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Drug War by Johnnie To

Drug War by Johnnie To

Police captain Zhang (played by Sun Honglei) partners with a drug lord named Timmy Choi (played by Louis Koo) after he is arrested. To avoid the death penalty, Choi agrees to reveal information about his partners who operate a cocaine ring. Zhang grows suspicious of Choi’s honesty as several police officers began a raid on the drug ring.

Drug War is a crime film made and released in Mainland China by a Hong Kong film company. Naturally there is going to be an element of political compromise. All the policemen are Mainland Chinese and all the drug dealers are from Hong Kong (Take a guess which side wins in the end). Nationalism in movies has never really bothered me unless it’s oozing with disgustingness (i.e. Michael Bay’s Armageddon). That is not the case here and I don’t have a problem with that. My interest is not the politics, but rather what Johnnie To will bring to drug film set in Mainland China. The answer? Not too much.

What’s missing from Drug War are the Johnnie To quirks. The zany off-the-wall characters who have speech impediments and odd ticks are gone. The dramatic noir lighting, minimalistic stage-like blocking or themes of brotherhood are gone. Even the gunplay is less stylized and presented in a realistic fashion. I don’t miss any of these specific quirks or tropes, but without the idiosyncratic Johnnie To stamp, what’s left is a very straightforward police procedural.

The characters are servicing the plot, which is odd for a Johnnie To film because usually it’s the other way round. We don’t get insight into the distinct personalities of the drug dealers or police officers and their relationships (like in Election, an ensemble piece where it manages to characterize the supporting characters). We don’t know if they have family members or girlfriends waiting for them at home or any backstory. The story is simply moving beat-by-beat linearly on the central question of how trustworthy Louis Koo’s drug lord character is. There’s nobody you’re supposed to be rooting for, but things are continually changing and you simply watch awaiting the final outcome.

To, a director and producer with his own production company, has always been best when he has free reign. The limits of To’s free reign authorship is that he is very culturally rooted to Hong Kong and possesses a firm voice regarding to its politics (Election), economic condition (Life Without Principle), daily life in Hong Kong (the office politics in Needing You), or even local nostalgia (Throwdown, Sparrow). As exemplified in 2008’s Vengeance, a project which was co-financed by French financiers and starred French rock singer Johnny Halliday, To’s directorial voice is weaker when he steps outside of his comfort zone. The three Hong Kong actors casted alongside Johnny Halliday to couch the star for two thirds of Vengeance mirrors the Milkyway regulars who show up as the seven Hong Kong drug bosses in Drug War’s denouement. It’s like he is trying to recalibrate the film by filling it with things he’s familiar with. However, there is no sense of To’s personal perspective on the topic of drug running, drug addiction, crime or how the police work in China through the film’s story, themes or characters. That makes a bit tame because To has fared much better in the past.

In context to Johnnie To’s back catalogue, Drug War will be remembered for pushing the boundaries with the Chinese Film Bureau. The Mainland police are shown working undercover and solving crimes, having gun battles with criminals and some even dying in the line of duty; these are all images that were previously not allowed to be shown in a Mainland theatrical release. Yet now we are seeing them onscreen. So that is a proper achievement that’s worth celebrating. The final product is probably more telling of Chinese film censorship than of To’s directorial sensibilities. But I can’t help but think that there is a grittier, nuttier version of Drug War lying in the corner of Johnnie To’s desk that is stamped “rejected”, namely the version of the story that he didn’t get to make.

5 responses to “Drug War by Johnnie To

  1. Frudalo ⋅

    Two deaf/mute guys and their ways of communication add up to one of the central elements of this film. Given that, it’s more or less beyond me how one could claim that, in this film, the characters with speech impediments are gone. And Mr Haha didn’t have some sort of quirky tick? No? Really?

    • HK Auteur

      I guess so. I know what you mean but the fact that they’re not speaking correctly is due to their frequent drug abuse.

      I meant the type of speech impediments like Cheung Siu Keung’s clipped way of speaking in Exiled, Simon Yam’s ADD in The Mission and the way Lam Suet just babbled nonsense when his family was being threatened in Breaking News. It displays how Johnnie To sees the world and these are little things that characterize and elevates his films.

      The big point I’m trying to make is there was not enough to lift the material above the sum of its parts. It’s not in the characters, or the themes beneath the story. I have no idea how To feels about drug running in China walking out of the movie. To me, the film needed more character.

      How did you like the film?

  2. Frudalo2 ⋅

    Forgot my login, so please excuse me posting under a new nick.

    No, I don’t mean the stoned dudes in the truck. I mean the two deaf/mute guys in the factory who only communicate using gestures. The ones who flee in the tunnel. They are highly speech impented.

    I can see your point that To didn’t share much of a view on the whole subject. Me, I was a bit repelled of presenting a death penalty in the very end as some sort of triumph.

    Then again, coming from a more outward perspective (I’m from Central Europe), I never saw To very much as someone who used his films consciously to transport a point of view of things. But this might have to deal with my own perspective, being not all too familiar with the state of affairs in Hong Kong and mainland China. Thus, to me, To was always more of someone interested in the basic arithmetics of genre cinema. His films feel often schematic, like thinking about given settings, following a concept. From this point of view, I liked “Drug War” really a lot.

    • HK Auteur

      First, thanks for commenting again. There’s never a right or wrong with these things, as long as there’s something to learn from each other. And I really appreciate you having this dialogue with me.

      The death penalty ending is something that probably needed to happen for the film to pass the China Film Bureau. Milkyway started with an edgier script and did multiple submissions before they made this version.

      Being from Hong Kong myself, I’m more aware of his influences. They vary from each film. They’re non-present for projects he co-directs with Wai Kai-Fai (which usually are romantic comedies or more commercial projects). But there’s a much heavier sense of a director statement when he’s directing the film himself. The statements are not always political, but they are embedded somewhat into Hong Kong.

      To refer some examples…

      i.e. the two Election films is an analysis of Hong Kong after the 97 Handover and it documents actual HK triad history and rituals. Sparrow was conceived as an attempt to photograph the older parts of Hong Kong island. Throwdown is a tribute to Sugata Sanshiro, which is a 1970s Japanese TV show remake of an Akira Kurosawa 1966 movie that had a popular run in HK. PTU drew from police unit stories that were collected from the HK police, it’s heavily connected because of how the rankings and units work within the HK police force.

      The list goes on…

      But overall from his films, I get the feeling he’s interested in the relationships between men. He sees the world a bit chaotic that’s full of coincidental accidents. And there is a boyish sense of humor to his films.

      I haven’t seen Blind Detective yet, but I have a sneaking suspicion that all the quirks that didn’t go into Drug War will be poured into Blind Detective.

  3. Pingback: Blind Detective by Johnnie To | hk auteur

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