Dante Lam follows up the wildly entertaining Unbeatable with the mildly interesting That Demon Within. This psychological action thriller stars Daniel Wu as Dave Wong, a straight-arrow cop who unwittingly saves the life of violent criminal Hon Kong (Nick Cheung). Leader of the “Demon King Gang” (so-called because they commit crimes while wearing Chinese demon masks), Hon is seriously injured while escaping an arrest attempt by obsessed OCTB Inspector Mok “Pops” Chi-Fan (veteran TVB actor Dominic Lam). When Hon is brought into the emergency room during Dave’s shift on the hospital beat, Dave, not knowing that Hon is the “Demon King”, donates his blood so that Hon can undergo a life-saving transfusion.
After taking heat from Inspector Mok and his underlings for saving the notorious Hon, Dave is transferred to another unit. When Hon disappears while committing yet another robbery with his henchmen, Dave begins to behave erratically. Wracked with guilt, he embarks upon a violently dangerous manhunt for the Demon King Gang, occasionally experiencing run-ins with an increasingly sinister Hon. Has Dave become possessed by the spirit of the “Demon King” or are other, more worldly reasons responsible for Dave’s volatility?
The answer behind Dave’s behavior is revealed clumsily in not one but two flashbacks towards the end of the film. To get there, Lam keeps things moving with adeptly-crafted action, a gritty atmosphere, scheming between the remaining members of the Demon King Gang and a red herring or two. Dave’s motivations, however, are shrouded in mystery until the flashbacks, permeating the film with an air of tedium not unlike that in a romantic comedy in which the two leads are kept apart by silly misunderstandings and contrived plot devices until they finally meet to clear the air and declare their love just before the credits roll.
Fortunately, strong performances help breathe life into the proceedings. Daniel Wu is solid as Dave, providing Dante Lam with a foundation on which to build both action and drama. Although he shares top billing with Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung is more of a supporting character as the Demon King. Nonetheless, Cheung brings the menace with his usual aplomb. Andy On capably delivers yet another variation on the same type of character he has seemingly played for the last couple of years, while Mainland actress Christie Chen isn’t asked to do much in an undemanding role as Dave’s superior officer and former police academy classmate.
Chen is the sole Mainland representative in the main cast allowing That Demon Within to fill the rest of the roster with veteran local talent. Old school Hong Kong entertainment fans will appreciate seeing Ken Wong (Downtown Torpedoes), 1990s TVB “It Girl” Astrid Chan, Samuel “The Quintessential Pervert” Leung Cheuk-Moon and Fung So-Bor (daughter of Feng Feng, sister of Fung Hak-On and Petrina Fung) in small roles. Continuing the cavalcade of experienced locals, longtime TVB actors Dominic Lam and Joseph Lee give notable turns. Liu Kai-Chi, with a relatively subdued performance, rounds out the legion of HK role players.
That Demon Within ends with an intertitle proclaiming that the ability to do evil resides in all humans – fairly low-hanging fruit on the tree of thematic revelation. The banal observation is especially disappointing given that the elements for a better, more insightful movie are already present. In addition to the signature demon masks, the Demon King Gang is made up of workers in the funeral industry. Scenes with the various gang members at their day jobs featuring coffins, corpses, morgues, funeral parlors and burial rituals – the trappings of a good supernatural/horror movie – could have been put to far more effective use.
Moreover, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film is only telling half the story. The concept of yin and yang – an idea as old as Chinese civilization itself – contends that opposites exist in harmony so evil exists in good while good exists in evil. This idea is represented by the taijitu (tai chi symbol) with the spot of white in the black part of the circle and a spot of black in the corresponding white part. Given that this notion has been ingrained in Chinese culture since 10,000 B.C., wouldn’t a movie with parallel plots having Daniel Wu’s straight-arrow cop go bad while Nick Cheung’s Demon King went good been much more compelling and, ultimately, satisfying? Sure, but it’s very likely that That Demon Within was prevented from going down philosophical or supernatural paths by an even more banal observation: Money talks and those who pay the piper – hello, mainland market – call the tune.
(Sanney Leung, 4/2014)