Although not as robust as in its heyday from the 1970s-1990s, Hong Kong action cinema still churns out pulse-pounding police thrillers, crime dramas, and neo-noirs as exemplified by recent hits such as Three (2016) and Shockwave (2017). The vast majority of these works lack the intensity, political subtexts, and devotion to stunning shootouts and fight scenes that made films like City on Fire (1987) and Hard Boiled (1992) so pugnacious and capable of attracting a large enough audience to transform the city into the home of one of the world’s top film industries. Among directors who have successfully evoked what made previous Hong Kong action films so satisfying is Dante Lam, a former assistant director to Fist of Legend (1994) helmer, Gordon Chan, with whom he co-directed his first feature, Beast Cops (1998). This year’s New York Asian Film Festival is honoring Lam with the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema following the huge box office take of his military blockbuster Operation Red Sea (2018). The festival will have a mini-retrospective of his work, including the film that solidified his status as an action director, Beast Stalker (2008).
While the plot of Beast Stalker owes a debt to the early work of Alejandro González Iñárritu, through its mapping out the connections between a group of strangers, it is a distinctly Hong Kong film. In its Cantonese dialogue, creatively-designed action sequences, and a criminal whose past earns our sympathy for his current position, Beast Stalker often feels like a throwback to Hong Kong police dramas of the past. During the pursuit of a powerful criminal, Cheung Yat-tung (Philip Keung), a jarring multi-car accident occurs. Cheung is captured but several citizens are killed or severely injured during the accident. Police sergeant Tong Fei (Nicholas Tse) holds himself responsible for one of the deaths and when Ling, the daughter (Wong Suet-yin) of Ann Gao (Zhang Jingchu), the prosecutor trying Cheung in court, is kidnapped, Tong sees an opportunity to redeem himself. The kidnapper, Hung King (Nick Cheung), is heavily in debt to criminal underworld figures and agrees to grab hold of Ling to force the prosecution to throw its case. While tending to Ling, Hung struggles to take care of his paralyzed wife (Miao Pu), whom he treats tenderly. With few clues and time at his disposal, Tong seeks to track down Hung and rescue Ling before the trial.
This description of the film’s story conceals its heavy use of flashbacks and, at times, confusing plot. The film frequently returns to the accident that begins the film and how it has wreaked havoc upon the characters’ personal and professional lives. These moments mostly succeed in providing a glimpse of the trauma and guilt that drives the characters’ decisions. Tong’s efforts to redeem himself give him the awareness that he has been too strict and callous toward others in his life; Ann realizes her family life has suffered because of her devotion to her job; and Hung’s bad luck has propelled him to commit crime so he can nurse his wife and escape his creditors. Though sometimes a bit too melodramatic, these revelations sincerely seek to engage with relevant social issues, a mark of many of the best Hong Kong police films. Never boring, these sentimental scenes are offset by several lengthy, expertly choreographed action set pieces, including the opening car wreck and a mid-film chase scene and shootout.
Reviewing Beast Stalker today, we can gather why the film was so lauded upon release. The film offered the hope that despite a fading local film industry, Hong Kong action cinema still had life in it and could create films that did not cater mostly to the growing mainland Chinese market. And while this hope has partially been kept alive, unfortunately Lam, like many of his Hong Kong colleagues, has been lured away by the mainland industry to make action films that are either bland and dull or barefaced propaganda pieces celebrating the Chinese military. Those hoping for the survival of Hong Kong action cinema look forward to Lam, and his local colleagues, soon being able to return to making more films like the goofy Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (2000), Beast Cops and Beast Stalker, works that continue a tradition that helped define Hong Kong’s energy and singular personality.
Beast Stalker is showing on July 1 at the New York Asian Film Festival.