Johnnie To’s new crime movie Drug War is getting a fair bit of buzz as it gets a theatrical release in the US this weekend, and deservedly so. Hong Kong may be a bit hit-and-miss, but when it hits with a crime drama, it really hits. Reviews have been good and it’s done brisk business in China. Reviews in the US have also been good, some of them surprised that it’s good, all of them relieved that there’s finally a good crime movie out.
Drug War is what it says on the tin: a noir thriller about the Chinese police’s war to crack down on a meth ring. When meth manufacturer Timmy Choi is caught when he crashes his car after his factor blows up, killing his wife and her relatives, he faces an automatic death sentence, unless he can cut a deal: work with the police to bring down the cartel he distributes for and help them with an undercover sting. Drug squad leader Captain Zhang does not trust Timmy at all, believing he’ll do whatever it takes to save his own skin, and that might include selling them out to the cartel, but Timmy is the only lead they have for breaking the whole meth trade in the Jinhai province, and things get very hairy for everyone before it’s over.
Drug War is especially notable for the first truly successful Mainland Chinese crime thriller by a Hong Kong director. Granted, Hong Kong directors have gone to China to shoot period movies since the 1990s, but ever since the Handover and the opening-up of the Mainland movie audience, everyone, including Hollywood, has been trying to crack that market. The biggest stumbling block has been censorship. Some Western reviewers of Drug War have expressed surprise that something as relentless and violent as this movie could have been passed by the censors, but that betrays a rather naïve assumption about censorship. Mainland Chinese censors don’t have a problem with portrayals of violence or brutality at all – it’s views critical of the Chinese government and depictions of sex and bared tits they go after. The biggest restriction that is non-negotiable in a movie before it can be allowed to be shown in China is the insistence that Crime Doesn’t Pay: any characters that are criminals in a Chinese movie, no matter how complex or even sympathetic, must be punished for their crimes by the end, whether by death or arrest.
Nonetheless, a fear of the Chinese censors has frozen many Hong Kong producers and filmmakers in what kinds of movies they felt they should make to appeal to the lucrative Mainland market. Many of them were already lacking in imagination and innovation to start with, always waiting for someone else to be the first to crack the code for success, and now Johnny To has done it with Drug War. What he – and more precisely, his co-director and screenwriter Wai Ka-Fai – have done is taken the stripped-down, relentless ethos that defined that crime movies they’d made in Hong Kong and successfully translated it to a Mainland Chinese crime noir while still sticking to censorship demands.
Drug War doesn’t have the most original plot in the world, and doesn’t mean to. It’s more about the tension of the cops working with druglord Timmy Choi to bring down the meth cartel and how far they’re willing to go in an increasingly paranoid operation. It’s about the virtuoso set-pieces where Captain Chang has to impersonate several cartel kingpins who never met each other in separate meetings in the same building, and the dance Timmy Choi does as he improvises his way through the twists and turns in order to keep himself alive, and how much he’s truly willing to give up to the cops, and you’re waiting for the moment where something is missed, a mistake is made, or someone pulls a fast one and everything goes horribly wrong. Unlike Hollywood movies, Captain Chang and Timmy Choi do not become grudging friends who warm to each other. This is not that kind of movie. Louis Koo, one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong, plays Timmy Choi the same mercurial quality that Alain Delon had that makes you never truly trust him, and Sun Hong Lei, one of China’s rising stars, plays Captain Chang with a relentless restraint that bursts into unexpected fits of controlled chaos when he has to pose as a crazed drug lord.
Underneath all this is some interesting and complex social commentary: the heads of the cartel are from Hong Kong, which brings in a deliberate theme of China being invaded by evil from outside, representatives of the kind of ruthless, merciless capitalism that China is now diving headlong into. Yet the Hong Kong interlopers are shown as warm, full of humour and messy emotions in contrast to the dry, stoical Mainland Chinese cops who pursue their duty with a hard-nosed single-mindedness. As with many Hong Kong crime movies, this one climaxes with a massive and devastating shootout where both sides suffer horrendous losses. Crime Does Not Pay here, but it is hardly the triumphalist message of the good guys winning. It actually suggests that there are no real winners in a drug war, only casualties on all sides. The fatalism here reminds me of the movies of Fritz Lang.
Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai founded their production company Milkyway Image back in 1996 and have pretty much defined Hong Kong crime movies ever since. While Tsui Hark continued his trend of hyperactive wire-fu Wuxia fantasies and schlockmeister Wong Jing produced and made Category III sexploitation thrillers in the 1990s, it was Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai who refined the Hong Kong crime movie (though they made some comedies as well) into a visually stylish and pared-down style reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann. In fact, Drug War stands in interesting contrast to Milkyway’s 1998 cop thriller EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED, which some fans regard as the company’s masterpiece of the late 90s.
Expect the Unexpected starred Simon Yam and Lau Ching Wan as best friends and the senior officers leading a chummy, close-knit squad of plainclothes cops investigating two gangs wrecking havoc in Hong Kong. While one of the gangs is a bunch of inept Mainlanders trying to pull heists, the other is a heavily-armed band of psychopathic killers who will gun down anyone in their way. As the movie charts the quirky soap opera antics of the squad – Yam and Lau’s characters fall in love with the waitress who’s a key witness they have to keep safe, while the one female member of the squad has a crush on Yam, the movie becomes an allegory for the sense of uncertainty and anxiety Hong Kong was feeling right after the Holdover back to China, and the climax of the movie, where the squad finds itself caught on the wrong foot in a confrontation with the armed gang that results in one of the most devastating and tragic shoot-outs you’ve ever seen in a crime movie. Asian movies are not afraid of tragic endings.
You can take Drug War and Expect the Unexpected as thematic mirror images of each other, the former about the fear of the invasion of Hong Kong into China and the other of China into Hong Kong. I suspect Hollywood might be looking to remake Drug War like they remade Infernal Affairsinto The Departed, and the plot would work, but a remake would strip the story of its original context, which is China and its uncertainty and anxiety towards crime and capitalism in the 21st Century.
Drug War is out in theatrical release in New York City and will open in Los Angeles in early August. The US DVD and Blu-Ray release will be in Autumn, though the Hong Kong version is already available.
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