When Dante Lam’s That Demon Within, the twenty-first film of his impressive career, premiered at the Friedrichstadt Palast at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, everyone agreed: this is one of the darkest films we’ve seen at the festival…
By Matic Majcen
In fact, it all starts very conventionally, with a story about a police constable Dave Wong (Daniel Wu) who saves the life of a notorious armed robber and cop killer Hon Kong (Nick Cheung). Good against evil, we’ve seen it a million times before, it can’t simpler than that. But then, as the film unwinds, things get weirder and weirder. Not to give anything away, but the ending is galaxies away far from any happy Hollwood-like victories of good over evil.
The cast, which included the director Dante Lam, actors Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung and Christie Chen, sat down to talk to F*** about the film and their careers the next morning after the world premiere. They all seemed to be in a good mood as the film was well-received by the audience.
(L-R) Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung, Dante Lam & Christie Chen
F***: Dante, congratulations for this film. It’s a very dark film indeed. I wonder if it was your intention to go for a sort of an opposition to Hollywood filmmaking, with all its happy endings and upbeat tones? That Demon Within seems to do exactly the opposite.
Dante Lam: Every time I make a film, it’s not like I think about whether I want a dark or a happy ending. I rather think about the main theme or the topic of the film and then when I have that, I have to see how do I express it and then I express it in that way. It’s not something I think about from the very beginning.
What about in terms of influence – would you say that on this film you’ve been influenced by American cinema or do you stay close to the Hong Kong tradition of action filmmaking?
I have to say this one is not a traditional action film. Maybe in my earlier films it would be more based on action, but here I think there’s an other element more close to Hong Kong tradition and that’s the feeling here. It’s very different from the movies I’ve done before.
In the West, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the work of Quentin Tarantino, his work supposedly being too violent, especially for younger audiences. Do you ever consider the influence of your films on children?
Well of course, violence in films is an issue, but my perspective is that it’s not a tool. Sometimes you simply need it to express things and here it is to express that dark side. If you see the main character, the violence is always there in his head like a pressure, and then it just comes out, it basically just explodes. But there are different ways of using violence to express things and of course this film is not something that is very suitable for children, let’s make this absolutely clear. But here violence certainly has a very strong force.
F***: You’ve been working with Dante for such a long time. What’s it like working with him? People say he’s not the easiest director to work with. If anyone, you’re the man who can say something about it.
Nick Cheung: Although we really have a long history of working together, I think we still have a lot of space for further cooperation, there’s still a lot we can do together. If you ask me if it’s stressful or tiring working for him – yes it is – but isn’t everything we do stressful? It also depends what you take out of it, how you enjoy working and how you enjoy the process. And then if you see the finished film afterward and it makes you really happy and satisfied, then you get this feeling it was worth it and it dispels all the stress that was there before.
How do you prepare for a transformation like that? In real life, you look like the nicest man in the world while in That Demon Within, the evil of the character you play hits you already on first sight. How do you achieve that sort of transformation?
What Dante writes is his own creation. But at the same time, whenever we cooperate, in the beginning it’s not like I question his every move, he tells me about the characters created for me. Of course we go through the basic characteristics of the person together, but I don’t doubt his work. And then I go and learn something about this character, I try to create the atmosphere, I try to learn about the background story – and he always gives his characters one. I try to see how I can express that. It’s the same method every time we cooperate. But this time I knew I have a guy who’s no good at all, a guy who’s just evil, a guy who would do anything for money. He doesn’t care about being a human being. There are no opposites in him, he’s just 100% evil. That was a new setting for me and a new idea on Dante’s part. But at the same time, it was quite easy to act, fairly straightforward, exactly because the character is so one dimensional.
Do you ever think about the influence your violent characters might have on audiences? Do you have any controversies about it in your country?
We know that films influence the audience. In a former film we did together, Beast Stalker (2008), there is a scene where a little girl is kidnapped. This actually happened in mainland China, it’s based on a true event. A guy did this and then went to the police and said it was because he had seen the film. So the question is: do we read something in the paper and make it into a film or do we see something in a film and it becomes reality? It’s not always clear which is which. But we do know that films have an influence on society, but violence is also exaggerated in the film to portray certain things.
The shoot seemed to be quite physical due to many action scenes. What was the most difficult scene you had to do in That Demon Within?
Well, maybe just one thing. The scene when I’m on fire. I’ve never acted anything like that before, so I watched some real examples. I saw some footage of a man who set fire to himself and just sat there without moving. And there were others who were just shouting and hurling in pain. Of course I went for the latter option and the sound I emitted – funnily enough – really felt like I was dying, like I had no life in me anymore. And when I was shouting »Help!« I really knew I was dying in a fire surrounding me, I couldn’t see anymore. That really was an intense experience. What was also interesting, the scene afterwards when I was burned, I needed so many people to do all that make up stuff and take care of me and remove everything and to wash my face – I’m very grateful for that!
F***: Christie, I’d like to speak to you about the whole Berlinale experience. Is this a very new thing for you, premiering your film at one of the major film festivals in Europe?
Christie Chen: Well, my first feeling about Berlin is that it’s really cold! (laughs) It’s my first time here, I’m finding it really cold, but I’m also proud that I’m part of this film and the fact that I can present it here. I was also surprised to find how tall German people are! (laughs)
How did you become attached to this project? I’m asking because it’s a very violent film and there is very little time for female characters, so to be surrounded by all this turbulence must have been quite a challenge for an actress.
Maybe because I’m from Beijing I wasn’t familiar with what Hong Kong women were like, so I had to do some homework, read a bit, go through some material, just to get into the feeling of how to be a woman from Hong Kong. But I don’t really mind that I’m new here because it was a fantastic opportunity for me to work with such a great director and great actors. It was a good experience overall.
What was it like to be working with Dante? Was it very different from the methods you’ve been used to on TV projects?
He really understands how to direct a film and he really knows how to do it, so when we were filming he would always tell me how to do things and I think he’s just great and it’s a fabulous opportunity for me to work with him. He taught me a lot in the process.
What do you think this project will do for your career, do you expect it to open up new things for you?
I actually haven’t thought about it that much. Every film and every role I do, I want to do it well, so I try to think about every film separately.
F***: Daniel, if I’m not mistaken, this was your first collaboration with Dante Lam in 13 years.
Daniel Wu: Yeah, quite a long time.
How has he developed and changed in this period of time? I assume he’s quite a different director these days.
Oh yeah, completely! I think he has evolved his style from being a kind of a typical Hong Kong action director to finding his own style and I think he’s definitely gone to the darker side. From The Stool Pigeon (2010) onwards his films have gone a little more darker than other typical Hong Kong action films. And it’s just action driven, there’s a very strong character that’s driving the piece and there’s a darker element that I didn’t see before. It’s a lot different than when he first started out.
I heard some rumors that Dante can be a bit difficult on the film set while shooting. Is there any truth in that?
I don’t think so, not in this situation. Maybe with producers, probably. Fighting for the things he wants to do artistically. I think he’s made a lot of risks making this particular film, because of how dark it goes. It’s a commercial film, but like I said, it’s a lot darker than what you’d normally expect from Hong Kong films. So he probably had to fight quite a battle to get it made. Also, you rarely see such character driven pieces in Hong Kong action cinema.
Minutes after the Berlinale premiere you said that having seen the film now you finally grasped the message of the whole piece. What is your opinion of it today, having slept it over?
I didn’t try to over-think the film while making it. Which is why last night, the first time I saw it, I was speechless. I didn’t realize how dark we were going to go. I mean, I felt that way when we were making it, but I didn’t realize the ultimate result would be that way in terms of the visual effects and all these things that help the story go even darker…
Read more of our in-depth interview with Daniel Wu in the May 2014 issue of F*** – where Wu talks more about That Demon Within, his breakthrough into Hollywood with the highly anticipated Warcraft (2016), and more…
That Demon Within opens in cinemas here 17 April 2014.