Dante Lam wowed audiences in 2008 with the crime thriller “Beast Stalker.” The film earned multiple award nominations with star Nick Cheung scoring Best Actor prizes from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, the Hong Kong Film Awards, and the Golden Horse Awards. Unfortunately, Lam’s highly anticipated 2010 follow-up, “Fire of Conscience” with Leon Lai and Richie Jen was a letdown in comparison. “The Stool Pigeon,” released the same year as “Fire of Conscience,” attempts to recapture the glory of “Beast Stalker” by reuniting the film’s two leads—Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse—while also adding the luminous Taiwanese actress Gwei Lun-Mei to the mix. Despite these accolades, the resultant film is a depressing, melodrama-heavy crime thriller that feels more like a lateral move for Dante Lam, rather than a return to form. 

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In the early goings of “The Stool Pigeon,” we meet the cold-as-ice Inspector Don Li (Nick Cheung) who risks the life of a criminal informant (Liu Kai-Chi) in order to bring down a notorious gangster. Unfortunately, the raid goes sour, and Inspector Li’s titular “stool pigeon” suffers the brutal consequences. As a result, Lee becomes guilt-ridden by his actions and tries to take care for the man, who has since become a vagrant. Despite his failure to protect his former informant, Li presses on with his questionable police tactics.

To replace his go-to snitch, Li recruits a soon-to-be-released prisoner, the curiously nicknamed “Ghost, Jr.” (a bald Nicholas Tse). Inspector Li promises to pay big bucks if Ghost Jr. will use his street cred to infiltrate a team of criminals planning a huge jewelry heist. The prospective stoolie initially refuses Li’s offer, but he soon has a change of heart. Ghost Jr.’s now-deceased father owed a ton of money, and his sister (Sherman Chung) has been forced into prostitution to pay off that debt. Obviously, Ghost Jr. has little option but to accept Li’s proposition. How else will he possibly save HK $1 million to save his sister?

Once undercover, Ghost Jr. proceeds to insinuate himself amongst gang leaders Tai Ping (Keung Ho-Man) and Barbarian (Lu Yi). Ensconced firmly in this new criminal milieu, he meets Dee (Gwei Lun-Mei), the requisite gangster moll with the heart of gold. Will Ghost, Jr. and Dee fall for each other? Will Inspector Li and Ghost, Jr. form a manly bond? And could there be a double-cross in store for audiences? If you’ve seen at least one example of film noir, I think you’ll know the answer to that.

There’s a saying that heroes are only as good as their villains, and the bad guys in “The Stool Pigeon” are woefully generic. The real star power is focused entirely on the protagonists. For their parts, Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung enliven what would otherwise be nothing more than a standard “cops and robbers” genre flick. The single best scene in the film involves both actors, as we see Ghost Jr.’s cover nearly blown when Inspector Li pays him a visit. Sadly, the dependable Gwei Lun-Mei isn’t given much to do. 

The film’s real problem is one of narrative momentum and tension. Not only does “The Stool Pigeon” sag in the middle act, but Ghost, Jr. is too straightforward a character. He is so obviously honorable that there’s never really any worry as to whether he’s going to turn full-on crook; it’s simply a matter of whether or not he’s going to get caught. The only real narrative tension involves the mystery surrounding Inspector Li’s past. Throughout the film, he visits a dance studio and talks up the secretary (Miao Pu), but as we discover in these early sequences, there’s more to this relationship than meets the eye. Unfortunately, the execution of this subplot is very much in line with old school Hong Kong cinema, especially evident in its haphazardly inserted, slapdash, and jaw-droppingly tragicomic conclusion. To his credit, Cheung does a fine job in these scenes of projecting a cool exterior that hides both a boiling rage and a guilty conscience.

In terms of reception, “The Stool Pigeon” received mixed reviews but went on to be nominated for multiple Hong Kong Film Awards with Nicholas Tse beating out his co-star for the Best Actor prize. The cinematography by Kenny Tse is gorgeous, often making the seedy world of gangsters look quite beautiful throughout the film. Certainly, there’s enough going on in “The Stool Pigeon” to merit a marginal recommendation, but I ultimately found it to be a thoroughly depressing fly-by through the world of noir. 

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Born in Singapore and raised in rural Oklahoma, Calvin McMillin went on to earn his PhD in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is a longtime fan of Asian cinema and has written film reviews for LoveHKFilm, Birth.Movies.Death, and Far East Films. Calvin is also the author of the short story collection THE SUSHI BAR AT THE EDGE OF FOREVER and the editor of Frank Chin’s THE CONFESSIONS OF A NUMBER ONE SON. His fiction has appeared in SANTA CRUZ NOIR, HAWAI'I REVIEW, and ASIAN PULP. In 2018, he achieved his dream of meeting Wong Kar-Wai and even got the famous auteur to sign his prized 2046 poster. Currently, Calvin teaches literature and writing in Hawaii. You can find him on Twitter: @roninonempty