Hong Kong copper Dave Wong (Daniel Wu), becomes guilt-ridden when a crime boss whose life he saved recently goes back to his violent, wicked ways.
With a name that conjures images of eternal hellfire, endless suffering and evil fiends, Dante Lam seems to have chosen his perfect film title in That Demon Within. Likewise, the film’s emotionally disturbed and mentally tortured protagonist, Police Officer Wong (Daniel Wu), is a great subject for a film that gives off vibes of pulpy excess like an Asian version of a Jim Thompson character.
Dave Wong is a cop that is stationed at Kowloon West Hospital who keeps him to himself, never goes to alumni gatherings, but is intrinsically motivated to do good. But his voiceover confession, “the uniform makes me feel safe,” is a strong hint that he’s probably not far from the edge. The trigger for emotional upheaval comes when master thief Hon (Nick Cheung) makes his way into the hospital with an iron bar through his gut while losing copious amounts of O negative over the hospital foyer’s floor. Luckily for him, Officer Wong is also 0 negative. Not knowing that the wounded man is a criminal, the policeman helpfully volunteers to supply blood for an emergency transfusion. As the medical procedure is underway, the thief and the cop exchange more than blood. It’s a great set-up that, with its nods to Chinese mysticism, hypnosis and psychology, keeps the audience guessing as to whether the agent that sends Officer Wong dangling on the edge of insanity is spiritual, or psychological. There’s also plenty of room for doubt as to whether the demon of the film’s title is actual or imaginary.
Chewed out by an angry commanding officer (Dominic Lam) for being a Good Samaritan at precisely the wrong moment, post-transfusion Wong dedicates himself to pursuing the killer, while subjecting himself to brutal bouts of self-flagellation with a buckled belt when the villain proves elusive.
The film depicts a grim world and Lam’s direction revels in the darkness. The versatile and handsome Wu (who inexplicably hasn’t been picked up for a major Hollywood role yet, despite being American born; NB I don’t count The Man with the Iron Fists as a major Hollywood role) has some dynamite on-screen moments as he swings between melting down and exploding. Wu’s more psychotic moments are given extra power by shots where the camera seems to be strapped to his chest, claustrophobically binding the audience to the policeman’s trauma.
Lam keeps tightening the screws and the atmosphere bleak, but the narrative spins askew when Wong starts to play on the already divided loyalties of Hon’s fellow jewel thieves. The gratuitous raping of a blind woman (just so a witness can hear, and not see, someone cry out: “Hon!”) is distasteful enough, but the script also seems to lose sight of where it is going for about 15 minutes. The scenes during this lapse have dramatic value, but with both Hon and Officer Wong absent from the screen for a considerable amount of time the film loses its central relationship and the established tension. Thankfully, the story’s gyroscope does regain its balance and, skilfully, even commits to its genre (supernatural or psychological thriller? I’m still not telling) in the film’s last 20 minutes without betraying the set up or cheating audiences. Forgive the narrative bump in the road, because for the rest of the time That Demon Within is a helluva ride.