“This is a work of fiction. The following content might cause discomfort,” reads the disclaimer prefacing each episode of Demon’s Path, Netflix’s new Hong Kong horror-comedy police procedural series (produced by Malaysia’s Astro), which debuted worldwide on the streaming service this weekend. And discomfort it most surely delivers, albeit in ways that viewers might find more than a bit surprising.
Proving that international television often operates on a very different wavelength to our domestic small-screen output, Demon’s Path—comprising 13 25-minute episodes directed by stars Wong Yi Hing and Sunny Lau—is out-and-out insane, upending expectations with such frequency that, by its midway point, one has to simply give up trying to make lucid sense of what’s going on, and just go with the freaked-out flow. A twisted serial-killer thriller laced with a healthy dose of mysticism, paranormal activity and random humor—which doesn’t always seem intentional—it’s a genre mash-up of genuinely gonzo proportions.
Trying to explain what Demon’s Path is about is a tricky proposition, because its focus routinely changes throughout the course of its maiden season. Its intro text about 1974’s infamous (and real) “Happy Valley Cardboard Box Murder” sets the storytelling-on-acid tone, as it flies across the screen at blistering speed, followed by a baffling scene of a man getting bad news at the doctor’s office, and then an opening-credits sequence full of crazed-face collages decorated with blood splatter. Before one can get their bearings, we’re at a police station, where young Yu Yik Sam (Kaki Sham) is reporting for his first day of duty under the guidance of Chief Ma and two partners, Sheng and Lok (the latter of whom wears nothing but Guns ‘N’ Roses and Iron Maiden T-shirts, because why not). After being hazed, Yik Sam is taught how to destroy evidence—while, simultaneously, his fiancée Lam Lam is hunted and killed by a masked fiend, who then dumps her in a cardboard box to be found by cops.
An exact copycat of the Happy Valley Cardboard Box Murder, this crime immediately throws suspicion on Sito Wing Keung (Felix Lok), the man convicted of the original slaying, who’s just been released from prison and who maintains that he was set up decades earlier by a corrupt police force. At the same time, Yik Sam and company attend the autopsy of Lam Lam presided over by two equally bonkers characters: Dr. Ho (Wong), the all-business forensic pathologist who only cares about science and dissections, and Chow Chu Kei (Lau), an exorcist who works as the police’s “supernatural consultant.” These two are ostensibly on opposite sides of the science-religion divide, yet as it turns out, they’re both masters of magic. Chow Chu Kei’s spells can wake the dead, who are permitted to speak three sentences before moving on to the other side for good. And Dr. Ho has a techno-gadget device—round sensors that are placed on people’s temples—that lets the living mind-meld with corpses in order to mentally “see” the last ten seconds of what they witnessed before dying, which are depicted as trippy schizoid hallucinations.
These two techniques obviously come in handy when you’re trying to deduce the identity of a serial killer. However, lest you think Demon’s Path makes it easy on its detective-protagonists—including Yu Yik Sam’s sister Yu Yik Yan (Kate Yeung), and highly rational Madam Kok (Elanne Kong)—the show soon complicates its narrative by adding two additional villains. Cheng (Power Chan) is a corporate CEO who offs his mistress and then chops up her body in his apartment. This leads him to hire Kot (Jim Chim), a psycho handiman who immediately views Cheng as a kindred homicidal spirit. When not refurbishing Cheng’s apartment, Kot also visits the Indonesian restaurant of Lau Fan (Ai Wai), who’s a covert maniac responsible for another infamous true-life crime: the 1985 Flower Trough murder, which is soon duplicated by a mysterious madman, much to Lau’s chagrin.
Demon’s Path is shot with helter-skelter style, all crazed camera movements, askew angles and rapid-fire edits that are often punctuated by loud noises and pulsating strobes. Its performances are over-the-top to a borderline absurd degree, which makes sense when the show is trying to be funny—say, every time Chow Chu Kei cracks wise or waves his arms around during a supernatural ceremony—but is more baffling during chases and fights that are supposed to be suspenseful and yet are staged with a comical lack of fluidity or believability. The material fluctuates between cartoonish melodrama, absurd slapstick and gory, cheesy horror, so that one minute someone is sobbing and wailing over the loss of a loved one, and the next, people are being attacked by flying demon heads and travelling to the underworld to wade through hungry zombies.
Such hybridization breeds dissonance, and Demon’s Path maintains its bizarre rhythm for its entirety, which is especially impressive given that, at the end of its sixth installment, it reveals that its plot is actually about the three separate killers agreeing to play a “game” in which they try to get away with more murders, and the one who doesn’t get caught is the de facto winner. What ensues from that point is a descent into outright lunacy, rife with revelations about relationships and backstories that further muddy the overstuffed proceedings. Characters additionally take time out of confronting mortal and otherworldly enemies to pontificate on the nature of humanity and villainy, and to do and say things that just plain make no sense, such as when Dr. Ho quickly examines a deceased woman’s body and proclaims that he can tell her death was painful because of her “menstruation odor.”
Betrayals, revenge, reincarnation, ghosts, enchanted scalpels, cursed talismans, homages to Saw and a raft of surprising deaths—seriously, no one on this show is safe from being butchered—help make Demon’s Path a legitimately wild binge-watching experience, as does star Jim Chan, whose performance gets more demented as the story barrels toward its hysterical finale. When Chief Ma, weeping over a comrade’s demise, argues that real life isn’t like the movies, he provides a bizarre bit of meta commentary on the show itself, which treats death as anything but the end, and which is far better for so crazily eschewing any trace of realism.