The setup for “That Demon Within” is a film-noir cliche: A good cop begins to identify too intimately with his evil counterpart. Yet this tale is written vividly in blood and fire.
Director and co-writer Dante Lam is a brilliant stylist who contrasts realistic Hong Kong locations with extravagant visual flourishes. His scripts, often centered on police officers who seek redemption, tend to be absurdly over-plotted. Yet such dazzling Lam efforts as 2008’s “Beast Stalker” are so kinetic that they vault over their contrivances.
“That Demon Within” is clumsier, but its cinematic flair nearly overcomes the awkward story. The movie is strikingly photographed and edited, with tightly framed compositions and buoyant camera movements that suggest, respectively, fate and free will.
The hero is police officer Dave Wong (Daniel Wu), who’s such a straight arrow that his colleagues consider him a pain. He’s settled into a solitary assignment, guarding a hospital emergency room. One night, a badly wounded man arrives, needing blood. Dave is a match, and immediately agrees to be the donor. He’s unaware that the patient is Hon Kong (Nick Cheung), a notorious gangster that at least one veteran officer would happily watch bleed to death.
Hon is soon feeling well enough to escape, and Dave holds himself responsible for the thug’s return to action. Thus begins a chase that’s complicated by the police officer’s sense that he is turning into his enemy. Sometimes, the screen billows with red, as Dave’s rationality is overtaken by bloody rage.
The movie doesn’t explicitly state that Dave and Hon blended personalities during the transfusion. In fact, it offers competing theories: Dave is tormented by childhood guilt and, according to a psychologist, could be schizophrenic; or, the policeman may be the victim of some really bad mojo.
The movie begins with a ritual invocation to the Demon King, a figure from Chinese folklore. Hon’s accomplices are followers of the nasty spirit and wear ominous demon masks when they steal a slew of diamonds. The crooks’ darkly picturesque hangouts include mortuaries and crematoriums.
Lam doesn’t insist that a supernatural rationale for Dave’s breakdown is any more plausible than a scientific one. But the director heightens the occult atmosphere by including several eerie ceremonies that commemorate the dead with traditional rituals and music. The latter is picked up by Leo Ko’s clanging score, which is suitably nerve-rattling.
Some of Dave’s repressed memories involve fire, a motif of the policeman’s nightmares and hallucinations. Flame, often fueled by gasoline, also features in spectacular action sequences. The blazes are not purifying, though. When “That Demon Within” finally burns down, all that’s left is char and ash.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At AMC Loews Rio Cinemas 18. Contains violence and profanity. In Cantonese with subtitles. 111 minutes.