Beast Stalker Review
In a career spanning just over a decade now, filmmaker Dante Lam has made the transition from gritty character driven thrillers and dramas to big money spinning popcorn blockbusters. He has collaborated Gordon Chan the gritty classic: Beast Cops, and served as assistant director under Patrick Yau and Johnnie To in hits such as The Longest Nite, A Hero Never Dies, and Running Out of Time. These days he flies solo, and appears to be looking back towards his earlier, grittier style with his latest film: Beast Stalkers, whose title alone daringly evokes the memory of his most well regarded production.
Nicholas Tse plays Tong, a particularly strict and tenacious sergeant whose pursuit of evil gang boss, Cheung, results in a massive multiple four-way car crash that seriously injures Tong’s subordinate Sun. As Cheung flees the scene in one of the vehicles involved in the collision, Tong opens fire and forces Cheung to crash, putting him in a coma. When Tong searches the vehicle he’s horrified to find he has shot and killed a little girl that Cheung had stuffed in the boot of the car. Three months later and Cheung awakes from his coma, Ann Gao has been assigned to prosecute him, and she happens to be the mother of the murdered child. Tong is on indefinite leave from the force and spends his days observing the little girl’s twin sister, Ling, from afar. In order to force Ann into tampering with crucial evidence, Cheung arranges for Ling to be kidnapped by an efficient but seriously injured assassin named Hung. After witnessing the kidnapping but failing to prevent it, Tong finds himself torn between following his duty to uphold the law and rescue Ling, and appeasing Ann who has been given strict orders not to involve the police in the matter.
The plot of Beast Stalkers hinges on an absolutely preposterous coincidence: A public prosecutor loses a child in a collision with police and gangsters, then finds herself prosecuting said gangsters who return the favour by kidnapping her remaining child. It shouldn’t work, it’s a twist of fate that’s seemingly too contrived to convince, and yet Dante Lam completely sells this scenario with a strikingly organic approach to the characters and narrative. The police procedural element of Beast Stalkers feels extremely authentic; Tong is forced to investigate the kidnapping with very little help and extremely low-profile so as not to tip off the police to the kidnapping. This means using very basic detective groundwork to get closer to the kidnapper. Lam and production designer Yau Wai Ming have researched their subject thoroughly and bring meticulous attention to detail, giving Beast Stalkers a real world feel that serves the narrative quite effectively.
Similarly the kidnapper, Hung’s story has a very humanistic feel, we see early on that he is uneasy when ordered to kill his victims, preferring to poison them instead of getting blood on his hand, and when he brings Ling back to his grimy apartment it’s revealed that he is caring for a wife who has been paralysed from the neck down. Fate, redemption, and personal injury are major themes in Beast Stalker. All the major characters have been deeply hurt and placed into a form of purgatory due to a prior accident of some form or another. Fong haunted by personal guilt and needs to redeem himself somehow, Ann is a mother who couldn’t prevent her child from being drawn into the line of fire and now her remaining child’s life hangs upon her option to pervert the course of justice or not. Does she put her faith in the man who killed her daughter or does she play it safe, follow instructions, and hope for the best?
Hung has a surprisingly sympathetic story; he bears heavy facial scarring from his previous accident and can only keep treating his wife by performing inhumane missions for cash. Ling poses an intense moral quandary for Hung, and the uneasy bond he forms towards the child helps redeems his character somewhat. We never know what Hung is capable of with regards to Ling, could he brutally inflict any injury at his crime bosses request, or is he capable of letting her go? It’s these moral uncertainties in Hung and the gamble in the success of procedural work from Tong and Ann that drives the intrigue in this thriller. These plotlines culminate in a reveal in the final act that brings the themes and character arcs full circle in a way that is so audacious I had to applaud it. It should be balked at, but it plays very effectively.
Beast Stalkers is a slow burning, deeply character driven film, action fans will be seriously disappointed by the lack of big setpieces in a film marketed as an action thriller. It opens with a spectacular crash sequence that is only hindered slightly by some ropey CGI, the rest of the film is given to relatively small scale skirmishes between Tong and Hung, with Hung proving to be ghostlike in blending into crowds and evading his young pursuer. All the action scenes are counterpointed by solid characterisation and context though, so they feel a lot more exciting and gripping than their rather low-fi appearance.
The action sequences may be modest, but if there’s one thing you can say about Dante Lam it’s that he knows how to shoot Hong Kong. In Beast Stalker his roving hand held camera captures the streets of Yuen Long and North Point in a series of striking compositions. He shoots the police work from the street level, drawing you into their world and making the city an active character in the film. The visuals are decidedly fleeting and gritty, but they are also vivid and alluring.
Driving Lam’s extremely grounded style are a series of strong performances from Beast Stalker’s cast. Nicholas Tse is a little out of his depth playing the fiery team leader at the start of the film, but after the crash Tong becomes more introverted and Tse really finds his element with an assured, emotional portrayal. Zhang Jing Chu goes on an emotional rollercoaster as Ann, it’s the role that has to be played the broadest and she does it well. Nick Chung is excellent as the measured, clinical kidnapper Hung, bringing humanity out of him with very little dialogue work. Liu Kai Chi is also very impressive as Tong’s mild-mannered subordinate Sun, putting in a performance that is really underplayed and all the more effective for it. Even young Wong Suet Yin puts in a remarkably naturalistic performance for a 5yr old.
Beast Stalker is a throwback to the thoughtful, character driven urban thrillers of the mid-to-late 90s that directors like Gordon Chan, Johnnie To, Patrick Yau, Kirk Wong, Ringo Lam, and Dante Lam himself were making – heck even Andrew Lau was contributing successfully to the genre before discovering CGI and churning out a stream of vacuous fantasy films. Of course, Dante Lam is as guilty as anyone of ushering in the era of vapid pop star vanity projects, but Beast Stalker proves the old Lam is still alive and well – I just hope we see him again soon!
PresentationTai Seng have rebadged the Joy Sales HK Blu-ray release for US distribution. That release was a 2-disc set with the feature on a Blu-ray disc and a selection of extras on a single-layer DVD, which for some reason Tai Seng have chosen not to port over with the Blu-ray.
Shot using Moviecam compact cameras that run quietly and are easy to control, allowing Lam to sweep up close and around his performers whilst maintaining synch sound recording, Beast Stalkers has quite the grainy look. This 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer has a fuzzy, lively layer of grain that will either look bog ugly or richly textured depending on what side of the HD grain debate you fall. The grain robs the image of fine detail, but it still retains a filmlike level of detail and has no signs of DNR or excessive sharpening filtering. Slight halos can be spotted on one or two occasions though.
Lam used a digital intermediate master, seemingly for the purpose of manipulating the look of the film a little to emulate a DV-cam feel. Contrast and highlights are blown out to produce a slightly harsh over-exposed appearance in the daytime out on the streets of HK. Colour balance favours yellowy hues and a some sequences are noticeably greyed out with heavy desaturation, this leads to rather pale skintones that can go from a yellowy tinge to orangey-brown, to a nicely balanced, neutral look. The aim has clearly been for gritty realism, but Beast Stalkers visuals still look quite striking, and appear to be reproduced quite faithfully by this Blu-ray disc. Colours are free of bleed and noise, brightness levels are high in daytime, lower at night with strong shadow detail and pretty consistent black levels. Compression on this BD-25 disc is also strong, the AVC encode averages out to 21.44Mbps, with no noticeable digital artefacts during standard playback.
The transfer probably won’t please all viewers, but I doubt Beast Stalkers can look much better than this without running it through a heavy remastering process to reduce the grain. Personally I don’t think there’s any point in doing this, the image is a big step up from DVD and proves that HK distributors can produce HD transfers up to the standards of the big Hollywood studios.
Beast Stalkers comes with three audio options: Cantonese Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Cantonese DD5.1, and Mandarin DD5.1. The urban setting of the film really makes for a bustling audio track that’s teeming with the environmental sounds of HK. The Dolby TrueHD track copes with this very well, dynamics are strong and the sound is multilayered and immersive. When action kicks in the track becomes very aggressive, bass is tenacious with a soft edge and sound effects are very loud in the mix – so loud they break through the naturalistic sound of the film, but it does give the action sequences a bit of a boost. Dialogue in the production is almost completely synch-sound, and sounds deep and clear throughout.
There’s hardly anything to separate the Cantonese DD5.1 track from the TrueHD, both tracks serve the film well. The Mandarin dub is typically overbearing, but at least theu haven’t murdered the rest of the audio with heavy foley effects.
Optional subtitles are included in English, Chinese (Traditional), Chinese (Simplified), and Bahasa Malaysia.
ExtrasThere is one extra feature on this Blu-ray, which thankfully comes with optional English subtitles, as well as Chinese (Traditional), and Chinese (Simplified):
Audio Commentary with Director Dante Lam, Script Writer Jack Ng, and Production Designer Yau Wai Ming: This commentary is jam packed with information on the film’s production, Lam and Yau discuss in depth the technical and logistical complications of the shoot and their intentions behind much of the film’s design, while Jack Ng is at hand to concentrate on character motivations. He and director Lam give a lot of background information on the characters that isn’t in the film, whilst also spelling out some of the finer points that more casual viewers might have missed. There are some remarkable facts revealed about the production, like the set up of Tong accidentally shooting a girl in a car was based on a real incident in 1982, and also there’s one stunt at the end that was remarkably actually played for real by 5yr old Wong Suet Yin. There’s also an extremely detailed discussion on how the central car crash at the start of the film was produced, which was a big complicated sequence. All this release needs is a Behind the Scenes feature showing the shooting of these big stunts, and this disc would have provided all you would ever want to know about the production, but this informative commentary track alone is a very good consolation prize.