Interview: 'The Demon Within' director Dante Lam

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Fresh off the biggest film of his career, director Dante Lam is back with The Demon Within, a dark thriller that he believes has brought out the best in Daniel Wu – and perhaps himself. By Darren Jung

Thirteen years ago, director Dante Lam and then-industry newcomer Daniel Wu teamed up for an action-packed drama about the battle between good cops and bad cops. Though that film, Hit Team, was a moderate success critically and commercially, Lam considers it one of the weaker films of his career.

“I’m not too happy with it,” Lam, 48, says. “The plot was too thin and the directing and acting wasn’t that good, to be honest.”

Yes, that could be considered a subtle dig at Wu’s acting back in the early 2000s. But Lam is quick to follow up: “Daniel has improved so, so much since, to work with him again now after over a decade, it was night and day. In fact, I think his performance in this new film is the best of his career so far.”

This new film he’s talking about is The Demon Within, loosely inspired by the true story of Tsui Po-ko, the late Hong Kong police officer who committed a bank robbery and three murders from 2001 to 2006.

Though Lam had the biggest success of his career with last year’s MMA drama Unbeatable, the 20-year industry veteran is still mostly known for his police action thrillers. The Demon Within, however, is a departure from his previous police films, with a plot heavy on supernatural elements based on ancient Chinese folklore, and struggles that are less wham-bam gunfights than methodical, manipulative chess moves. 

“There are action scenes in the film, but I wouldn’t say they are the high points of the movie,” Lam says.

In fact, he considers his new film a psychological thriller, and cites Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal film Psycho and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island as inspirations.

Though it is Nick Cheung (whose career has received multiple boosts from Lam’s films, starting with 2008’s Beast Stalker, and most recently with Unbeatable) who plays the murderous gang leader antagonist, it’s Wu’s police officer protagonist who flirts with the dark side – a mentally unstable man with hidden sinful desires.

Wu was so into the role, Lam says, that he was often isolated during the shoot. “I told people not to talk to him but I think people would have avoided him anyway even without my instruction,” says Lam. “He was downright scary.”

Of course, with Unbeatable being last year’s local box office champ and a contender for the top Hong Kong Film Awards, there are perhaps unusually high expectations for The Demon Within.

“Since Unbeatable I think I’ve gotten more leeway in terms of budget and story ideas,” says Lam. “But it also comes with the pressure of matching that success. But Nick and I, we try not to think about it. Each film is its own world, Nick and I can only worry about making the current film we’re working on as good as possible.”

Even though Unbeatable has given Lam power to request a bigger budget and overall command, he still doesn’t have the support to do one specific genre – comedy. “I would be interested in returning to comedy again one day,” explains Lam, who, in one of his earliest jobs in the industry, assist directed the 1991 Stephen Chow megahit Fight Back to School. “But I don’t think investors believe in me making comedies. I think I have this image of being a straight action director about police officers.” He continues: “But Unbeatable was pretty damn funny if you ask me.”

Lam is slowly breaking away from the cops and robbers mould, though. His next film, which begins production in June, is about the world of sports cycling. Lam says he can’t reveal plot details yet, but he assures us the main character won’t be an undercover cop.   

“I just want to get better as a director,” he says. “The way Daniel kept improving as an actor, I hope I have been and will continue to improve that same way.”

The Demon Within opens Fri Apr 18.

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