Archive for August, 2013
A new Johnnie To joint in U.S. movie theaters is an event to be celebrated and this month sees the stateside release of Drug War, To’s latest crime film. The prolific Hong Kong filmmaker has directed more than fifty movies since the 1980s and in the past ten or twelve years or so he’s become an international film festival darling, but only about a dozen of his movies have seen theatrical releases in the U.S. (the last being Vengeance in 2009). Drug War is his first crime film set in mainland China (his first ever was last year’s rom-com Romancing In Thin Air) and while it may look and feel very different from his earlier Hong Kong-based classics, in its subtle challenges to the status quo in the Chinese film industry Drug War demonstrates that To and his Milkyway Image production house are still creatively shaking things up.
The plot involves Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a Hong Kong drug manufacturer working in China who is summarily busted in the film’s opening sequence. In order to save his skin and escape the death penalty under China’s draconian anti-drug laws, Choi agrees to aid a crew of mainland cops, lead by Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei), in organizing a sting against his compatriots. The film then follows the uneasy alliance of Choi and Zhang as they trace Choi’s fellow drug-runners up the supply chain.
Drug War is in some ways a much more a standard policier than your usual To movie. Soi Cheang (Motorway; Accident) is credited as a second unit director and might have had a hand in shaping the look of the film, but the change in milieu from To’s usual Hong Kong stomping grounds to mainland China might also account for the difference in the film’s visual texture. The movie is shot in a predominantly blue palette with mostly natural lighting that feels more Ringo Lam-like than Milkywayesque. To also uses the wide-open, smoggy spaces of industrial China and its endless six-lane highways and anonymous cities as metaphors for the blurry ethical and moral road his characters travel down.
Nowhere to be found is the surreal high-gloss sheen of To’s earlier Hong Kong-based crime films such as Exiled, Election, or PTU, which were gorgeous visual paeans to the beauty and decadence of the former Crown Colony’s criminal societies. The grit coating the economy cars and paneled trucks cruising along Drug War’s Chinese roadways contrast starkly with the glossy sleekness of the luxury vehicles speeding down the roads of nocturnal Hong Kong in Milkyway classics like The Mission. Even the perpetually glamorous and handsome Louis Koo is scuffed up, his famously tanned, square-jawed visage occluded by scabs, burns, and an unsightly white bandage across the bridge of his elegant nose.
The film also displays little of To’s previous quirkiness, possibly reflecting the reduced influence of long-time collaborator Wai Ka-Fei or the recent death of longtime Milkyway screenwriter Kam-Yeun Szeto. Although there’s some submerged humor in the spectacle of a couple coke-addled flunkies driving endlessly through the vast Chinese landscape, as well as in the inclusion of a pair of deaf-mute brothers who man a drug manufacturing plant, for the most part the movie plays it pretty straight.
There’s also much less action than in To’s previous work, but when the guns do come out the excellent shootouts demonstrate To’s easy mastery of the action genre. This is especially notable in a brief yet effective gun-battle inside a drug manufacturing plant that escalates from handguns to rifles to explosives with military precision. The film’s climactic showdown recalls the ending of Expect The Unexpected (1998), nominally directed by Patrick Yau but most likely ghost-directed by To, in which a shootout leads to bloody and indeed unexpected results.
Sun Honglei shows some range as the stoic Mainland cop who once undercover transforms into a jovial drug dealer, but in contrast to the naturalistic tone of most of the movie his performance skates dangerously close to hamminess. Louis Koo is somewhat wooden as the enigmatic Timmy Choi but this is possibly appropriate, since he’s portraying a man with a lot to hide. When Choi mourns his recently deceased wife, however, Koo’s performance lacks the pathos and depth of emotion that a more skilled thespian such as Francis Ng or Lau Ching Wan might have brought to the scene. Interestingly, the most engaging supporting characters are the seven Hong Kong character actors, including Milkyway stalwarts Lam Suet, Michelle Ye, and Gordon Lam, who make cameo appearances as drug dealers in the second half of the film. This perhaps unconsciously reflects To’s comfort zone in dealing with Hong Kong performers vs. the less familiar mainland actors.
Though Drug War may not be quite as fabulous or fully realized as some of his earlier classics it’s an entirely respectable and watchable product that has a certain grim integrity. The film is one of the first that To’s made while working under SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television), China’s infamous censorship board, yet despite the censor’s approval To manages to infuse the film with a complexity of morality not found in many commercial Chinese films. Both cops and criminals are ruthless, amoral, and obsessed, using any means necessary to achieve their respective goals, and all meet similar fates in the end. The most interesting supporting characters are the aforementioned Hong Kong criminals as well as the deaf-mute drug manufacturers who, along with Louis Koo’s Timmy Choi, are the only characters with visible family ties. In contrast, aside from Sun Honglei as Zhang and Crystal Huang as a female detective, the mainland cops blend together in an anonymous blur. Some observers claim that the film is a parable for the fraught state of Hong Kong-China relations and To himself has spoken of the way in which he used the film as an experiment to see how far he could go in transplanting his Hong Kong-style crime movies to the mainland. If To in one of his first mainland productions has managed to sneak in some sociological critique under the noses of censors and push the envelope of acceptability under SARFT regulations then that bodes well for his fortunes in China. In the future it will be interesting to see how he copes with the strictures of working on the mainland and if he can maintain his vision and aesthetic despite SARFT’s watchful eye.
Many thanks to Ross Chen, Kevin Ma, Sanney Leung, Chuck Stephens, and Shelly Kraicer for their imput and assistance in this piece, especially their vital insights into Johnnie To’s clever subversions of SARFT restrictions.
Drug War North America showtimes