Written by Chan Man-Keung and Sana Lam Wai-Kuk
Directed by Lawrence Lau Kwok-Cheong
The true story of redemption, Dealer/Healer spans the life of a gangster addict who turns his life around and begins helping others break their addition. The story is inspiring and jumps around the years between the 60s and the 90s (thus giving some nice costumes), but even with some great performances, the film just doesn’t gel together correctly, seemingly disjointed with the different time periods. It is a good story, too bad parts are rushed to get to the rest of it.
Hua (Sean Lau Ching-Wan) leads a gang in the late 60s (the 13 Warlocks, which is a neat name) with compatriots Bullhorn (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) and Cat (Zhang Jin), the trio are confident and powerful, and definitely look like they are going places. Except as we see from the time jumps, by the 70s they are a bunch of addicts low-lifing in Kowloon Walled City while secretly dealing behind the local triads’ backs. But we also know from the jumps further ahead that Cheater Hua (a nickname he brashly takes for himself as a youth) is clean and works at a rehab center helping other young people get clean. Despite the three timelines, there is really only two tracks followed, the youth gang activities are just added as background flavor.
Cheater Hua’s addiction is a strain on his marriage, his wife Carol is fed up of him blowing all the money on drugs, having no job, and wanting her to be a hostess to earn more cash. The Triad group he works with is beginning to close in on the behind the scenes deals he and his crew are running. He even has to beat one of his friends to save his life. This is a far fall from the kids we saw earlier in their lives. The situation is so bad it drives Carol away, and the triads eventually figure out what he was up to and try to kill him. Things all end with him in jail for five years and his wife married to someone else.
Hua eventually comes clean, the memory of his failed marriage the major factor in giving him the will. He uses his influence to get Bullhorn and Cat clean, and his social influence to help mediate disputes between triad groups. Hua even works at the clinic to help other people get off drugs, his work there is so good it starts outshining the jealous owners, and even his former rivals and drug pals send their family members to him. The various time periods allow for some great clothes and characters to switch up hair styles, which is always fun. Kowloon Walled City is long demolished, though it lives on in Hong Kong cinema of the past, and here in CGI form.
The three time periods show a story telling ambition that Dealer/Healer just can’t live up to. His life story is compelling, but each period seems like they would make their own movie, instead we get three condensed tales that must fight for attention while also sweepingly blasting through the narrative and trying to make a cohesive story arc while pulling from all over the characters’ lives. Things get reduced a lot, but luckily the film does have an ace up its sleeve to help…
What makes things work beyond anything else is the cast, with Sean Lau Ching-Wan giving an amazing performance as Cheater Hua, both as the barely scraping by junkie and as the older, regretful but purposed Hua. Louis Koo has a neat turn as a police officer turned enforcer turned dealer turned trafficker Halley that befriends Cheater Hua in his junkie days, he’s barely in the film but commands every scene he’s in, turning what could easily be a two-dimensional character into a complex dark achiever who doesn’t read the end of the comics he loves. Jiang Yi-Yan’s Carol branches between the disappointed and disgusted wife to the older former flame who Hua reconnects with while at a very different place in his life. I also liked Zhang Jin’s Cat, the youngest gang member who always has the worst luck.
Dealer/Healer is a redemption tale that isn’t the sort of thing I’d just go rent, but is a good choice to be a festival discovery. It was billed as one of the action movies, though it doesn’t really fit in that pigeon hole. That isn’t a complaint, Dealer/Healer is a biopic that brings in action and drama. The dichotomy between the various Huas helps give a fuller view of the real Peter Chan San-Chi’s life, even if I don’t think it was stitched together in the best manner. It’s a film I’m glad I saw and wouldn’t have otherwise because it just isn’t the type of film I normally pick up to watch. That alone is why I like hitting up festivals when I have the time and money (in this case, the Hong Kong Film Festival from SFFilm)
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