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All roads lead to the San Diego Asian Film Festival!

Before recommending that you run to see The Stool Pigeon when it plays SDAFF on October 23 and October 27, here's a nudge to remind you that the festival commences tonight!

Opening day begins with a free screening of the B-action flick, House of the Rising Sun at 4:00 p.m. The opening night centerpiece is Bertha Bay-Sa Pan's Almost Perfect, a romantic comedy/drama starring Kelly Hu and Roger Rees.

If short films are more your thing, there's a collection of them being shown under the SD Block Party banner at 7:40 p.m. I don't know how they do it, but SDAFF actually managed to talk the generally reclusive Perry Chen into putting in a personal appearance to hype his animated effort, Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest. Be sure to bring a camera; you're going to want a picture with the future Oscar-nominee (fingers-crossed) to show your grand-kids.

Rounding out the evening are the Taiwanese drama Eternity at 7:40 p.m., and two short films from Korea's finest, Chan-kyong Park and Chan-wook Park's Night Fishing and Bong Joon Ho's Influenza, at 9:30 p.m. (The shorts repeat on Oct. 26 at 9:20 p.m.)

All screenings take place at the UltraStar Mission Valley. Click for a complete schedule of titles and times. See you there!

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Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse in Dante Lam's The Stool Pigeon.

SDAFF is generally dependable for turning up at least one quality Hong Kong action picture that is light years ahead of its lightweight Hollywood contemporaries. Dante Lam's exceptionally violent crime thriller The Stool Pigeon, is this year's prime entry in the Asian action derby.

Inspector Don Lee of Hong Kong’s Criminal Intelligence Bureau (Nick Cheung), is a spindly sort with a permanent case of hat-hair, even though he never once dons a chapeau. Overlook the fact that he's picking up mob money on the side, Lee is a by-the-book cop. When the bosses instruct him to sacrifice a tipster-for-hire, Lee complies. Even though the two have been working as a team for four years, Lee agrees to blow his snitch's cover for the good of the mission.

Fortunately, his accomplice survives the undercover ordeal, but the decision still haunts Lee one year later when it comes time to take on a new decoy. Having spent 25% of his life behind bars, Sai-fui Ho, aka Ghost, Jr. (Nicholas Tse) is one charge away from permanent incarceration. Set to be released in two days, Ghost initially rejects Lee’s offer (don’t they always?), but what with his recently deceased old man owing the mob $800,000 ($1 million with interest), and a younger sister forced into a life of prostitution, what’s an action-hero to do?

Ghost signs on the dotted line as an official police stoolie, and his first assignment, to help crack a gang of fast and furious street-racers, is a no-brainer. Case #2 finds Ghost driving for criminal overlord, the aptly named Barbarian (Yi Lu), and falling for his hard-drinking, chain-smoking, and pregnant girlfriend, Dee (Lunmei Kwai).

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Nicholas Tse, Lunmei Kwai and Nick Cheung.

Ghost and Dee make a slam-bang roadblock escape that’s followed by a heart-pounding car chase, that's set to the tune of White Christmas. (Kudos for selecting Dino over the belabored Crosby version.) A rapid-fire foot-race through a local street bazaar ensues, and the scene fades on a bloody “thank you” kiss.

Boss man, Tai-Ping (Philip Keung), pays a surprise visit to Ghost’s flat unaware that Lee is also inside. The suspicious hood decides to check next door in order to verify that it was Ghost, not his elderly neighbor, responsible for burning incense. The quick-thinking detective makes a stealthy exit into the woman’s apartment, and then proceeds to blow his cover by posing as the neighbor’s son when Tai-Ping comes knocking.

The best advice Lee offers Ghost: if forced to carry a gun, don’t shoot it. Once a harbinger of shame -- he tells Ghost, “Every minute you dawdle, your sister suffers” -- Lee soon becomes a guilt-ridden wreck, fearful that following his superior's orders will once again result in the death of a plant.

Lee gradually begins to develop a conscience. He moonlights as psychiatric social worker, forcing a trembling homeless crime victim to look on as his tormentor is taken away in cuffs. The romantic sax swelling on the soundtrack, leads one to half-expect this scene to also end in a bloody "thank you" kiss.

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Lunmei Kwai and director Dante Lam.

Just when we're nostril-deep in sap, Lam offers up a delirious fantasy sequence to stylishly reveal Lee's backstory. The director does a commendable job throughout of balancing taut action scenes with the personal lives of our bad guy/worse guy pair of anti-heroes.

With his informant in danger, Lee must once again make a decision, this one resulting in a chair-raising climax to be savored. While there is nothing particularly fresh on display, Lam puts us through the paces with enough energy and conviction to remind us how much delight there is left to be found in the lost art of genre pictures.

Reader Rating: Three Stars

Running Time: 113

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