4 stars out of 5
I had previously enjoyed Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s Fire of Conscience for its top-notch sound design and masterfully choreographed action sequences. But that film, though slick, was somewhat unbalanced.
Leads Leon Lai and Richie Ren were underwhelming and the plot painted itself into a corner.
There are no such problems in Lam’s latest actioner, the inelegantly named but thoroughly gripping Stool Pigeon, which carries a tagline alluding to the moral dilemmas rivals on both sides of the law can face.
From Chinese, it translates roughly as ‘good or bad, all are guilty’.
Whether playing good or bad, the cast here, featuring Lam favourites Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung from his 2008 crime drama Beast Stalker, as an ensemble perform exceptionally well.
As a gangster’s moll with a hardboiled edge, delicate Taiwanese actress Kwai Lunmei (Taipei Exchanges, Ocean Heaven) is nearly unrecognisable. Her transformation, however, is legitimate and credible; this is a role that will go a long way in expanding her repertoire.
Cheung is one of those unsung heroes in Hong Kong cinema, the less glamorous but nonetheless excellent actors, but it is Tse’s performance here as the titular character, an ex-con forced by circumstances to be the stool pigeon (inside man/informant) in a sting operation, that stands out.
The dynamics between the police and their stoolies have been explored before in past crime dramas. Infernal Affairs comes to mind, although there is a subtle difference; its main characters were planted moles, not turncoat informants, who have crises of identity.
Here, there is a question of trust, friendship, loyalty and guilt. In serving the law, whether willingly as a cop or unwillingly as a stoolie, there are bound to be casualties.
A character rationalises the relationship and consequences early in the film, saying that all parties stand to profit from the arrangement, and all understand the deadly risks involved. The human factor, despite this dry assessment, is what drives this film.
Lam, who co-wrote the script, pays the most attention to Cheung’s character, Don, a conflicted police investigator who, thankfully, does not sport bad facial hair (as Lai had done in Fire of Conscience).
He is however, in true Lam style, haunted by his past and his role in his ex-wife’s mysterious, presumably tragic, fate.
His relationship with Ghost (Tse), an ex-con who must infiltrate a gang in exchange for police reward money to save his sister from a pimp, is coloured by his guilt over the life of another stoolie, which he had unwittingly ruined years ago.
Tse, on his part, plays the grim, contemplative Ghost with remarkable restraint, hinting at his internal conflict while revealing his desperation with his wayward life.
This is, in my humble opinion, a far, far better performance than his award-winning turn as a simpleton rickshaw man in Bodyguards and Assassins. It was an eye-opener to see Tse operate at this level, in such a demanding role.
The film has a good amount of tension carried through from start to finish, and there is great polish in how Lam juggles the various characters, their personal stories – the Tse and Kwan characters are linked by a moment of comic genius – and their motivations and actions through a pivotal heist.
Credit to Lam that some of the film’s more tender moments, as well as character explorations, are not overdone and do not bog down the film. It has also become a given that Lam consistently shoots action in a technically proficient manner.
There have been few recent crime films, particularly out of Hong Kong, that balance characterisation and gritty action as well as this. For Lam, this is the more complete, well-rounded effort that Fire of Conscience failed to be – an impressive follow-up by all counts.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.