Drug War (Chinese Title: Du zhan, 2013)
Dir.: Johnny To
Johnny To is a veteran Hong Kong director whose films have captivated audiences for years and has been on the wrong side of the authorities often for his bloody portrayal of the mob in Hong Kong mostly controlled by Chinese origin secret societies called Triads.Over the years he has built a reputation for delivering films that tell familiar stories in a distinctive low key style.He has a vocal fan in Tarantino which should make him an attractive proposition for Hollywood, but has decided to stay put in Hong Kong.
In Drug War he gives us a police procedural about an operation to grab a gang of drug traffickers operating in Jinshang province in mainland China.The film opens with a car dangerously out of control with a very sick man at the wheel, with gruesome lesions on his face, throwing up violently.He crashes his car into a restaurant and ends up in hospital.This sequence is intercut with a operation to bust a drug deal by an undercover cop.He is the Captain Zhang(Sun Honglei), head of the narcotics squad.The sick man at the wheel is Timmy (Luis Koo, a Johnny To regular) running a clandestine narcotics making operation and supplying to a secretive drug dealer Uncle Billy.He barely escaped from his factory where a freak explosion has killed his wife and two brothers.Having Timmy under custody gives Zhang enormous leverage and the prospect of being executed makes Timmy co-operate in taking down Uncle Billy.
The scenes in the hospital are brilliant, some of the images of the captured drug traffickers being made to excrete out he drug pods they carry in their body are raw and effective.As the film progresses we see Zhang and his team, which has the obligatory smart pretty girl, devise a somewhat far fetched but interesting plan to trap Uncle Billy.Zhang is a man whose commitment to his mission borders on madness and in one inspired sequence he snorts a huge amount of cocaine to convince Billy’s accomplice that he is indeed a drug dealer. Zhang the sanguine bluff master is matched by the slyness of Timmy whose cooperation is very conditional and always suspect.
Wai Ka Fai, Jonny To’s long time collaborator and scriptwriter produces a pacy script with all the ingredients of an eminently watchable thriller. Johnny To keeps the action low key in most places and produces flashes of high octane action sequences which erupts in a merciless climax.The performances by both the leads are chameleon like and they interpret the characters artfully as the film progresses.The supporting cast which play small time drug lords and thugs add color to the film.Watch out for a pair of deaf and dumb accomplices of Timmy who go to great lengths to please their boss.
The most striking thing for me were the visuals of small town China which reminded of my time spend in the smaller cities there.Drug War gives us stark visuals of unplanned growth, dirty cities, pollution and absence of traditional Chinese culture.This film has had its share of controversy in China with its unflattering portrayal of the country but the director managed to stay on the right side of the censors by telling a story about good heroic cops.
There are only black or white characters here, the only shade of very dark grey is supplied by Timmy, whose next moves keep us guessing as he helps Zhang nab the drug syndicate.The fact that there are no bad cops or corrupt officials is a major comprise To makes to get the film past the Chinese censors.The dry and weary humour is a strength of the film which keeps the viewers interest sustained.The film is well edited and the camera work captures the grimness of the landscape quite well.
Johnny To and his Hong Kong films have become like a guilty helping of kung pao chicken for western audiences and he has even earned his Michelin star by the acceptance of his films at prestigious film festivals like Cannes, Venice and Toronto.Drug War is a recipe for far better box office results than he has met with recently.Its a return to form for this entertaining director.Drug War is a chance to watch a well made cops and robbers story in a gritty new setting.
Categories: World Cinema