A psychodrama set amid funeral parlors, graveyards and creepy old tenement buildings, “That Demon Within” owes as much to Hong Kong’s vintage horror genre as it does to the strong noir style of Dante Lam’s superior cop thrillers “The Beast Stalker” and “The Stool Pigeon.” Working from a real-life criminal case but steeping it in ghoulish Chinese supernatural lore, the action auteur turns a policeman’s battle with a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality into an exploration of the evil instinct latent in everyone. The result is Lam’s darkest work to date, one where violence is not just graphic but ugly, and Hong Kong symbolically comes to resemble a charnel house. It should do gangbusters biz in Asian-friendly genre markets, though mainstream domestic audiences may not embrace the grim content as readily as they did his heartwarming 2013 hit, “Unbeatable.”
Set to open April 18 Stateside through China Lion, “That Demon Within” recalls Lam’s “Fire of Conscience” (2010) in the way it draws on fading Hong Kong folk-religious icons in service of a retro aesthetic. Here, Lam invokes the Demon King, a spirit that is associated with the Festival of Hungry Ghosts and, like the fire dragon in “Conscience,” reps a manifestation of one’s inner darkness.
Shrouded in mystery and superstition from the outset, the film opens with a gang of robbers, known as the Demon King Gang, preparing for a heist by burning incense to their chosen idol — a subversion of a scene familiar from other Hong Kong thrillers, in which police and triads alike pray to Guan Yu, the deity of righteousness. Led by Broker (Liu Kai-chi), the crooks get into a loot dispute with freelance thug Hon Kong (Nick Cheung), who is subsequently injured in a police ambush.
Hon stumbles into a hospital where beat cop Dave (Wu), unaware of his identity, gives him a life-saving blood transfusion — to the chagrin of Inspector “Pops” Mok (Lam Kar-wah), who’s bent on putting the gang behind bars before his imminent retirement. Racked with guilt over having saved a man who callously killed his comrades, Dave starts to hallucinate about Hon merging with him as one; upon learning of Hon’s escape, he believes it’s his destiny to track down and destroy his malevolent alter ego.
Meanwhile, Dave’s supervisor Liz (Christie Chen, cold and stiff), notices that despite his faultless performance, he’s been passed over for promotion and shuffled around precincts due to “personality issues.” She enlists her therapist sister, Stephanie (Astrid Chan), to counsel him, unwittingly opening a psychiatric Pandora’s Box during their hypnosis sessions. Dave’s dramatic arc hinges on a mystery related to his unusually close relationship with his ailing grandmother (Fung So-bor) and his traumatic upbringing by a didactic and sadistically strict father (Chi Kuan-chun).
Lam’s best works have always infused action with stirring emotion, and the fight scenes here, though topnotch, are not even the driving force in what is essentially a character study — an anatomy of a tortured sinner who disturbingly resorts to ritual self-flagellation as a form of anger management. Fire is a key leitmotif (no coincidence that the Demon King is also known as “Spirit of the Burning Face”), as visions of human immolation — which could be flashbacks or nightmares — overlap with Hon’s apparition goading Dave into expressing his savage instincts, dragging him into a sort of mental inferno. Images of swirling blank ink dissolving in water stylishly express the character’s fears and gradual corruption.
Although the film was reportedly inspired by notorious police officer Tsui Po-ko, who robbed banks and murdered his colleagues, Lam has shaped his protag as a tragic figure struggling to hold onto his identity and values. Frequently framed in his squalid housing estate, a lonely prisoner behind metal gates and sealed windows, Dave elicits real sympathy. Wu is initially buttoned-up in a way that recalls his past persona as a heartthrob in numerous romances, but he steadily invests the character with palpable pain and unease, as well as an increasingly gaunt, cadaverous physicality. And even as Dave’s mental condition deteriorates, Lam maintains a riveting ambiguity about Hon, whose terrifying presence suggests that demonic possession is not entirely out of the question; though Cheung takes up less screentime than his co-star, his demonic grin all but devours the screen.
The film achieves a truly Stygian vision through the excesses of the Demon King gang, as Dave, under the apparent influence of Hon, sows seeds of doubt among Broker and his cohorts (Lee Kwok-lun and Stephen Au). But these men need little prompting to stab each other in the back, consumed as they are by greed, and smugly unrepentant as they are about their crimes. Theirs is a profession rooted in the moribund world of undertakers and cremators, and production designer Lee Kin-wai conjures a suitably chilling mise-en-scene of funeral parlors, morgues, coffins and arcane rituals. The banality of such evil is neatly captured by Liu as Broker, dialing down his performance to a very pragmatic level of malice.
Tech credits are exemplary, with particular kudos to car stunt designer Thomson Ng for a Grand Guignol gas-station finale with a blazing symbol of hell as its centerpiece. The primarily nocturnal backdrop takes on a nebulous glow in d.p. Kenny Tse’s subtly lit lensing, though blacks dominate the alternately richly saturated and wanly sepia images. Under the editorial supervision of Hong Kong New Wave stalwart Patrick Tam, Curran Pang’s seamless dissolves and complex montages blur the lines between imagination and reality, while Leo Ko’s unnerving score alludes to Chinese ceremonial performances with its drum and gong combinations.