Hong Kong, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 100 mins.
Director: Liu Guochang 刘国昌 [Lawrence Ah Mon].
Nostalgic druggie drama has an amazingly real period look but lacks narrative drive in the second half.
Hong Kong, 1987. Former drug dealer-turned-social worker Chen Hua (Liu Qingyun) is defending his nomination for a high-profile award for contributions to Hong Kong society. His memory goes back to when he was a 16-year-old brawler in, and de facto leader of, a gang in Ciyunshan [Tsz Wan Shan], a run-down, public-housing district in Kowloon. His closest friends in the gang were Laba, aka Horn (Lin Jiadong), and Mao, aka Cat (Zhang Jin). The cocky Chen Hua courted and lived with Kerou (Jiang Yiyan), the sparky daughter of a restaurateur, but their happiness started to be clouded by his drug abuse. By 1975 he was dealing drugs in Kowloon Walled City where he was noticed by powerful drug lord Halei (Gu Tianle). When Chen Hua started dealing on the side, Halei decided to get rid of him; but he also gave him a chance to escape and end up in prison. By the time Chen Hua was released, his father had died and Kerou had disappeared, reportedly married. Determined to clean himself up, Chen Hua eventually quit drugs and worked alongside a former client, Liu (Tan Yaowen), in a Christian rehabilitation centre. Halei even consigned his younger brother, Xian (Zhu Jianran), to Chen Hua’s care. Using his old connections, Chen Hua also helped mediate in underworld disputes. While attending an anti-drugs conference in Fukuoka, Japan, he bumped into Kerou, whose late husband owned a restaurant there. Chen Hua tried to get her to give him a second chance but she was still angry at the way he had treated her in their youth. Back in Hong Kong, he continued to see her, along with his old friends Laba and Mao, and Halei.
A nostalgia-drenched druggie drama set in Hong Kong’s good old/bad old days of flared trousers, terrible hairstyles and corrupt cops, Dealer/Healer 毒。诫 has a powerful first half followed by a worthy but undramatic second. Freely adapted from the real-life story of triad Chen Shenzhi 陈慎芝 [Peter Chan] who, after being seriously wounded in 1973, found God, got clean and involved himself in drug rehabilitation work, Dealer/Healer plays down the protagonist’s religious conversion and isn’t as preachy as many do-gooder social dramas from Hong Kong. But despite a strong lead performance from Liu Qingyun 刘青云 [Lau Ching-wan] as the repentant gangster, and some strong supports, the film never manages to make the healer anywhere near as interesting as the dealer.
It’s a return to the limelight by Hong Kong-based film-maker Liu Guochang 刘国昌 [Lawrence Ah Mon], 68, whose last high-profile movie was the celebrity-strewn showbiz comedy My Name Is Fame 我要成名 (2006), with Liu Qingyun and Mainland actress Huo Siyan 霍思燕, and prior to that the tough, indie-style youth drama Spacked Out 无人驾驶 (2000) produced by Du Qifeng 杜琪峰 [Johnnie To]. Despite a career lasting almost 30 years, Liu’s name still rests on a handful of films made around the turn of the 1980/1990s, all focused on Hong Kong’s criminal underbelly – youth film Gangs 童党 (1988), prostitution drama Queen of Temple Street 庙街皇后 (1990) and the two-part police saga Lee Rock 五亿探长雷洛传 (1991). All three of those were written by Chen Wenqiang 陈文强 (Summer Snow 女人四十。, 1995; Ah Kam 阿金, 1996), whose screenplay for Dealer/Healer reunites him with Liu after a gap of over 25 years.
The finished film has an approach to narrative that’s often loose, to say the least, and a tad confusing, especially in the first half. But Liu Guochang’s strengths have always been more in individual performances and nostalgic design than in script construction, pacing or visual finesse, and Dealer/Healer again demonstrates this in spades. The film superbly evokes the trashy side of Hong Kong in the 1970s and early 1980s, with a realism that puts other nostalgia exercises to shame. But the performances, and the story, tend to just sit on top of the cake.
Chen Shenzhi’s life story already formed the basis of the 1995 gang drama Those Were the Days… 慈云山十三太保 (1995), directed by pulpmeister Tang Yancheng 唐衍成 [Billy Tang] and with Malaysian Chinese singer-actor Wu Qixian 巫启贤 [Eric Moo] as the reformed gangster. Dealer/Healer covers much the same ground but in a less tabloidy, more starry and ultimately stodgier way. From being a cocky, proactive if unlikeable character during the first half, the main protagonist (here called Chen Hua) becomes increasingly uninteresting as he throws off his past and gives up drugs. Liu Qingyun’s performance avoids him becoming a holier-than-thou convert, and still contains dormant seeds of the old roustabout, but the script’s main problem is that it has nowhere to go apart from retreading and apologising for the past. There’s simply no narrative drive.
The most problematical relationship, which is never satisfactorily explained, is between Chen Hua and his old frenemy, Kowloon Walled City druglord Halei. Played at his most enigmatic by Gu Tianle 古天乐 [Louis Koo], Halei slides in and out of the narrative but never establishes any solid relationship with Chen Hua that can be used to hang the film on. Some dramatic continuity is supplied in the second half by Chen Hua’s loyal pals Laba – subtly played, as usual, by Lin Jiadong 林家栋 [Gordon Lam] – and Mao – adequately played by Mainland martial artist Zhang Jin 张晋, much more reined back here than his sadistic chief warden in SPL2: A Time for Consequences 杀破狼II, 2015. But in an almost exclusively male universe it’s actually the role of Chen Hua’s previous girlfriend who provides some of the most moving scenes in the second half. Though her re-introduction into the story initially seems opportunistic, not to say improbable, China’s Jiang Yiyan (who was so good opposite Liu in The Vanished Murderer 消失的凶手, 2015) makes the role her own in the latter going, drifting back and forth between affection and unforgiveness as Chen Hua begs for a second chance.
A rich raft of supports gives the film plenty of flavour, including Chen Guantai 陈观泰 and Lu Haipeng 卢海鹏 as old lags and – shock! – 1970s icon Miao Kexiu 苗可秀 [Nora Miao], now 65, popping up in a well-played scene as Chen Hua’s mother. But despite all that, the film wouldn’t be half what it is without the superb production and costume design by Wang Huiyin 王慧茵 (Firestorm 风暴, 2013; Little Big Master 五个小孩的校长, 2015) and veteran Wu Baoling 吴宝玲 [Bobo Ng] respectively. Unlike many re-creations of the period, this looks like the real thing, down to the shabby locations, concrete roadsides, lived-in clothes and even the 1970s hair, with Liu, Gu and Lin managing to look okay in silly wigs. Kowloon’s Walled City looks so real you can almost smell it and, even down to the slightly trashy colour and compositions by d.p. Zhang Ying 张颖 (Mad World 一念无明, 2016), Dealer/Healer often looks like a movie made during the period. An unusually well crafted and attentive chamber-like score, by Yu Yiyao 于逸尧 and Kong Yijia 孔奕佳 (New York New York 纽约纽约, 2016), very different from the Hong Kong norm, is another plus.
The Chinese title means “Drug(s). Commandment(s)”, with the character for “commandment” 诫/jiè looking similar to and pronounced exactly the same as that for “quitting” or “giving up” 戒. The name of Chen Hua’s teenage gang, which is also the title of the 1995 film version, literally means “Ciyunshan’s Thirteen Guardians” referring to a famous event in Tang dynasty history as well as to a Shaw Brothers martial-arts film (known in English as The Heroic Ones 十三太保, 1970) from the era. Despite its cast, the film made no special impression on release in China, taking a blah RMB40 million.
Presented by Sil-Metropole Organisation (HK). Produced by Golden Gate Productions (HK).
Script: Chen Wenqiang, Lin Huiju. Photography: Zhang Ying. Editing: Huang Hai. Music: Yu Yiyao, Kong Yijia. Production design: Wang Huiyin. Costume design: Wu Baoling [Bobo Ng]. Special effects: Zhang Zhanrong. Action: Yi Tianxiong.
Cast: Liu Qingyun [Lau Ching-wan] (Chen Hua/Mao Dunhua), Lin Jiadong [Gordon Lam] (Laba/Horn), Jiang Yiyan (Kerou/Carol), Gu Tianle [Louis Koo] (Halei/Harley), Zhang Jin (Mao/Cat), Wu Mengda [Ng Man-tat] (Uncle Bao), Tan Yaowen (Liu), Miao Kexiu [Nora Miao] (Chen Hua’s mother), Zhu Jianran (Xian, Halei’s younger brother), Chen Guantai, Lu Haipeng, Lou Nanguang, Ou Jintang, Lin Guobin, Yin Yangming, Zhuang Simin, Zhang Jiansheng, Zhang Songzhi, Zhao Yonghong, Deng Yiming, Lan Jing, Wu Kaixin, Chen Jianlang, Chen Jinghong.
Release: Hong Kong, 18 May 2017.