Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/05/20 13:07:57

"Not the right people for the job."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There's a compelling, worthy story lurking somewhere inside "Dealer/Healer", albeit the sort of generically inspiring one that can often have a film derisively tagged as "awards bait". You can still get something out of that sort of movie; an earnest passion if nothing else, even if it's miscalculated and the result of filmmakers wanting to be seen as more than they have been. This just feels like the work of journeymen whose skills aren't a match for the material - functional, but little more.

It's the story of Chen "Cheater" Hua, who started out as a teen hoodlum in the Tsz Wan Shan Estates back in 1964 before rising to middle-management in the gang that controlled the drugs in the Kowloon Walled City's "Canteen". During that time, he's developed a nasty drug habit of his own, eventually pushing girlfriend Carol to work as a taxi dancer to support them. He winds up in jail, naturally, and gets clean, working tirelessly for drug rehabilitation when he gets out, awarded recognition as an "outstanding young person" and speaking out about his mission throughout Asia, though he's never able to do all he wants or get back all he's lost.

The filmmakers hang a bit of a lantern on his award early on - the film takes place in three separate time periods from 1964 to 1987, which means Hua is forty-ish when awarded, and Lau Ching-Wan never looks "young" when playing him in 1974 or 1987 (both he and co-star Louis Koo Tin-Lok are well-preserved, which isn't quite the same as youthful). It's the sort of gesture that can't help but highlight the artifice in how the film is put together, as the filmmakers often shoot the movie like a sleek period traid thriller, with set and costume design that seems more intent on evoking nostalgia rather than creating a world that feels coherent, and it's sometimes almost comical, like when a door in the small but homey apartment Cheater and Carol share opens into a bathroom that looks like it belongs in a shooting gallery, two familiar movie sets awkwardly fused together.

That's potentially fine - nothing wrong with using heightened or familiar imagery as a shortcut, especially since director Laurence Lau Kwok-Cheong and his team do it consistently - but somewhere between the screenplay by Chan Man-Keung and Sana Lam Wai-Kuk and the end product, there's never any serious attempt to get into Cheater's head or that of anyone else in his orbit. The narration tosses out facts and describes other characters as close friends or inspirations, but aside from a brief moment of Hua in withdrawal, Lau seldom shows Hua as being particularly pushed in one direction or another by things or otherwise affected. Things happen, and Hua does what a hoodlum, junkie, or humble-and-reformed man would do in reaction. It's a sort of bland earnestness - addiction is bad and helping others is good - that could use a little more of Hua being caught in between.

There's a bit about Hua meeting up with Carol again in 1987 that's not exactly framed like he might be able to win her back but still gives the impression that her potentially forgiving him is more important than the ways he hurt her in the first place, which feels kind of misguided. There are slick and clever moments that work on their own but sometimes make one wonder whether this sort of movie should be slick and clever, like when a confrontation suddenly turns into a nicely staged action scene (action director Paco Yick Tin-Hung has been one of Johnnie To's go-tos for such material recently, and attacks those sequences with gusto). There's a couple nifty bits of effects work that shows Kowloon Walled City closing in and opening up at either end of the film, and one can admire its clear meaning even if wondering if it's right for this particular movie.

A lot of "Dealer/Healer" is like that, a movie made by people who are by and large very good at what they do but none of whom really do this. It never exactly feels misguided or like the filmmakers are out of their depth, but just like a bad match between subject and personnel.

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