by Kathie Smith
Contrary to impressions made on U.S. shores, Johnnie To’s 30-plus-years as a film director has proven he’s more of a lover than a fighter. Some of his most keenly felt films fall into the camp of romantic comedies—some more romantic, some more comedic—and have been sorely neglected by stateside distributors. But even his more familiar action films have a component of romance that hark back to the motifs of brotherhood in the films of both Chang Cheh and John Woo. There is no mistaking, for example, the mutual adoration between Cheung (Andy Lau) and Inspector Ho (Lau Ching-Wan) in To’s Running Out of Time, or the silent but solid bond between gangsters in his films The Mission and Exiled. To displayed a rare disintegration of this ethos, however, in his searing Hong Kong Triad dramas Election and Election 2, as the fraternal code of honor simply becomes a potential device for one’s undoing. If it was necessary to pinpoint where the brotherly rivalry turned to cold-blooded calculations, it is unequivocally when Jimmy (Louis Koo) pledges his “patriotism” to the Mainland, echoing widespread Hong Kong skepticism on the uneasy partnership since the 1997 handover.
St Anthony Main
Director: Johnnie To
Producers: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai
Writers: Ryker Chan, Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-Hoi, Yu Xi
Cinematographer: Cheng Siu-Keung
Editor: Allen Leung, David M. Richardson
Music: Xavier Jamaux
Cast: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Huang Yi, Michelle Ye, Lam Suet
Countries: China/Hong Kong
Premiere: November 15, 2012 – Rome Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 26, 2013
US Distributor: Variance Films/Well Go USA Entertainment
Seven years and eight features since Election 2, To puts both feet across the Hong Kong border with Drug War, his third co-production with the Mainland but the first to be an action film, facing potential censorship issues, and the first to fully embrace a more emotionally vacant atmosphere. Call it extended pessimism or the nihilism of a forced hand, but the magic of Drug War is To’s ability to facilitate this fundamental shift on his own terms to electrifying ends, delivering not only one of best films of his career but also one of the best action films of the 21st century. Neither bowing to China’s stringent rules nor sacrificing his own skills, To pulls out all the stops in this high octane police procedural that puts his more sensitive tendencies aside for the more immediate pleasures of a brazen cat-and-mouse.
Timmy (rhyming with Jimmy and also played by Koo) is a power broker from Hong Kong in the lean and mean business of illegal drug manufacturing and consignment. He gets pinched when he lands in the hospital following a toxic debacle in one of his labs that left everyone else, including his wife, dead. Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), in the hospital at the time, sniffs out Timmy, literally, in his infirmity like a well-trained junkyard dog. Interested in saving himself from the realities of China’s firing squad, Timmy convinces Zhang and his multi-provincial anti-drug team that he can lead them to a much larger ring of drug running hooligans. As it turns out, Timmy is a very well connected middleman running both the raw materials and the factories of the biz. Furthermore, he is on the verge of orchestrating a deal between an overly vivacious buyer, aptly named Haha, and his compatriot suppliers who work covertly as “Uncle Bill,” a persona coveted by the police. The elaborate sting operation, involving incognito acrobatics from Zhang, looks to bag all involved parties from top to bottom.
Taking advantage of the wide expanses afforded by the locations up and down the coast of Central China, Drug War mirrors a personality-driven portrait of the wild wild West with the police playing the state sponsored wild bunch. Zhang is the quintessential cowboy with the duds to match—hat, boots, and all. In the opening sequences, he gives chase to a smuggler, one he double-crossed, across a barren landscape that may as well be Kansas. When he finally downs the perp, he does so as if he were steer wrestling in a rodeo. To is patient with his pacing and devilish with his details, but the final shootout with a pummeling bullet and body count would give both Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone a run for their money. It is To’s precise choreography of his personalities and particulars, however, that fuels and electrifies even beyond the best Westerns. Timmy and Zhang, both authorities within their métier, stand in opposite corners of this ring—Timmy holds his cards very close to his chest with an air of casual cunning; Zhang is a fearless straight shooter with unquestioned imperiousness. Winning is as much of an abstraction in Drug War as it is in our daily lives, but that doesn’t stop Zhang or Timmy from chasing after it with extreme prejudice. At one point in the film, Zhang snorts more cocaine than his body can handle in order not to destroy the entire undercover operation; meanwhile Timmy observes the aftermath with a look of malicious enjoyment before he realizes that, in an act of self-preservation, he should help. Watching Timmy and Zhang is like watching tomcats circle around one another, knowing one, if not both, could pounce at any moment.
Given the nature of this well-publicized Mainland/Hong Kong co-production, it’s hard to resist looking beneath the framework of the censorship-free story for a clandestine critique within the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement. The line is drawn in the sand between characters from China and Hong Kong. And with the exception of deaf community running the meth factory (who gain our sympathies due to their disability), the Mainlanders attain hero status, not by virtue, but by being on the right side of the law. The rose colored glasses that give the Public Security Bureau a valiant glow may have worked fine for the censors, but not for anyone who has any perspective on even the most well-publicized corruption in China, not to mention the daily occurrences. “Good” and “bad” are emblems put on a platter for show, underscored by the film’s lack of absolution. Whether you are a cop on moral overdrive or a drug dealer looking to save your own skin, these seemingly opposite propulsions in Drug War offer the same irreverent sense of justice.
Johnnie To is one of a few sparks working in Hong Kong cinema today—an unapologetic populist wielding creative heft on a very productive film-by-film basis. Drug War is less of a departure than it is a talented adaptation to a set of parameters. But those parameters are anything but restricting in To’s hands. Like the creative experiment set up by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions, To sets out to make a crime movie where you don’t make a crime movie. And the results are amazingly refined and involve discoveries he likely would not have made on his home turf: a multi-layered schema drawn to perfection and impervious censorship cuts, and a spirited performance (one of the most enjoyable of the year thus far) from Mainlander Sun Honglei. But for all its attributes and efficiencies, Drug War’s big payout, as is the case with most of To’s films, is an enormous sense of satisfaction from indulging in well-prepared cinematic fare.
(Originally published on In Review Online.)