Director: Dante Lam
Cast: Nick Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Kwan Lun-Mei,
Lu Yi, Miao Pu, Liu Kai Chi
RunTime: 1 hr 50 mins
Released By: GV & Scorpio East Pictures
Rating: NC-16 (Violence And Some Sexual Scenes)
Day: 26 August 2010
Inspector Don Lee relies heavily on the information provided
by stool pigeons in his job. Barbarian is a painstakingly
meticulous armed robber. Don needs an informant to infiltrate
his gang and recruits street-racer Guy. Guy delivers but Don
is unable to effectively act on the information until the
final moment. Since Barbarian has not left any evidence, Don
is pressured to convince Guy to become a witness for the prosecution
and promises him a new identity in another country; Guy barely
escapes with his life. A disillusioned Don is left wondering
if his quest for justice is worth the price that often has
to be paid.
Dante Lam has found something of a creative muse in writer Jack Ng of late, and their latest "The Stool Pigeon" marks their fourth straight collaboration together. It is also crafted out of the same mould as their earlier "Beast Stalker", "Sniper" and "Fire of Conscience", and audiences who have enjoyed the morally ambiguous characters and their dilemmas in these male-driven films will certainly enjoy this latest.
Reuniting the duo of Nick Cheung and Nicolas Tse from "Beast Stalker", Lam reverses the good guy-bad guy roles played by Cheung and Tse earlier. In this film, Cheung is on the right side of the law- he plays Detective Don Lee, a cop with his conscience wracked by guilt from the fate of his last stool pigeon (or slang for 'informant'). Jabber (played by Lam regular Liu Kai-Chi) was almost slashed to death after his cover was blown, and Don counts himself responsible for making the executive decision that blew Jabber’s cover.
Tse is the ex-convict Ghost, whom Don seeks out to be his new informant after police receive word that a wanted robber Barbarian (Lu Yi) is back in town for another heist. Ghost needs money to pay off his father’s debt to a loanshark, and reluctantly agrees despite being fully aware of the risks. For a good first hour, Lam meticulously sketches out the relationship between Don and Ghost- opposites in the eye of the law, but forced by circumstance to befriend and even trust each other.
A scene where Don teaches his fellow officers how to manage their informants illustrates this conflict beautifully- he tells them they have to win the trust of their stool pigeons so they can get as much intel as possible, but not to get too friendly at the same time for they may have to make difficult decisions in the line of duty. It is an unenviable position that Don himself knows personally, and many of the film’s most poignant scenes come from Don’s regular visits to Jabber who has since become a vagabond.
Besides delineating the complex relationship between police and informant, Lam also takes care to develop his characters. Don’s frequent visits to a dance studio hint of a personal tragedy that is only revealed later; and Ghost’s feelings for Barbarian’s girlfriend, Dee (Kwai Lun-mei), only make it more difficult for him to extricate himself later on. The characters in Lam’s films have always been flawed in one way or another, but the attention that Lam pays this time round to his two central characters- Don and Ghost- ranks among one of his best.
Amply deserving of praise too are Cheung and Tse. Having won Best Actor at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Awards for his role in "Beast Stalker", Cheung turns in a wonderfully subtle performance here that conveys his character’s anguish both in his line of work and his personal life. Because Cheung’s acting is more restrained here, Tse gets the chance to be in the spotlight- and he more than delivers in a nuanced portrayal that fleshes out Ghost’s struggles tiptoeing on the fine line of the law.
Lam brings the intricately and impeccably plotted first half to a head in the next hour of the film, and audiences familiar with Lam’s films may naturally be expecting big-scale action sequences like those in "Sniper"or even "Fire of Conscience". But perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t give his audience the kind of visceral gratification this time round, and some may find his unusual restraint a little frustrating.
Not to say that he has lost his flair- an exciting foot chase down the tight cramped aisles of Hong Kong’s street markets culminating in a midday car chase will set to rest any such doubts- nor that this isn’t a taut thriller. It is both, but Lam often ratchets up the tension before an impending action scene and then defuses it without his usual signature guns-and-bullets extravanganza.
It is still no reason why you should miss this thriller. While it doesn’t feature as much by way of action as one would expect from a usual Dante Lam film, its strong character-driven drama still packs a solid punch. At a time when the Hong Kong film industry seems inundated by big-budget China co-productions, Dante has stuck to his guns to deliver a gritty true-blue Hong Kong cop thriller set entirely in the iconic streets of Kowloon. In a year of lean offerings from Hong Kong, this will probably go down as one of the year’s best.
(One of Dante Lam’s best, this tightly-plotted thriller boasts excellent character-driven drama and brilliant acting from Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse)
Review by Gabriel Chong