DRUG WAR (2013)
Louis Koo, Sun Honglei
DVD / Blu-ray
Arrested by the police after being involved in a car accident, a drug lord (Louis Koo) is forced to help an inspector (Sun Honglei) to bust an important drug network. His prime motivation? Avoiding death penalty.
#FROM CHINA WITH LOVE
Best known in the west as a thriller director, yet, Johnnie To moved away from the genre during few years, trying to venture into the mainland chinese market, which is nowadays attracting talents from Hong Kong–where the film industry is experiencing difficulties.
In this perspective, the director worked on two rom-com–Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011) & Romancing in Thin Air (2012)–the projects were precisely done to please chinese audiences. The films didn’t avoid falling into the pitfalls of the genre–love will save us all–, still, they were visually interesting.
Nicely shots, with real visual ideas–it’s no cheap TV production–the films allowed To and his staff to play with the large chinese spaces, as opposed to the small & suffocating streets of Hong Kong. But, of course, the director didn’t forget his beloved native city, as he found time to work on Live Without Principle (2011), a personal project about the economical crisis.
After all these years, To is saying goodbye to rom-com projects (for now, at least) and he’s coming back to the (atmospheric) thriller genre. Here, no more rich dudes obsessed in finding the perfect girls, but men desperately trying to survive in contemporary China. How exciting! Especially when the project can be seen as risky–it’s clearly not another typical inoffensive rom-com project tailored for the Chinese market, leaving almost no room for creativity or originality, which explains why many famous HK directors have to do projects like that when coming to China.
|DID YOU KNOW?|
|In Chinese contemporary action films, the name of cities, streets, buildings are often changed. That way, stories are never actually taking place in a real location. For example, Drug War was shot in the city of Tianjin, yet the story takes place in the fictional city of Jin-Hai!|
#BACK TO BUSINESS
Johnnie To + Thriller + China, that was enough to awake our curiosity, letting us wondering how the director will be affected by the local censorship–after all, the “harmonization” committee tends to prefer historical productions over contemporary films, to restrain violence and to mention any taboos such as drug.
We’re talking about a movie that clearly represent the abuse of drug, to reveal the humanity & weaknesses of a drug lord–the emotions can feel a little awkward as almost every time, censorship has to show the opposite side of these ideas, using nothing but forced clichés, somewhat it creates an original dynamic of drama. Besides drug, the film deals also with the police, which usually appears powerful. Here, not so much, many police officers can’t avoid deadly bullets.
While Drug War tries to maintain as much as possible the difference between police (good) & gangsters (bad), with some “harmonized” sequences–underlining the obvious fact, drug is bad–it successfully offers simple characters that prove to be obsessive & unpredictable. Do not expect highly crafted psychology portraits, the characters are just nicely introduced so that the rest of the film/spectacle can be entertaining.
|DID YOU KNOW?|
|In Drug War, the criminals are played by Hong Kong actors while almost every good guys are played by Chinese actors. Johnnie To voluntarly wanted to do the opposite of what the Hong Kong film industry has been doing in ages, where Chinese actors are bad guys, and HK, the good ones!|
#EXILED IN CHINA?
The tone is dark, and it’s hard to know where the lead characters played by Louis Koo & Sun Honglei are taking us. As the roles are covering a whole range of emotions, the characters can be pathetics, funny, touching or deadly serious. And their relationship is one dominated by doubts & uncertainties; who’s playing who? what are they really hoping for…? It’s easy to over-question everything!
From time to time, Johnnie To, and his regular teammate, Wai Ka-fai, are adding some light-comic elements to the story, saving it from being too dramatic–you have to keep in mind that the plot is about drug trafficking in China, showing poor people smuggling & drug lord burning money. The comic-relief scenes include; an infiltration sequence with a cop mimicking the every moves & words of a weird gangster; the deaf brothers running a drug house, they’re violent yet touching; the giant chess game party in a port…
Successfully keeping the local censorship happy while telling a story of manipulation in which everybody tries to satisfy its own interests or obsessions, whether good or bad, whether politically acceptable or not. Drug War features a stricking sense of irony, revealing the absurdity of every character’ basic functions–cops, gangsters… at some point, does the official function really define the men? That’s pretty daring coming from a Chinese contemporary thriller film!
The director and his staff also take advantage of the large urban space in China to create breathtaking action scenes… and while the clouds of blood aren’t as graphic as those in Exiled (2006), you still can enjoy the tension, the cold colors, the gritty cinematography reinforcing the look of a dirty, somewhat gross, China.
|DID YOU KNOW? / SPOILER ALERT \|
|Originally at the end, the drug lord was supposed to escape, going to live in a south province of China where he would continue his usual work. Few years later, he would be found again by the police, and after a shootout, he would be pushed over the edge of waterfall… Johnnie To had to make a change because the funding of the film was cut short, he also guessed the original ending wouldn’t have been approved by the censorship.|
TO SUM IT UP:
A simple, gritty and atmospheric crime thriller playing around the local censorship.
As his second project entirely shot in Mainland China, Johnnie To delivers an effective & entertaining thriller that marks his comeback to the genre, pushing as far as possible the usual rules of Chinese productions. Johnnie To directing in Mainland China, what’s next?
Published on July 28, 2013