Set sporadically between multiple timelines, Dealer/Healer is a biopic about a former junkie drug dealer turn drug counsellor that struggles to capture the imagination.
Dealer/Healer (Giang Ho Hiem Ac) 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 bill 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 stitch 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). Set in Hong Kong, during a crime-rampant ’70s and ’80s,
Dealer/Healer tells us the story of Chen ‘Cheater’ Hua (Lau Ching-wan), a young man living in the run-down Tsz Wan Shan public housing estate. He’s the head of a gang call the 13 Warlocks. His two best friends Cat (Zhang Jin) and Bullhorn (Gordon Lam) by his side at every turn.
As the trio grow older they get invol with double-dealing in the dangerous Kowloon City. Where police corruption and crime are at the forefront of life. Crossing drug lord Harley (Louis Koo or Co Thien Lac). Cheater Hua gets caught and ends up facing 5 years in prison. That setting himself on a path of redemption to kick his drug habit. He help other youths like him get on the straight and narrow.
Dealer/Healer is a colourful film with a solid foundation to build a story upon. Unfortunately, the story jumps all over the places and doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s tame and un-compelling, failing to land any major blows. Which is disappointing for a film initially centred around drug-lords and corruption. Something which should be riveting and uncomfortable.
Peter Chan Shun-chi, the man on which the film is based on, acts as executive producer.
But apparently not even having him invol was enough to let the film dive deeper into the seedy world of the criminal underground. The gritty dank life of a junkie taking from his own supply. He lose his wife and nearly destroying his life in the process. The script is clunky and jumps aimlessly from one time-line to the next.
The first half of the film is genuinely interesting, focusing on Cheater Hua’s beginnings. But once it jumps forward to his life of redemption, everything becomes a bit dull. We never focus on his 5 years in prison – the time that set him on the right path. That feels like a massive part of the story that’s completely overlook.
His attempts to win back his wife, Carol (Jiang Yiyan) fall a little flat and lacks any real emotion. Ultimately the whole second half of the film will leave the audience feeling flat.
While the cast are perfectly fine in their performances, the actors alone aren’t enough to save Dealer/Healer. Which just finds itself looking like a half-hearted effort at telling a compelling and complex story.
After a good first act, the film feels like a vignette of happenings put together without a proper thought. The emotional scenes are equipped with a sort of predictability. That even when the terminal disease drama bring into the light. It doesn’t leave an impact. The writing makes the film feel like a slog. Even though there’s so much material here that if done right could result in three separate films.
With so much wrong with the film, the only thing that saves the film is the performances from the ensemble cast. Lam Ka-tung and Zhang Jin are really good in their supporting turns as Hua’s loyal friends. There’s a certain pleasure of watching them fight together even in those ridiculously hilarious wigs.
Lau Ching-wan is great, both as the street gang boss and an addict. But when he is supposed to be a healer, he is written as someone who has a change of heart after just going to jail. His character hence becomes single-dimensional and hard to connect to.
Dealer/Healer, in spite of its good intentions and ensemble casts of brilliant actors, fail to leave an impact. The real life story is compromise into a narrative that has no idea where it wants to go. “The worst fate is not dying. It’s living with regrets” says a character in the action film (phim xa hoi den). I seriously hope Lawrence Ah Mon doesn’t regret this one.