Question: How do you know a film has little (to no) faith in its screenplay (re: its story)?
Answer: When the screenwriter’s name doesn’t even appear in the opening credits, you know you’re in trouble. In fact, if a Gaffer (!) appears in the credits, but your screenwriter doesn’t, you know you’re really in trouble.
Such is the case with the new Billy Chung (“My Schoolmate the Barbarian”) movie “Devil Face, Angel Heart,” about a deformed killer who returns to exact revenge on those who betrayed him a year earlier. Under Chung’s direction, the film moves at a brisk pace, but there simply isn’t enough story here to last a movie, even one that barely surpasses the 80-minute mark.
As narrated, the film concerns Lon (Daniel Wu), a facially disfigured killer who, along with his partner/brother Kwan (Lam Suet), are betrayed by their no-good gangster employee (Patrick Keung) and set up to be ambushed after a bloody hit. Kwan is murdered, but Lon survives and undergoes radical plastic surgery that turns him into a handsome fellow irresistible to women. Using his newfound good looks, Lon sets out on the road to vengeance under the guise of Michael, a gangster gunman. Oh, and a cop played by Stephen Fung (“2002”) shows up every now and then to mope and mutter something about his dead partner.
The smooth directorial hand of Billy Chung, who showcases a wealth of style by turning the filthy alleyways and nights of Hong Kong into worlds of their own, buoys “Devil Face”. But Chung is fighting a losing battle because no matter how much he infuses “Devil Face” with his talent, the film drowns in its own clich’ plotting and a horrendous performance by Gigi Lai as Wendy, a gangster’s moll who turns into a manipulative gangster boss herself, although not very convincingly. Which part of Lai’s performance is not convincing? Try all of them. In fact, Lai’s only decent performance is in a scene where she lounges on the floor smoking a joint and fantasizes about Michael.
Star Daniel Wu (“Purple Storm”) is quickly becoming the new Ekin Cheng (which is not a good thing, in case you were wondering), by appearing in one Hong Kong schlock film after another. (He’s done 5 so far in 2002. Five! Daniel, my friend, there is a reason people read screenplays before they sign on to a movie. Either fire your agent or learn what makes a good screenplay good. Oh, and if the screenwriter’s name is never mentioned, consider that a big tip-off.) Although he exudes little charisma in this movie, Wu does maintain a constant (if somewhat narrow) level of acting, which means he is probably the only stable thespian of the entire troupe.
Co-star Stephen Fung, as a cop out to avenge his partner’s death, looks bored and sleepwalks through the role. (What else do cops in gangster movies do beside avenge their partner’s death? I have no idea, which in itself should point out the absurdity of this gangster-cop clich’.) (The strangely named) Convoy Chan shows up as gangster Jimmy, the second-in-command who is bumped up to gang boss when his own boss is knocked off. Jimmy shares command with ex-moll Gigi Lai, who is still unsure if her character is supposed to be nice or evil or both or neither. Make up your mind, Gigi. The only decent side character is Mei, a hooker who helps out Lon by ponying up the cash for his surgery. She also has an amazing tongue, but that’s another story.
The only real saving grave of “Devil Face” is the smooth direction by Billy Chung, who seems to be channeling John Woo via “The Killer.” If you doubt “Devil Face” is very much influenced by that particular Woo film, consider the motivations of the Wu and Fung characters, and their brief interactions onscreen. Using a combination of freeze frames, fluid camerawork, and nighttime and fluorescent lightning to his favor, Chung fills each frame with pizzazz. It’s too bad he’s involved in such a shoddy film that seems to be floating on the basis of a nonexistent script.
Better luck next time, Billy.
Billy Chung (director)
CAST: Daniel Wu … Lon
Gigi Lai … Wendy
Stephen Fung … Kent
Lam Suet … Kwan
Patrick Keung … Dragon