Staff Recommendation/ The Stool Pigeon

Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Paul Atkinson reviews The Stool Pigeon

The Stool Pigeon is the latest film by writer director Dante Lam. It follows the story of Hong Kong cop Don Lee and his informant, a.k.a. the stool pigeon, Ghost Jr.

Not unlike Scorsese’s The Departed, the film switches focus between it’s two central characters, Lee and Ghost Jr. with both strands of the story like a parallax of the central narrative bringing them together. Don Lee is established as a man intent on getting the job done, with little emotional regard for the vulnerable people he uses along the way. Lee’s scenes reflect his inner turmoil with noir themed lighting, music and lingering contemplative shots that introduce the idea that something heavy hangs over him.  As the story progresses, Lee’s character begins to outwardly struggle with his emotional coldness towards the informants, past and present.  Reconciling with an earlier ‘stoolie’, Lee’s defences are chipped away and he starts to perceive them as real people with complex lives and not just criminals out for a quick buck.  While Lee occupies the screen the narrative remains captivating as we try to discover his inner workings, dubious past and why he has an uncharacteristic desire to dance.

Conversely, Ghost Jr.’s journey is more predictable and reminiscent of an entry in the Fast and Furious franchise, featuring highly stylised car chases through the neon lit streets of Hong Kong.  Scenes of violence are, however, handled less stylistically and fights are conducted with a sense of visceral realism, common place in Asian cinema’s more infamous titles, like Oldboy (directed by Park Chan-wook).  Although the adrenalin levels are kept high throughout Ghosts Jr.’s journey, the whole experience feels somewhat dimensionally limited in comparison to Lee’s brooding silences, and ultimately the motivations are simple and somewhat removed from the gritty weight that Lee’s story achieves.

The main female character is Ghost Jr.’s love interest, Dee, who feels like she jumped straight out of The Sprawl in Gibson’s Neuromancer.  Numb to the violence and cruelty of the society that surrounds her, she only connects with life in the most adrenalin-fuelled situations.  Given the situation Ghost Jr. and Dee find themselves in, adrenalin levels rarely lie flat.  However, both Ghost Jr. and Dee are left feeling under explored and other characters fail to engage with any depth beyond superficial, with the Barbarian character a simple paint-by-numbers violent gangster.  However, overriding themes of broken families and lost homes feature throughout as each of the characters problems emanate from their family predicaments.  An abandoned wasp nest takes pride of place during the climax to further affirm Lam’s intentions.

If The Stool Pigeon were a confectionary treat, it would resemble a particular brand of chocolate egg concealing a simple toy.  The chocolate outer shell offers a tasty treat, which leaves you wanting more, akin to the story of Lee.  Unfortunately, the novelty toy inside provides a flash of excitement akin to Ghost Jr.’s screen-time, quickly discarded once the moment passes.  While unlikely to be the best film you’ll see this year, there is enough here to warrant a viewing for fans of Asian cinema and for people interested in seeing something different that won’t completely alienate them from traditional Hollywood action fair.

The Stool Pigeon screens at Cornerhouse on Thur 10 November. Book you tickets here.