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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Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Life is full of choices. Every choice you make leads you onto a different set of choices. You never can possibly know what the best version of your life can be. That’s scary, after all, how do you make your life a worthy one?

A family is broken. A father and mother bring their son Nemo to a train station. Nemo is presented with a choice: should he board the train with his mother or stay with his father? Nemo ponders on this. The film proceeds to play out all the possibilities, showing twelve different lives of Nemo’s life spawning from this one choice.

The film functions on dream logic. We move from the physical into the imaginary, the metaphysical and dream states. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Yet the most noteworthy accomplishment is that each transition  is completely intelligible. Director Jaco Van Dormael constructs an inner logic for the audience. As the story progresses and branches out into new stories, we completely know where we are at and it all makes perfect sense. This all makes me realize one thing. This story could not have been told in another medium other than film. It incorporates every bit of film language possible: crosscutting, time transitions, spatial transitions, camera focal length etc.. Even a goddamn crane shot had a legitimate narrative reason for being there. And damn, that impresses me.

It’s not overly cerebral either. Nemo’s potential paths are centered around three women: Anna (played by Diane Kruger), Nemo’s potential one true love, Elise (played by Sarah Polley), a woman that Nemo loves but does not reciprocate and  Jean (played by Linh Dan Pham), as a woman who loves him but Nemo does not care for (this one really broke my heart). Much of the film is an examination of love and happiness. There’s a scene where the teenage Nemo rejects Anna’s invitation to swim with her on the beach. Anna leaves and we see them later as adults bumping into each other in a train station awkwardly years later. Nemo then ponders why he rejected her that day. And the film proceeds to play the alternate scenario, where he tells Anna the truth: Nemo does not know how to swim and did not know what to tell her.

I am a Jared Leto fan (I like his band 30 Seconds to Mars as well). Sometimes it’s possible to like an actor for his choices and he is certainly that case. It’s admirable that he takes smaller roles in art film projects that he respects rather than milk his looks to be famous (which he can totally do). He was great in Requiem For A Dream and Chapter 27 and also the most heartfelt part in Alexander and Lord of War. This is a challenging role and he takes it head on. He plays a convincing 117 year old man and it is fun to watch him play Nemo in the various versions.

Other noteworthy performances are Sarah Polley, who in one version is suffering chronic depression from an unhappy marriage, which she played very dimensionally. Watching her made me think how easily one-note the role could have been. Also Toby Regbo and Juno Temple as the teenage versions of Nemo and Anna falling in love was very endearing and they really sell the innocent sweetness of first love.

One bit I take issue with was the use of “Where is my Mind?” by The Pixies, which is eternally attributed to Fight Club, a film in which Jared Leto is in. There could been other songs to put in that scene. However that’s a minor complaint at best.

This film was released in 2010 and I saw it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Though in my opinion, this film is not talked about enough and definitely needs to be seen by more people. Mr. Nobody took me away. It broke my heart, touched me and made me ponder about life’s ironies. By the end I left the theater reflecting on my life and how I should live it.

I recommend everybody see it.