From Rome 2012: Johnnie To’s Drug War

A violent thriller from Johnnie To, shot & produced entirely in Mainland China, that’s Drug War. The film had its international premiere at the Rome Film Fest, check out what do the critics say about it;


First of all, during the press conference, director To shared some insightful details on this project. Because it’s a Chinese contemporary crime thriller, containing violence and dealing with drug trafficking — pretty rare in China! — one can guess it wasn’t an easy film to make, “Getting past the tough censorship was very difficult. We have to be aware of controversial subjects that may be deemed inappropriate by the Chinese go,explained To.

He later added, “in China you can be sentenced to death even if you traffic a very small amount (of drugs).” Due to the Chinese government’s recent battle against drug traffickers, the producer of the film speculated that “perhaps the government believed the film conveyed the consequences of drug trafficking, thus allowing it to pass censorship.

Among the difficulties, Johnnie To also mentioned the poor quality of the equipment in Mainland compared to what he used in Hong Kong. And just so you know, Motorway director Soi Cheang was in charge of the second-unit work on the film!

Johnnie To (left) & actor Sun Honglei (right) on the set


In Drug War, the police captures a drug lord, who’s forced to collaborate in order to avoid the death penalty. And FilmBizAsia notices that the director “has modified his style to take account of the Mainland’s different look and more spacious geography, as well as appearing to be newly energised by the challenge of what he can get away with.

What does it mean? “From the desolate industrial locations to wide streets, it’s immediately clear this is not To’s usual stomping-ground of congested Hong Kong or Macau. The film makes good use of the country’s different topography” adds the critic.

Screen Daily points out that “the film is set in and around Tianjen, Beijing’s rapidly growing seaport, which is presented here as a place of savage, unregulated modernity.” That’s promising coming from a Mainland production!


On the narrative level, The Playlist Society writes, “To’s storytelling skill somehow kept us engaged through long periods of talkiness and complex plotting”, “without a shred of backstory or a single moment of personal time given to any of the many principals, you come to care for the characters nonetheless, simply for their uncompromising determination.

But, the “lack of visual pyrotechnics and the constant introduction of new characters on both sides gets a little monotonous.

And so “many of To’s films dip dramatically around the 70-minute mark, before gearing up again for an action finale, and Drug War is no different,” says FilmBizAsia. Knowing that To and his screenwriter Wai Ka-fai “push the comic elements to the extreme (and sometimes beyond)” even though some “of these ideas really doesn’t work.

Yet, “elaborately choreographed, and with no lack of power from China’s stricter regulations on screen violence, the action sequences are enough to keep To’s bang-bang fans satisfied.

An interesting remark from Screen Daily, saying that “perhaps mindful of his need to prove to the censors that he’s taking narcotics seriously, To spends less time choreographing conflict and more charting, at a breakneck pace, the messiness of a nasty, vicious war.

“To gives a superlative lesson on how to give an updated, thoroughly engrossing twist to the classic cops-and-robbers chase.” (THR)


Now, IndieWire explains that Drug War is “impeccably choreographed. Craft prevails over CGI, as the film maintains an atmosphere that gets under your skin rather than trying to make it quiver with overblown special effects.

According to Screen Daily, “the dirty realism is amplified by To’s use of natural light and anyway-they-fall camera angles: with almost a TV look at times, Drug War does its best to avoid the conventional noirish atmosphere and Hong Kong gangster aesthetic that To himself helped to define.”

That is to say, the “widescreen photography by regular d.p. Cheung Siu-keung also has the colder, grittier look of Mainland crime movies and TV series rather than the fancier, warmer lighting of Hong Kong one,” underlines FilmBizAsia.

As for the score, “Xavier Jamaux’s atmospheric, burbly music is effective in knitting together disparate scenes into longer paragraphs.The Hollywood Reporter writes that “the action proceeds at a consistently fast pace, pushed by the pulsating beat of Jamaux’s music with barely space for a breather.


In the end, Drug War is a “quirky, playful and much more hit than miss,” that “could mark a fresh beginning for To as an action director, rather than remain a one-off challenge he’s clearly had some fun in taking on.” “It will be interesting to see whether To and his team follow it up with more movies outside their Hong Kong comfort zone” concludes FilmBizAsia.

The Playlist Society writes, “a gritty, talky procedural that amps up to a bruising climax,” a “grounded meticulous drama that hews fairly close to life in that for long periods of time most of what happens is people talking in a room (…) It’s on no level art, but as a commercial film it’s impressively unglamourised and unrelenting, albeit wildly exaggerrated.

A solid, visceral action flick that delivers on audience expectations,” To “manages to combine pressing social issues with unadulterated entertainment.” It’s “a straightforward story told with oodles of style (…) That said, the film does not innovate or break any new ground; its value lies in its adherence to the expectations, not a defiance of them” explains IndieWire.

When will the film be released in China? Just a hint from Screen Daily, “Of course, mainland audiences may not be given the benefit of a domestic release.” Hmmm.

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