Saturday, July 8, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Dealer/Healer

“Cheater” Chen Hua will completely reform himself, but he still associates with known felons. Sometimes, he serves as their substance abuse counselor. Other times, he is recruited by the Hong Kong police to serve as an arbitrator and peacemaker among warring drug gangs. Thugs and coppers do not intimidate him, but winning back the great love of his life might be beyond his powers in Lawrence Lau’s based-on-a-true-story Dealer/Healer, which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

“Cheater Hua,” as most people call him, really is based on dealer-turned-counselor Peter Chan Sun-chi, who serves as executive producer. As a teen, Cheater Hua and his mates Cat and Bullhorn ran wild through Kowloon Walled City as the top dogs in the 13 Warlocks Gang. As they didn’t mature into young men, they started to take more professional roles in the HK drug trafficking industry. They were also junkies, which the clean and sober Cheater Hua contends is more honest than substance-free pushers hooking customers without sharing the junkie experience.

For a while, Cheater Hua really starts to make a name for himself, despite all his junkie weaknesses. For reasons we can never fathom, his straight, long-suffering girlfriend Carol continues to support him. He even browbeats her into working as a dancehall hostess, which was not prostitution, but still highly stigmatizing at the time. As is happens, the night she decides she has had enough is also the night Harley, a former cop-turned-minor-druglord decides to set him up for a fall. However, he gives him an escape-hatch that nonetheless results in a five-year stint in prison.

When he gets out, Carol is long gone, but he finds Cat and Bullhorn. After helping them kick their habits, he becomes a legit counselor. He also stays on good terms with Harley, as well as the senior detective, who always rather fancied Carol. It is only when his do-gooder fame spreads internationally that Cheater Hua finally meets her again, but those fences will be hard to mend.

Dealer/Healer is largely a predictable redemption story, but the period look is impressively detailed. The way it recreates Kowloon Walled City is frankly amazing. It is hard to imagine living inside, but people did—thousands of them. Renee Wong and the design team are scrupulously faithful to the limited photos of the hulking enclave, creating an environment that feels more closely akin to Bladerunner than a traditional gangster movie.

Boy oh boy, is the wardrobe ever accurate to the period as well. In all honesty, Louis Koo rocks the Andy Gibb wig, but Sean Lau Ching-wan’s younger-days wig is distractingly awkward in its perch. Still, Sean Lau has the right grit and gravity for Cheater Lau. Zhang Jin (stone-cold awesome in Kill Zone 2) and Gordon Lam are rock-solid as Cat and Bullhorn. Jiang Yiyan silently levels one devastating indictment after another, simply with her eyes and body language. However, Louis Koo upstages everyone as the ultra-sly and unrepentantly roguish Harley.

Chan Man-keung’s screenplay could have used a sharper edge, but cinematographer Zhang Yin makes it a sight to behold. The Hong Kong cityscapes and mountain views are lovely, but it is the grubby, overwhelming images of Kowloon Walled City that really define the film. Recommended as a remarkably well-rendered period crime drama, Dealer/Healer screens Monday (7/10) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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