That Demon Within

In 2016, for the first time Hawaii Pacific University screened a “HIFF” (Hawaii International Film Festival) film at HPU’s Aloha Tower campus. Ironically, given the theme of this review, the 2014 Hong Kong film That Demon Within from director Dante Lam was screened as a double-projection (two screens same theater) for HPU students and the general public.

The film was introduced by Corbin Gregory, VP of the Cinematic Multimedia Club at HPU, and the HPU Student body president Christopher Morrow. The HPU Department of Communication supplied pizza and beverages as part of their Free Friday Flicks program. The film was co-presented by the Asian Film Awards Academy, the Cinematic Multimedia Club, the Akamai Advertising Club, the HPU Department of Communication, in association with the Hawaii International Film Festival, with funding by Create Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Film Development Fund (SAR HK Government).

The supernatural crime-gangster thriller Demon is something of a nostalgic throw back to the hyperkinetic Hong Kong gangster films of the late 1980s and 1990s. The film features a cop/gangster dyad inextricably entangled and ensnared in each other’s business of policing and killing. This doubling set up, often accompanied by a triumvirate that includes a woman who cares (and listens), can be found in films from the Hong Kong golden era like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989)and Hardboiled (1992). This 2014 version of the conflicted, boundary blurring cop/gangster doppelgänger takes it to the next level when we learn at the climax of the film that the cop/gangster is actually a singular schizophrenic character stuck in a psychoanalytical loop/past he can’t escape.

The doppelgänger structure of the 80s and 90s was in part a reaction to the looming 1997 Hong Kong transfer of sovereignty back to Mainland China from the British United Kingdom. In the 80s, the gangster genre was successfully appropriated by Hong Kong filmmakers and their genre-breaking stylistic flourishes in part to explore the good/bad schism of the emerging dichotomous state, in much the same way that Korean filmmakers have utilized cinema genres like the gangster film or spy film to explore the crisis of their own North/South (co)national dualism.

In fact, in Demon, the last images of the film take the audience back first to a flashback 25 years earlier where the main character as a child sees his father, a common protestor on the streets of Hong Kong being accidentally set on fire when he throws a pot of flammable liquid on a policeman. Then, another flashback to 1996 when the now grown child has become a policeman, and is seen peacefully helping an elderly woman pick up oranges that had tumbled from her cart. The almost pastoral scene (on the streets of Hong Kong) on the eve of reunification with China cannot be discounted. It suggests the calm before the storm, the potential that has been lost, the uncertainty of the future. Coupled with emerging films like Port of Call (2016), the aesthetic violence and focus on grand pyrotechnics, body parts, blood and guts, demented and schizophrenic characters structurally explores and signals a grand and sustained malaise that continues to envelop the psyche of the island people (or at least its artists) and the city itself.

With the topographical and political similarities between Hong Kong and the island state of Hawaii, genre films from Hong Kong like the 2014 That Demon Within allow insight into the psyche of islanders tethered to the mainland shadow of a colonial overseer. This may be especially resonant as the reign of Trumpism draws near, and Hawaii and Hawaiians feel more differentiated from the mainland than at any time since 1959, the advent of Statehood. So Hong Kong cinema has something to teach us about human and political process. Here, as the body count rises and the streets and people’s lives are torn asunder we see the cinematic city become something of an epicenter and mirror for the psychosomatic stress of the people. The schizophrenic confusion and hyper-violence of the protagonist/antagonist is perhaps indicative of the internal and real struggles for those who must traffic both within and outside of state sanctioned and “society-approved” norms.

I could go on to discuss how the cinematic industry in Hawaii has been hamstrung by Hollywood and the status of the island archipelago as just another state within the United States of America. Funding for example is all but non-existent for local filmmaking in Hawaii, where as in Hong Kong there is competitive funding from the state. Hong Kong filmmakers, like filmmakers in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, etc., have their own film development fund. In fact, thankfully, the actual Hong Kong Film Development Fund played a huge role in Demon screening at HPU Aloha Tower as a “sidebar” of the Hawaii International Film Festival. In the Hawaii case, HIFF acts as a national film fund surrogate, in a way, but a surrogate that embraces the Hollywood entertainment model and its human amplifiers, which perhaps makes it tougher for non-conforming or outsider cinema to make it to the festival theaters. Here, “entertainment” expectations and insider status become the all-naturalized barometer for local quality. This perhaps underscores a significant reason why Hawaii and Hawaiian artists go abroad for their educational and professional development.

Since the 2000’s, there have been several instructive cinematic efforts to come out of Hawaii, but often the outcome of such projects simply reaffirms the idealized representational strategies of Hollywood and the mainland, while rewarding the filmmakers economically or through international film festival notoriety, for continuing those traditions. Hollywood and the global market have as well been key elements in the 80s-90s development of what film critic Clarence Tsui calls the “golden era of Hong Kong filmmaking.” For instance, with the Hong Kong cop/gangster genre hybrid, genre plays an important role as both a conventional shortcut to depicting urban strife and conflict, and as an economic assurance that there will be a global market for the product.

That said, the precipitous drop in Hong Kong film production output in recent years is perhaps indicative tsnap_lasthat the genre needs to be relativized to keep its relevance globally, locally and stylistically. Still, the nostalgia inducing That Demon Within is a jolly good mythological romp through a Hong Kong psyche torn between past and present, the street and the state, the good and the bad, the honorable and evil.

The next AAFA Roadshow screening at the HPU Aloha Tower will be the Thai romantic melodrama SNAP. It screens Saturday November 12th at 5pm in multipurpose room 3. The screening is FREE to students and the general public. FREE JJ Dolan PIZZA and drinks too from the HPU Department of Communication. And parking VALIDATION for Aloha Tower parking vastly discounts the normal rate.

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