Berlin 2011: STOOL PIGEON Review
Dante Lam returns to the mean streets of Kowloon once more for a gritty police thriller centred on a particularly troubled cop and his relationship with his latest informant. Det. Don Lee (Nick Cheung) is struggling with one hell of a guilty conscience. His last stool pigeon (Liu Kai Chi) barely escaped with his life after his cover was blown during a raid Lee called in. His informant was severely sliced and diced by a decidedly bloodthirsty gang of drug dealers and now lives on the streets, his paranoia crippling him mentally beyond repair. This should be all in a day's work for Lee, who coaches fellow officers on how to win the trust of their stoolies in order to milk them for as much intel as possible without getting too close or becoming too friendly, but Lee knows only too well it's not always that easy.
The years have taken their toll on Lee, and coupled with a tragic secret regarding his family, he now lives alone with only his regrets and the memories of those he put in harm's way for company. When a notorious thief nicknamed Barbarian (Lu Yi) returns to Hong Kong, Lee seizes the opportunity to place a new informant within his ranks. He approaches young hoodlum Ghost Jr. (Nicolas Tse) on his last day in prison and convinces him to take part in an illegal road race, which should raise his profile enough to be accepted into the gang. Ghost is intent on rescuing his sister from a life of prostitution, where she is struggling to pay off their father's $1 million debt, so he reluctantly agrees to help Lee and soon enough is recruited as driver for Barbarian's next heist.
Lam has had a good run of late, with his two previous films - THE BEAST STALKER and FIRE OF CONSCIENCE - delivering high octane action thrills coupled with tight scripts that have been sorely missing from too much of Hong Kong's output for way too long. In THE STOOL PIGEON Lam retreats from the grandstanding set-pieces, in favour of exploring the psychological struggles of police informants and the officers responsible for their safety, with surprisingly successful results.
The performances from his two leads might well represent the best work either actor has yet produced. Tse is both vulnerable and volatile as the helpless hoodlum forced to make Faustian deals with both the crooks and the cops - deals he can't realistically hope to see out. He is working both sides for a surprisingly noble cause that goes above and beyond personal sacrifice, only to be manipulated repeatedly by Lee, Barbarian and also the story's femme fatale - Barbarian's girlfriend, Dee (Kwai Lunmei). She recognises Ghost from their errant younger days on the streets, and he soon falls under her spell. Needless to say, this only further widens the abyss into which he is already falling as her ulterior motives drag him further away from redemption.
What makes Ghost's situation all the more tragic is that his only saviour is the very same person who put him in harm's way, Det. Lee. Cheung is equally impressive as the detective all at sea thanks to his own past mistakes. He has dedicated his life to convincing bad guys to compromise themselves for his benefit. He has preyed on their greed and vices while training himself not to care. But time and again this cold-hearted callousness has brought pain and suffering upon himself, rather than protect him and it looks to be happening all over again with Ghost.
The supporting cast - namely Kwai, Liu and Lu - are solid, but never threaten to overshadow the two leads. As with so many of the best Hong Kong action thrillers, the drama hinges on the central dynamic between the two male protagonists, and again here it is the push-pull of co-dependence between Tse and Cheung's emotionally crippled characters that holds our attention throughout the film.
Lam does a great job of capturing the grittier side of Hong Kong, setting most of the action in the cluttered and dishevelled sprawl of Kowloon's less glamorous industrial districts. Characters are chased down tiny aisles of cramped covered markets, through the stairwells of crumbling government housing projects and over the rooftops of dilapidated village squats. Barely a single moment in THE STOOL PIGEON takes place on Hong Kong Island, where Lam staged the audacious Michael Mann-esque shootouts in FIRE OF CONSCIENCE. There is no place here for glitz and glamour. Even the stash of gold that Barbarian's gang go after is instantly melted down into shapeless dirty nuggets better suited to these scrappy workaday thugs.
One criticism of THE STOOL PIGEON is that at times Lam displays too much restraint and just when it appears the film is about to break out into a large action sequence, he pulls it in tight again, diffusing the situation but refusing it a gratifying pay-off. At one point, a midday car chase erupts out of nowhere to the strains of White Christmas, but moments such as this are sadly thin on the ground. That is not to say the film lacks violence. There are frequent displays of brutality as characters are stabbed, bludgeoned and beaten and the film's finale at an abandoned village school is pretty tough going, but those looking for the explosions and gun fights that lit up Lam's previous film may be left wanting.
The film also missteps slightly in its handling of Lee's romantic past and how it connects with his frequent visits to a local dance school. It doesn't affect the overall narrative of the film, but as can happen all too often in Hong Kong movies, there is a jarring tonal shift between the thrills and the sentimentality, which could have been solved by simply leaving these brief moments of romantic tragedy out of the final cut.
However, let's not begrudge a man for attempting to broaden his range. Lam has lost none of his visual flair and again proves he knows this genre so well he's not afraid to push it in new directions, while simultaneously drawing excellent performances from his actors. THE STOOL PIGEON is a down and dirty thriller about lonely abandoned souls left to fester in the city's gutters. They are damaged, depressed and dangerous people pressured into high-stress situations that can all too easily end badly. The result is a film that's grubby, grimy and really rather good.
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