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.

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Design Of Death by Hu Guan

Design of Death by Hu Guan

The violent death of an unpopular village miscreant Niu Jie Shi is initially blamed on an infectious disease, but an investigation shows that everybody in the village had a reason to murder him. A doctor who is assigned to the village begins an murder investigation.

Following the trend of the success of Let the Bullets Fly and Crazy Stone, has set a new trend of these Chinese absurdist satirical “anything goes” comedies. The tropes include quick dialogue banter, quick cuts, anachronistic music, a “life is meaningless” theme and surreal absurdity. For anybody who may be familiar with the satirical writings of Lu Xun, it is exactly like that satirical acidic literary voice and transported it to a cinematic experience. Derek Yee’s The Great Magician attempted a version of this earlier this year and failed. And now comes Design of Death, based on a novel by Chen Tie Jun and directed by Hu Guan.

Just a sidenote, my mentioning of the film’s influences is not a critique. Being aware of (I will be adding this to my “Common Film Review Cliches to be Avoided” page ) a film’s influences is not direct to it’s own quality. I only bring it up to set up my review. On with the actual review now…

The mystery and the plot of Design of Death was what I was mostly invested in throughout the 109 minute running time. I wanted to know the story of what happened in this village. It wasn’t that it was really that mysterious or that kept me guessing with its twists and turns. With its surreal setting where anything can happen (i.e. there’s an X-ray machine in a village in the 1940s.), the lack of a consistent world rules seemed pointless to guess the mystery at all.

Huang Bo as Niu Jie Shi finds the proper balance of annoying and likable and carries the movie with a lot of charm. It’s tricky because he has to be annoying enough for you to see how the villagers grow annoyed of him but innocent enough for the audience to feel bad for it when he gets his comeuppance. He manages to build a character through the first half of the movie which mainly comprise of comedic gags and hijinks. Taiwanese actor Alec Su understands the kitsch of the film enough to have fun with his role as Dr. Niu. He plays it completely straight like he’s some evil scientist from a Saturday morning cartoon. Even his white costume is reminiscent of a lab coat. Yu Nan is not good looking in a traditional movie star way but has a unique presence as Niu Jie shi’s taciturn wife. I do not know how she managed to land a role in The Expendables 2 but I look forward to seeing her kick ass in that. Simon Yam is always a welcome presence in any movie but the fact that he’s being dubbed took it away for me.

It’s a bit superfluous talking about acting in the movie because it’s not a story that hangs on performance. The actors are not playing characters. Design of Death is not functioning on any sense of pathos with developed characters. Every character is a stereotype representing different ideas solely functioning to serve the film’s message.

Ultimately I do not find Niu’s actions reprehensible or deserving of his fate. He is an annoying little hemorrhoid of a human being I’ll give you that, but the way Huang Bo plays Niu Jie Shi suggests that he is not evil in his own nature or has no intention to harm others. He’s just annoying simply because it’s fun to annoy everybody in the village and there’s nothing else to do.

By the end, I saw where the film was going with it’s message and it asks that you go with it and attacks it with it a very “anything goes” satirical tone. I laughed more than I did in Let the Bullets Fly but it’s just simply an emotional place I did not want to go. I sat back and let the film lead me to it’s conclusion and finally it was a hollow experience.

There is a current rise of these comedies in China. With it’s harsh censorship and restrictions, these absurd satirical comedies makes sense because it is a way to laugh at things but still able to contain a strong unsubtle moral message. I understand its existence but I really hope these trend of films will go away. It’s run out of steam.

After all, why I would pay to watch a film to laugh my way to finally feel hollow?

The Viral Factor by Dante Lam

The Viral Factor by Dante Lam

I had plans to see this in January when it came out in Hong Kong. Due to being busy with my work, I did not get around to it till now. So hence this late review.

The direction of Chinese cinema is uncertain right now. Many Hong Kong directors and talent have been making movies in the mainland and there is a conundrum of how to balance the content of these co-productions. It has gotten quite experimental in trying to find a genre that can meet both Mainland and Hong Kong expectations. Comedy and romantic comedy so far rather difficult to cater to audiences as humor is vastly different between Hong Kong and Mainland China Mainland romantic comedies like If You Are The One or Love is Not Blind proves successful in Mainland but not Hong Kong. Making a comedy that balances both tastes such as Derek Yee’s The Great Magician have been attempted as well and failed. So far, only action movie and historical or wuxia epics have proven successful. So now about The Viral Factor

Okay, a plot summary… On a mission to protect a scientist who has stolen a copy of the smallpox virus in Jordan on an International Defence Commission escort mission, Sean (played by Andy On) betrays his IDC team in order to get the virus so he can mutate it into a biological weapon, develop a vaccine and sell it to a corrupt pharmaceutical company via an arms dealer. The failed mission leaves IDC member Jon Man (played by Jay Chou) injured with a headshot wound and his girlfriend Ice (played by Bai Bing) dead. With two weeks left to live, Jon Man decides to spend his remaining days with his mother (played by Elaine Jin) who reveals that he has a long lost brother, Man Yeung (played by Nicholas Tse) whom she left behind with his father, Man Tin (played by Liu Kai Chi). Jon decides to track Yeung down in Malaysia but upon arrival, he discovers that Yeung has become a wanted felon and is part of the plot orchestrated by Sean. Jon is drawn into the conflict, not only to protect his family but to ensure his brother does not go further down the road of unrighteousness and to take down Sean’s operation for good.

The story at times seem a little too coincidental and convenient for the sake of story (The bad guy Sean, who betrayed Jon Man, happens to employ Man Yeung, who is Jon Man’s long lost criminal brother?). It does work though because the plot moves quickly enough where you do not notice these flaws. This is the first time I saw Jay Chou in a more serious light. He has dropped a lot of his “pop star-isms” as Jon Man and brings something more human to his role of which the audience can root for. I’m pretty sure it’s not just the acting beard he is sporting. Ask me again later and I may give you another answer. That or it’s the fact that I cannot grow an acting beard. I do not know what to say about Nicholas Tse because it seems like he’s played this character before. Suffice to say, Tse delivers. It’s always great to see Liu Kai Chi employed. He looks ridiculous but adds a lot of the dramatic tension between the Jay Chou and Nicholas Tse characters.

With it’s foreign locales and big action set pieces,  The Viral Factor is almost reminiscent of Hong Kong productions in the mid-90s like Downtown Torpedoes (starring Jordan Chan and Takeshi Kaneshiro) or Enter The Eagles (starring Shannon Lee and the bilingual atrocity Michael Wong). What makes the movie vastly different from those previous movies is with an investment of $200 million Hong Kong dollars, The Viral Factor has Hollywood-level production values. And yes, the money is all on the screen: there are foot chases, car chases, a helicopter sequence in the sky and boat sequences in the ocean. They do not chicken out with lame shaky camera and there is no struggle to track what’s going on. They use tracking crane shots to cover the action appropriately. The opening action sequence in Jordan felt like a Hollywood war movie. I was both impressed and pondering how the film’s action was going to top itself with such a big opening battle. And boy, they do manage to top it.

The action set pieces do go on a bit long by the finale. Nicholas Tse’s character Man Yeung has this clumsy chaotic way of fighting and ends up brawling and rolling around with each and every henchmen and it drags the pacing a bit. That is a nitpick. I’m glad there was no pop song from either of the stars playing at any point during the movie which seems more refreshing. That’s the thing, it’s still a very fun action movie.

Dante Lam is a filmmaker that has dabbled in different genres through his career. Some have worked better than others. I liked Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (a film not without it’s flaws but ultimately saved by good performances by Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Beast Cops. He’s found his place with the urban crime genre with films like The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon. Now it seems like he’s found his niche. The Viral Factor felt fresh even though it shouldn’t have. I would like to see more action movies made with this level of budget using international locations. After all, we have seen enough of Hong Kong.