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    Drug War (2013: Johnnie To: China/Hong Kong)

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    Masterofoneinchpunch

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    Drug War (2013: Johnnie To: China/Hong Kong)

    Post  Masterofoneinchpunch on Thu Jan 23, 2014 9:05 am

    “Without coincidences, there would be no stories.” – Nick Cheung in Breaking News

    I think it behooves anyone working on a best of 2013 list to make sure you have seen this one.  Johnnie To is one of my favorite current auteurs and I generally like anything from his coproduction company Milkyway. Do not be surprised if this is going to be on my top 10 2013 list of film -- which I will eventually make around the middle of this year since I am behind as usual with newer movies. I had some trepidation going into this because of the Mainland censor rules, but I noticed a lot of positive reviews as well that this made several film critics top 10 lists.

    In the prologue you see Hong Kong citizen Timmy Choi Tin-ming (Louis Koo: Throw Down) driving his car erratically throwing up with burns on his face while the Orwellian omnipresent cameras film his movements.  What you do not know at this point is he is fleeing a meth lab explosion which killed his wife and her brothers.  This takes place in Jinhai (I believe this is Jinghai a municipality of Tianjin) as well as in the Heping District. Meanwhile two simultaneous events are happening: there is an undercover sting led by the Stetson wearing Captain Zhang Lei (the Stetson reminds me of both Jean-Pierre Melville and Lau Ching-wan in A Hero Never Dies) and two out-of-area cops (fromYuejiang) are following a suspected meth truck of Bill Li’s.  

    After being captured by the police, Timmy is able to talk into “redeeming” himself if he turns informer.  He will do anything to avoid the death penalty for his meth manufacturing. He tells of an upcoming meeting between manufacturer front Li Shuchang and ebullient distributer HaHa.  This leads to a fascinating set of scenes where Zhang inserts himself as a fake proxy pretending to be both HaHa and Li Shuchang to gain trust from both sides.  But what starts off as a police procedural ends up a mental battle of wills between Zhang and Timmy.  While Timmy is corroborating, he of course, has other plans.  But how far he will go and what he will do helps make this a fascinating film. Johnnie To fans will also be wondering when Lam Suet will show up.

    In the end you get the feeling that one cannot escape the reach of the Mainland law with their vast resources of money and people.  But you also get the feeling that no one is going to stop trying either.  This is a starkly bleak film not just in theme but in the cinematography from longtime collaborators Cheung Siu-keung and To Hung-mo as well.  Johnnie To has partially attributed this to him working more about content passing the censors and less time on visual style.

    The end shoot-out that resembles Expect the Unexpected has been much heralded and rightly so.  It is sometimes discombobulating in a way that sometimes you forget the dichotomy between who is bad and who is good.  But there was an earlier shoot out with the Mute brothers that was so fantastic that I had to re-watch a few times after finishing the film.  It also literally reminds me of the title Expect the Unexpected where I did not expect them to be that effective as they are calm and focused like the emotionless hit-man in The Boondock Saints.  Since it is mainly from their perspective it also puts you in their mind-set and makes the government the aggressors and trespassers.  In this film he tends to foster the humanity of the antagonists more than the police. Film professor David Bordwell makes a salient point in his essay on the film (link below): “Yet the result humanizes the crooks more than the cops. Timmy mourns his family; we don’t know if Captain Zhang has one.”

    I do think if he was to make this in Hong Kong and not under the SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) rules there would have been a few differences in script as well as tone.  There would have been more ambiguity, especially with the cop character.  There would have been more bloody violence.  I would have expected a more open ending.  In a way it reminds me of film noir movies under the Hays Code.  You knew that while watching the film certain facts were going to be evident.  You know the “bad guys” are not going to get away (and they are from Hong Kong which probably helped sell this to the censors.)  You know the cops are going to be portrayed as good with little to no ambiguity which it makes it difficult to do one of To’s favorite themes -- The psychological Doppleganger.  These reasons are why I would not rank this up with my favorite To films like Election, Sparrow or Throw Down.  Regardless, this is an excellent film and To has a way with being provocative and pushing ideas past the censors.  But like with films under the Hays Code and with past Chinese films that have broached taboo topics with allegory (early Zhang Yimou) it is all in how you present the material.

    You have to pay attention in a Johnnie To film.  He often just presents salient information once so if you missed something that can create a misunderstanding later.  Sometimes you are not given all you need to know right away and important plot aspects are revealed later.  It makes his oeuvre a little more difficult than many directors but often a lot more rewarding especially with subsequent viewings.  This film is no exception and is highly recommended and is one of my favorite of 2013.

    DVD Notes: I saw this on the R1 Well Go release.  On insert of disc: Well Go advertisement, trailers Ip Man: The Final Fight, The Guillotines, New World (those later three are also under Trailers).  There is one Trailer (2.02m), but unfortunately no extras.  Removable English subtitles and two audio tracks (Mandarin 5.1 Dolby Digital and Mandarin 2.0 Stereo.)

    Sources:
    Mixing business with pleasure: Johnnie To’s DRUG WAR (July 8, 2013) by David Bordwell: Great analysis from David here.  I disagree with Grady Hendrix’s statement “They will save themselves and leave their wives to die…” in dealing with the criminals in two parts: Timmy’s wife might already have been dead and second later on in the last firefight the Gordon Lam character picks up his dead (or dying) wife and is certainly not leaving her behind.  There is a comradeship between the head triad, all except for Timmy.
    The Badass Interview: Johnnie To (July 19, 2013): Most interesting points here are that the guns jammed quite a bit while filming and that To (like John Woo) would like to do a musical.
    Mr. Beaks Talks DRUG WAR With Johnnie To!  (July 23, 2013): It’s funny the interviewer mentions Angels with Dirty Faces because I thought that as well.  The two reasons I did not put it in my review was because To said he had not seen it and one important aspect of that older film is that Cagney is actually pretending and not serious like Timmy is.
    Simon Abrams review (July 26, 2013): I agree with him that the color palette here more approaches a Jean-Pierre Melville film.  He mentions Un Flic though several of Melville’s color films have this bleak look.
    Kung Fu Cinema thread
    Tianjin Google Maps
    Director in Action Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film (2007) by Stephen Teo

      Current date/time is Sun Jun 25, 2017 5:05 am