he awkwardly embodies a magnanimous China as a world protector as he does so. Nevertheless, Lam once again manages to elevate his material beyond its propagandist aims, edging towards a more ambivalent contemplation of selfless nobility and the costs of courageous endurance.


In UK cinemas from 25th January courtesy of CMC Pictures. Unfortunately, the release of The Rescue has been postponed because of the Coronavirus outbreak in China. We will update you as soon as we hear of new release date!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Dante Lam, 2018)

Operation Red Sea posterDante Lam, a Hong Kong action icon, is one of many to have begun looking North, tempted by the bigger budgets and audience potential of the Mainland. Following 2016’s Operation Mekong, Lam is back on manoeuvres with a second in what may develop into a series, Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Hónghǎi Xíngdòng). Red Sea is not connected to Mekong in terms of narrative and only features a cameo by the earlier film’s star, Zhang Hanyu, who remains firmly ensconced on the bridge of the all powerful Chinese warship while an elite troop of special forces handles the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground, but it is once again “inspired” by a true story and perfectly positioned to show the Chinese security services in a more than favourable light.

The action begins in 2015 when the Chinese navy wades in to defend a merchant ship attacked by Somali pirates, managing to apprehend the “bad guys” with a minimum of bloodshed before they escape Chinese waters. Having suffered a casualty, the squad are then dispatched to rescue Chinese citizens caught up in an Middle Eastern coup. Their mission is helped and hindered by intrepid Chinese-French journalist, Xia Nan (Hai Qing), who has discovered evidence that a dodgy “businessman” caught up in the attack is in possession of a consignment of “yellowcake” along with a deadly dirty bomb formula which he plans to sell on to the terrorists currently waging war on the city.

Though Operation Red Sea is, perhaps, no more jingoistic than any British or American war film, its focus is more definitively centred on home concerns than an attempt to police the world. The Chinese military exists to defend Chinese citizens, even if those citizens are increasingly scattered throughout an unstable world. This presents a point of conflict between idealistic, and occasionally reckless, journalist Xia Nan whose mission is to stop the terrorists and rescue her friends, and the soldiers whose primary mission is to evacuate Chinese citizens though they hope to be able to provide assistance to citizens of other nations too if their mission parameters allow.

The Jiaolong, elite Chinese special forces, are indeed an impressive fighting force who proceed with military precision but are not without compassion. Informed by a local soldier that the terrorists often force civilians to become suicide bombers, the team’s bomb disposal officer puts himself at great risk to defuse a device and free a man destined to become a car bomb, rather than simply neutralising the threat. Protecting Chinese in peril is the official goal, but on a human level the soldiers are overcome with sorrow and anger for the local population, lamenting that they may have saved some lives but many have lost their homes and they will simply leave them behind to deal with the situation alone when they succeed in their mission of evacuating stranded Chinese diplomatic personnel.

Despite the overtly propagandistic elements which paint the Chinese military as a force for good, fighting bravely for their countrymen overseas, the landscape of war Lam paints is a hellish one full of blood, guts, and scattered body parts. Much of the film plays as a two hour recruiting video for the Chinese navy – it’s almost a surprise there aren’t people waiting with clipboards outside the theatre, but it’s difficult to believe anyone would be in a big hurry to sign up after witnessing the pure human carnage of a foreign battlefield and the very real threats the soldiers subject themselves to all while stoically pursuing their mission, committed to the protection of their nation and people.

Nevertheless Lam’s spectacle is impressive and action choreography unsurpassed. Working on a huge scale with everything from snipers to tank battles, Lam keeps the tension high as the team attempt to adapt to a situation which is rapidly deteriorating leaving them all but stranded behind enemy lines where each and every one of them faces a very real threat of death or serious injury. Despite an overuse of CGI slow motion bullet vision, Operation Red Sea largely earns its bombast with relentless fury, leaving its propaganda aims to dangle the background until the final coda which seeks to remind us that China rules the waves and will protect its citizens and territory wherever they may be.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)