Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dealer/Healer serves up a seemingly tall tale that's actually rooted in reality (film review)

Detail from an artwork located in Kowloon Walled City Park
highlighting the high density of the walled city once located there

Dealer/Healer (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2017)
- Lawrence Lau (AKA Lawrence Ah Mon), director
- Starring: Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo, Gordon Lam Ka Tung, Jiang Yiyan, Max Zhang Jin

While I was away in Malaysia and Indonesia this past May, a Hong Kong movie I first heard about more than a year ago and have been eager to check out opened in Hong Kong cinemas.  Eager to view it upon my return to the Big Lychee a fortnight or so later, I was rather perturbed to see that screenings of it had already been gone done to one a day at just a handful of theaters. 

We're talking, after all, of a dramatic offering helmed by a two-time Hong Kong Film Awards Best Director nominee and starring a two-time Hong Kong Film Awards Best Actor winner.  And, actually, post viewing it, I'm also surprised that Dealer/Healer did not feature in this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival; this since I truly do feel that it is a good deal better in quality as well as possesses a more compelling narrative than 2017 HKIFF entrants The Sleep Curse and Love Off the Cuff. 

Telling the story of a drug dealer turned drug rehab worker (who also takes to mediating between rival Triad factions, and underworld figures and the police on the side), Dealer/Healer's tale may seem like a unbelievably tall one if not for it being based on the biography of its executive producer.  Set in the 1970s and 1980s, the film focuses on a couple of eventful decades in the life of Peter Chan Shun Chi -- or, as he's referred to in the movie, Chen Hua. 

Portrayed for the most part by Lau Ching Wan, this product of the Tsz Wan Shan public estates is shown developing from being a playground terror (who headed a group that called themselves the 13 Warlocks of Tsz Wan Shan) into a mid-level gangster whose turf extended to the Kowloon Walled City, but then was undone both by his trying to help out two long-time buddies Bullhorn (played by Gordon Lam Ka Tung) and Cat (essayed by Max Zhang Jin) get some of the drug-dealing business controlled by his bosses and having become addicted to the narcotics he would have done better to just sell.

In retrospect though, his getting found out and slapped into prison for five years actually turned out to be the making of Chen Hua rather than his undoing.  Genuinely reformed while behind bars, he emerged from the correctional facility vowing to not only stay clean but also help others to kick the habit.  Against the odds, he also looks to reconnect with the love of his life (played by Jiang Yiyan) -- and befriends his former enemy, a crooked cop turned powerful drug lord (portrayed by Louis Koo).

Also rather improbable on the face of it is what director Lawrence Lau and co managed to accomplish throughout Dealer/Healer: that is, transport this film's viewers back in time by way of surprisingly detailed and authentic-looking period visuals, and also into parts of Hong Kong (notably the Kowloon Walled City) which actually are no more.  Ironically, however, these aesthetic accomplishments may actually have negatively affected the movie's appeal: because, let's face it, the 1970s and 1980s were pretty stylistically awful decades!

Another paradox laid bear is that whereas it's gratifying to learn about a bad guy genuinely turning into a good one, people who behave badly often are more colorfully and interestingly portrayed in movies than the virtuous.  Put another way: the scenes of Dealer/Healer featuring the pre-reformed protagonist were a good deal more exciting and interesting than those taking place after he found God and got redemption.  Consequently -- and I realize its makers (and executive producer, in particular) may not be happy to hear it -- I honestly felt that this movie actually worked quite a bit better as an entertaining crime drama than as a morality tale about a man whose story genuinely is admirable! 

My rating for this film: 7.5


Bill said...


After reading your review I proceeded to watch TheSilverSpleen's review and then found this movie on YouTube, without English subtitles. Even viewed that less than ideal way, I agree with you that the scenes with the protagonist as a dealer were much better than the scenes as a healer. The re-creation of the Walled City was great for what must have a limited budget.

I have a book somewhere in my collection about an Evangelical Christian woman (I forget her name) who went into the Walled City and brought addicts out and established a rehab clinic in Hong Kong...Of course, the definitive book on the Walled City must be Greg Girard's and Ian Lambot's revised edition of City of Darkness, Life in Kowloon Walled City, which contains text and photographs that one may never forget...Way back when, I made two brief peeks into the Walled City, but I was too afraid to explore in depth...


YTSL said...

Hi Bill --

I wish you had seen "Dealer/Healer" with English subtitles and in a better format than Youtube. This way, I think the "healer" part of the film didn't stand much of a chance as they rely much more on dialogue than the "dealer" part!

I agree though that the re-creation of the Walled City was great, especially on what must have been a limited budget. In general, I'm really in awe of the crew having found enough sufficiently old looking sections of Hong Kong to film in, as I get the feeling they didn't have the budget to re-create that much!