Prolific Hong Kong director Johnnie To is back, with his first actioner shot on the Chinese mainland. Gritty and intense, Drug War is a true police procedural, relentlessly following the intricacies of an elaborate police sting to break up the highest levels of drug production in the country. The film moves at a breathless pace, but does it give fans of classic bullet ballet the old ultraviolence they so eagerly crave? Find out after the jump!
The tone is set right away, as the film jumps frenetically between stone-faced Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei)’s unfolding operation at a provincial toll booth and the drug boss Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), driving injured through the city streets after an explosion at one of his labs. Their paths are bound to cross, though not before a few convolutions play out in the early minutes. Once he’s been caught, Choi makes a desperate deal with Captain Zhang, rather than face an automatic death penalty under Chinese law. Choi will introduce Captain Zhang to a high level distributor and a supplier, who are to meet for the first time that night. They decide to hold two meetings, with the Captain impersonating the distributor for one, and the supplier for the other. From there the complications spin out, as they work their way up the food-chain and across the grimy industrial landscape of Jinshan. Honglei really gets to work his acting chops in the impersonation scenes, especially once he takes on the forced joviality of the bloodless distributor nicknamed Haha. Koo, a regular from To’s Hong Kong movies and expertly dubbed in Mandarin here, is equally excellent as the gangster Choi, a man who will sell out anyone to survive.
Drug War‘s realism is remarkable, capturing the details of policework with deft economy. After a busload of drug mules have been arrested, To cuts right to the sordid details of their processing in hospital, cops and nurses waiting around for the evidence to emerge. (Toronto’s infamous Mayor Rob Ford may want to rethink his alleged habit after seeing how drugs “pass” through our borders…) The cinematography from To’s regular DOP Cheng Siu-keung is moody and effective, casting a noir-ish eye on contemporary China. A set-piece at the Jinshan harbour is a true standout, as countless red-flagged boats are ordered by the undercover Captain Zhang to set sail en masse, demonstrating his power to doubtful partners.
There is violence, rest assured, but the film simmers a good while before it boils, reaching a suitably explosive crescendo. Apparently To had to tone the violence down, to comply with local censorship rules. What sets it apart from its HK and Hollywood action brethren is To’s clinical detachment this time around. We don’t get to know the main characters outside of their immediate work, and there’s no relationship between Captain Zhang and the fetchingly stern detective Yang Xiaobei (Crystal Huang) to make us, you know, care. Under To’s assured direction, the absence of what so many mainstream movies take for depth is hardly an obstacle. The film’s momentum is inescapable, and captures the modern drug war perfectly: anarchic, treacherous, and full of unexpected consequences.
Drug War debuts on Sunday, July 14th at 9pm, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto as part of the Century of Chinese Cinema program. Director Johnnie To will be in attendance to introduce the film, and it will appear several times after that. For the full schedule and tickets, click here.