Kaiju Shakedown: Dante Lam
The following Kaiju Shakedown entry was originally published in April 2014. We republish it on the occasion of the New York Asian Film Festival’s honoring of Dante Lam.
The Bride with White Hair
A betrayed Brigitte Lin shrieks until her hair turns white before she reduces a temple full of swordsmen to giblets. A disheveled Tony Leung Chiu-wai stands on top of a skyscraper, pointing a gun at Andy Lau, who stands at ease in his designer suit, hands clasped behind his back. Jimmy Wang Yu sits at a table, calmly drinking wine, as nervous swordsmen circle around him, weapons drawn. Hong Kong is known as the action capital of the world, but there is more to the HK skill set than the kinetics of action scenes. The strength of Hong Kong’s directors and action choreographers lies in investing those scenes with so much emotion that they vibrate with intensity.
Check out any list of great Hong Kong movies, and you’ll find John Woo’s films occupying a disproportionate number of spots. That’s not because he blows things up good, but because he can compress raw emotions into dynamic images: Danny Lee and Chow Yun-fat making chitchat while pointing guns at each other’s heads; Waise Lee scrambling to protect his stolen gold in the middle of a firefight; Jackie Cheung grinning like a maniac, laughing and crying as he shoots a POW and a squib splatters across his face like a bright, red exclamation mark. Woo’s signature “action” movie, A Better Tomorrow, is a manly ménage à trois in which the drama takes centerstage, only delivering an occasional action scene when the emotions finally boil over.
Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone
During the late-1990s and early-2000s boom of big, bland international action movies, Hong Kong filmmakers forgot this core principle and turned out a lot of empty, bombastic junk full of flying robots and Paul Rudd. But one director who never gave up the dream was Dante Lam. Known as one of Hong Kong’s best action directors, his filmography is full of romances (Tiramisu, 02; When I Look Upon the Stars, 99) comedies (Naked Ambition, 03; Undercover Hidden Dragon, 06) and a handful of movies that are part action, part romance, part comedy, part genre experiment (Runaway, 01; Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone, 00). After undergoing a cinematic existential crisis around 2004, Lam returned from a two-year absence to direct a series of muscular, emotionally charged action movies that are the closest thing to John Woo’s man operas still coming out of Hong Kong.
The Sniper (09) is basically a love story between half-naked boys disguised as a cop film, while The Beast Stalker (08), Fire of Conscience (10), and Stool Pigeon (10) were films in which, to quote Lam, “only 30 or 40 percent of [the movies] consist of action scenes.” Even when he makes an all-action flick like The Viral Factor (12), he manages to center it on the reunion between two estranged brothers, one of whom is a SWAT team boss with a terminal illness. The uncharitable take would be that Lam makes overstuffed melodramas where women are relegated to supporting roles. The more generous take is that Lam makes movies about overly emotional men working out their feelings by shooting things.
In 2013, Lam made Unbeatable, an MMA drama that feels like a throwback to Hong Kong movies of the Eighties with its cute kids, gambling sideplot, corny Canto-comedy, heart-on-its-sleeve melodrama, hysterical take on mental illness, and inspiring scenes of a middle-aged Nick Cheung determined to get back in the ring against a much younger fighter to prove he’s still got the right stuff. It won multiple awards and became the top-grossing Hong Kong movie of 2013. Now, Lam is back with That Demon Within, releasing day and date around the world (U.S. included) this May 18.
The casting of the film’s leads stamps this as one of Lam’s psycho-thrillers, not one of his all-out action movies: Lam’s go-to guy, Nick Cheung, a comedian-turned-action star who earned all his “Best Actor” awards in Lam’s movies; and Daniel Wu, a Chinese-American actor famous for playing dim-witted or insane action heroes. Cheung plays a remorseless killer who gets injured when a heist goes wrong. A by-the-book beat cop (Daniel Wu) gives him a blood transfusion and finds himself becoming increasingly unhinged as a result. Shot like a horror movie with a corpse in every air shaft and ghosts of the past haunting every hallway, the film transforms Hong Kong into a necropolis where cops knock back beers over the graves of their dead sons, funeral homes are meeting places for criminal gangs, and diamonds are hidden in human cremains.
That Demon Within
Nick Cheung has very little to do with this movie. Instead, it’s the story of Wu’s seemingly good cop cracking up. The clear inspiration for the script was Hong Kong’s “devil cop,” Tsui Po-ko, a buttoned-down 13-year veteran of the police force who appeared smiling and laughing with his wife on Hong Kong’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In 2006, he was killed after ambushing two beat cops and murdering one of them. A subsequent investigation found that he had also murdered a cop back in 2001, and robbed a bank that same year. Later it came out that he was repeatedly denied promotion due to low scores on personality assessment tests and was written up for having difficulty fitting in with his colleagues.
It becomes very clear, very fast, that Wu is playing a version of Tsui Po-ko and that the point of That Demon Within is not groovy action but an examination of how a monster like this hid in the ranks of the Hong Kong police force for so long and why he finally cracked and went on a killing spree. Lam doesn’t talk these ideas out, however. Instead he expresses them using every cinematic trick in his playbook, from a CGI riff on the dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, to the sickly greens, aggressive reds, and jaundiced yellows saturating the screen like something out of Argento.
That the explanations for the cop’s mental state are somewhat labored and unconvincing doesn’t matter. Lam’s movies always look ridiculous in retrospect, but he makes them so overwhelmingly cinematic that you don’t notice the logic holes while you’re experiencing them. His shoot-outs aren’t the kind where a gunman blows away 70 or 80 henchmen, but intimate gun-downs between a handful of men trapped in a confined space, designed for maximum emotional impact. At the heart of That Demon Within is a 26-minute setpiece in which Wu’s cop orchestrates the complete breakdown of a gang of robbers while hiding out in the shadows, manipulating the crooks like paranoid meat puppets. And the finale set in a gas station may sound run-of-the-mill, but when the film finally arrives at this holocaust of flaming gasoline, high-impact vehicular mayhem, and Daniel Wu freaking out, it takes your breath away, even if the effect wears off soon after the final credits.
Like Daniel Wu, Lam can’t control his emotions, and they erupt all over the place. Some of his films are cold, some run white hot, others get it just right. That Demon Within is emotional overkill all the way, but if any filmmaker is keeping the spirit of classic, red-blooded, over-the-top Hong Kong gun operas alive, it’s him. Sometimes ridiculous, sometimes intense, sometimes perfect, sometimes dazzingly misguided, Lam is, at the very least, an action director who wants to show what’s inside his character’s heads by blowing it out all over the screen.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… The only upset at the Hong Kong Film Awards was Nick Cheung stealing away Best Actor from Tony Leung Chiu-wai for his totally ripped performance in Dante Lam’s Unbeatable. Predictably, Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster set a new record, taking home 12 trophies (Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Everything…).
… Meanwhile, China’s Film Director’s Guild refused to hand out their annual award for Best Director or Best Film, claiming that no Chinese movie was good enough to qualify. Blockbuster director Feng Xiaogang (Assembly 07; If You Are the One, 08; Aftershock, 10) then delivered a verbal spanking to Chinese filmmakers. Many have read between the lines, however, observing that Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin was not nominated because it couldn’t pass censorship in time and that the Guild may have been making a subtle jab at how China’s outdated rules about film content hobble cinematic creativity.
… Speaking of hobbling, Chinese newscaster Cui Jianbin was giving a report live on camera about a new luxury office building when he went off-book and denounced corrupt officials. The live broadcast suddenly went to black before resuming with a different news anchor continuing the report seconds later. The video has since gone viral.
Master of the Flying Guillotine
… Film festival season is cranking up, and there’s something for everyone, everywhere. In New York City, the Old School Kung Fu Fest (April 18 – 20) is kicking off at the Anthology Film Archives with a screening of Korea’s ultra-rare kung fu flick, Canton Viper; a five-film tribute to Lau Kar-leung, the master martial arts filmmaker who passed away last year; a screening of Sammo Hung’s rip-roaring, rarely screened Pedicab Driver; and Jimmy Wang Yu’s funky Master of the Flying Guillotine.
… Italy’s fabulous Udine Far East Film Festival just announced its line-up, featuring everything from Hong Kong’s 3-D Naked Ambition, to Japan’s Thermae Romae II.
… The Los Angeles Pacific Film Festival (May 1 – 11) features three Korean features, including Final Recipe, a food flick that’ll get a VOD release right after its premiere, and the hit thriller Hide and Seek.
… Then in the same city, the venerable Los Angeles Film Festival (June 11 – 19) will open with the North American premiere of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer in its original director’s cut as God, and Bong Joon-ho, intended. That cut will get a U.S. theatrical release on June 27.
… Takashi Miike found box-office success with the fighting-schoolboy films Crows Zero and Crows Zero II. Now formerly disgraced Japanese director and all-around cinematic wild-man Toshiaki Toyoda has helmed the third installment, Crows Explode, which opened big at the box office.
… Finally, remember “Hong Kong Will Be Destroyed in 33 Years”? It’s now the target of internal censorship in China, and sites are being asked not to link to it. Which means that if you linked to it on Kaiju Shakedown you’re in big, big trouble the next time you go to China.