What tortured police officer doesn’t resort to self-flagellation from time to time?
In Dante Lam’s psychological cops-and-robbers drama “That Demon Within,” Dave Wong is a good Hong Kong cop, or wants to be. But he can’t quite hold it together. Do his torments stem from childhood trauma? Or does some malevolent supernatural force drive his lunacy?
“Every man has his own fear,” Wong narrates. “And different ways of hiding it.” Wong hides his fear badly, in a Norman Bates kind of way, and whips himself with a belt after he’s done bad.
Soon after intoning these words, Wong (played by Daniel Wu) donates blood for an injured patient, who turns out to be a notorious cop-killer thug named Hon (Nick Cheung). Injured during a diamond heist and subsequent altercation with police, Hon is allied with mobsters known as the Demon King Gang, who don traditional demon masks when committing crimes. Wong’s guilt about saving Hon spurs him to track down the thieves, when he’s not visiting his ailing “granny” or being visited by hallucinations that might involve his menacing father, Hon, and being consumed by fire. A kindly female law enforcement supervisor (Christie Chen) and her hypnotist sister (Astrid Chan) keep an eye on Wong as he goes increasingly off the deep end, becoming embroiled in an underworld that commands Kowloon City’s claustrophobic tenement buildings and funeral parlors.
Directed and co-written by Lam (“Unbeatable,” “The Stool Pigeon”), “That Demon Within” was inspired by a real bank-robbing Hong Kong officer who killed his fellow policemen. Wong doesn’t rob banks, but the exact nature of his crimes is somewhat unclear, given all his freaky visions. Lam infuses his oddly mute streets of Hong Kong with oppressive, sepia-toned hues, and distorts Wong’s scenes with funhouse optical effects to replicate his inner state. Every time he’s tempted to misbehave, the screen floods with red light.
“That Demon Within” ends up a moody mess. Lam juggles so many tropes — the vigilante cop, the man with a mysterious past, the visual blur of reality and fantasy — everything tumbles. Action movie shootouts, fight scenes, and explosions undermine the story of Wong’s deteriorating psychological state. Meanwhile, Wu plays Wong with such grim-faced, shell-shocked catatonia, it’s difficult to empathize with his mental struggles.
There’s a half-realized, half-haunting Hitchcockian psychodrama buried somewhere within “That Demon Within.” What’s on the surface plays more like Wong and Lam simply forgot to take their meds.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at email@example.com.