Starring: Nick Cheung Ka-fai, Nicholas Tse Ting-fung, Kwai Lun-mei
Director: Dante Lam Chiu-yin
Category: IIB (Cantonese and Putonghua)
As The Stool Pigeon's opening credits unfold, audiences are bombarded with a cacophony of barely comprehensible snippets of conversation: mostly about the conduct of police-employed informers, as if heard through surveillance devices.
A fitting sonic prologue, given how Dante Lam Chiu-yin's latest film reads like an action-fuelled police procedural. True to its name, its central idea is about how a police officer coaxes - or, to be more specific, coerces - an ex-con to infiltrate a heist gang to undermine their violent plot and bring them to justice.
What appears to be an aural concoction to induce an early adrenaline rush, however, turns out to be a more profound device delving into the mind of the lead character. The mashed-up voices reappear midway, this time as the soundtrack of the nightmare suffered by detective Don Lee (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) - pained by the moral ambivalence of a job which involves forcing his informers into ever-spiralling personal peril.
This canny move embodies Lam's progress into more nuanced, cerebral cinema. Previously better known for action thrillers, the director (with screenwriter Jack Ng Wai-lun) began moving into more narrative-driven territory first with 2008's multiple-narrative The Beast Stalker and then this year's Fire of Conscience. They're both technically exciting and spirited pieces which, sadly, came undone with flawed storylines. With The Stool Pigeon, Lam and Ng have kept it simple, and managed to deliver their best offering which moves flowingly while engaging in a study of a character in turmoil - a seemingly ordered life disintegrating as he realises the consequences of his deeds.
And those misdeeds are laid out upfront, as the opening sequence sees Don casting an informer's well-being aside to bust a drug deal. This affects his next job when he brings in ex-con Ho Sai-fui (Nicholas Tse Ting-fung, above right, with Cheung), hoping to bring down a band of outlaws led by kingpin 'Barbarian' (Lu Yi) and his partner Dee (Kwai Lun-mei). Don's stony demeanour dissipates as Sai-fui is sucked into Barbarian's intrigue, leading to a denouement that is both a physical and moral battle.
While the film's title might suggest otherwise - and certainly it is Sai-fui who gets more screen time as he crashes and burns in his reluctant plummet into crime - Don remains the central protagonist. It is more than coincidental that his stool pigeon's nickname is Ghost. Sai-fui could be seen as the human embodiment of Don's inner anguish. External pressure (from a supervisor who wields prospects of budget cuts) and a by-the-book approach - evident when Don briefs Sai-fui on the meticulous rules of the informant system - sees him straying far from any sense of humanity.
While missteps remain, The Stool Pigeon is a fine film, showcasing Lam's passion for his craft and social malaise. It is not difficult to understand that beyond the car chases, Lam's message is that Don - a short version of Donald, perhaps - deflects criticism of his cynical approach towards his job by saying, 'It's just work.' Sound familiar?
The Stool Pigeon opens today