Johnnie To's Drug War (2012) finds the director working in Mainland China for the first time. As such, he's had to make certain...concessions...to the demands of the mainland marketplace. It's a testament to the director's filmmaking savvy that not only hasn't this hindered his ability to put his trademarked noir sensibility on the screen, it may have intensified it. Still, there are some noticeable differences between this film and his usual crime films.
Note: Here there be spoylers.
Drug War follows the converging fortunes of two men. We first meet Timmy Choi as he flees the site of a meth factory explosion. He's feeling the ill effects of the gasses the explosion released and he's vomiting as he drives. He plows his car into a restaurant. Captain Zhang of the Jinhai anti-drug squad, by contrast, is conducting a sting to trap a busload of drug mules. Choi is brought to the hospital where the mules are being processed, shitting drug pods into bedpans, and Zhang immediately notes the smell of meth coming off the man. Investigating the crash, he finds Choi's cellphone with a queue of messages from an unknown number that ultimately proves to be from a truck full of meth supplies driven by two stoned henchmen. The penalty for manufacturing meth in China is death, and soon, Choi has to make a deal with Zhang: give up his associates and cooperate with the investigation or get a needle in his arm. No choice at all, really, and soon Choi is guiding Zhang up the supply chain, first with two low level traffickers whom Zhang impersonates in a sting operation, and then on to bigger fish, including Choi's other meth factory, staffed by a deaf family. Two of the deaf men get away when Zhang's men raid the factory which fouls Choi's deal with the cops, and when the choice between being killed by the state or being killed by his associates is presented, Choi tries a third option and tries to escape in an apocalyptic shootout...
As I’ve mentioned, this was shot in the PRC, and that fact shapes its content. Gone are the personality quirks and occasional corruptions that have characterized Johnnie To’s other depictions of cops. This film has been ideologically coded to conform to censorship standards that forbid depicting corrupt officials and criticizing law enforcement. As a result, the cops in Drug War become stoic, relentless, almost machines. Likewise, the PRC doesn’t like the idea that there are organized gangs made of native Chinese operating inside its borders. As a result, the gang here is from Hong Kong, which, though now technically part of the PRC, is a special case and still subject to typical Chinese xenophobia. Citizens of Hong Kong are still foreigners. This film can be distilled down to an ideological conflict between the unrestrained capitalism of the drug gangs and the authoritarian state. Working within these kinds of parameters are probably going to be the new normal for To and his Milkyway Image production company. The economics of moviemaking in China are ruthlessly tilting that way. Drug War made about $600,000 in Hong Kong. It made $23 million in the PRC. The days when To could tweak the nose of the PRC’s censors (as he did at the end of Election 2) appear to be over. Fortunately, the director appears to be an expert smuggler, and some of his concerns fall outside the purview of the censors.
Louis Koo claims that the filmmakers shot an alternate ending for this film in which his character escapes to Thailand. This seems hard for the to fathom, but anything is possible, I guess, given that the first cut of Drug War was delivered at a three hour running time. This is an instance where working within the boundaries of censorship may have strengthened the movie, because this film almost HAS to end the way that it does. To, a complete master of foreshadowing, sets it up like a chess master thinking ten moves ahead. There’s a scene early in the film where Timmy Choi escapes from the hospital room where he’s been confined and leads the cops on a chase to capture him. The cops converge on the morgue, where the find him holed up on the slab in one of the drawers, a corpse in a body bag on top of him. Later in the film, this scene recurs twice: in the first, Timmy finds himself shackled to the corpse of Captain Zhang as a tactical team closes in on him. In the second, he’s strapped to a slab with a needle in his arm as he continues to barter for his life with information about the drug trade. There’s another scene that foreshadows this, too, when Zhang tells Choi that, “Alive or dead, I’ll be with you.” Like I say, I can’t imagine another ending, given the set-up.
Like most of To’s films, Drug War is an elaborate game. In fact, it resembles a number of different games: video game (with an escalating series of ever more difficult bosses to navigate), card game (which the need to read the tells of one’s opponent), and strategy game (where each move must lead into the next for advantage). To has refined this aesthetic to a razor’s edge over the last fifteen years or so. Every move is planned. Example: shortly before this film’s third act commences, there’s a drug transaction that takes place in traffic. We know the players: There’s Zhang impersonating Haha, there’s Choi, there’s Chang and his uncle. But as the transaction takes place, there’s a cut to the face of a woman in another car. Then another cut to another face. Then a third to a fat man. None of these are characters who have figured in the film before or even been mentioned, so unless you’re hip to the fact that the fat man is played by To regular, Lam Suet, you may not catch it or note these cuts. But they’re important because these are the players in the end game, and it will be three more moves before they figure into the plot. This works on a macro level shaping the overall structure of the movie, and it works on a micro level within scenes themselves.
There’s also an emphasis on doubles in this film that goes beyond the usual cop/crook dichotomy that’s common to HK gun movies and heroic bloodshed films going back to Chang Cheh. Sure, you have Louis Koo and Honglei Sun facing off against each other, often in intimate shots that have them literally face to face. But you also have a doubling of scenes, of plot elements, of props on the screen. Two flunkies drive the truck that figures in the early part of the film and two cops follow it. Timmy Choi has two contacts and the cops have to run two stings to get their foot in the door. The scenes in which they run the scenes duplicate each other, often with the same lines of dialogue being replayed verbatim between the scenes. Even the action scenes are twinned. The raid on the meth lab is concurrent with the arrest of Haha, while the final apocalypse is split between two shoot outs, one at a school, the other in front of a hotel.
While all of these elements are typical of To’s crime films, Drug War has a different visual aesthetic than we’re used to from him. This is a surprisingly daylit film, and it’s a film in which there is a definite season. This is an austere, wintery film, with wider horizons than one can see in Hong Kong. Instead of To’s usual saturated color palette, this is a movie shot in industrial grays and blues. It’s a brutalist aesthetic that matches the story. There are also notably fewer laughs in this film than in some of the director’s other crime films. This isn’t necessarily a more brutal film than the Election films or Exiled or Vengeance, it only looks and feels that way because of how it’s shot. And it's not totally void of small pleasures. The shoot out with the mute brothers at the meth factor seems conceived as a way of lampooning John Woo's famous assertion that his favorite sound was a gunshot, while the two stoned idiots driving the supply truck function like this film's version of Rosenkrantz and Giildenstern. And the director does like his games wfith cell phones.
I saw a piece on the internet a while ago that suggested that Louis Koo has become Johnnie To’s version of Robert De Niro, referencing the long collaboration between De Niro and Martin Scorsese. I don’t think that that’s right. I think that comparison better fits Andy Lau than Koo. Koo strikes me as To’s equivalent of Leonardo DeCaprio instead: an aging pretty boy who the filmmaker significantly de-glamorizes for this film. Koo, for his part, plays a thoroughly ruthless character without heed to his screen image and if he seems more human than any of the cops, it’s because the cops are presented as relentless automata. We never see anything that betrays a personal life from any of this film’s cops, but we see quite a bit of Choi’s personal life and we get glimpses of the personal lives of some of the other criminals as well. Part of this is tip-toeing around a censorship requirement that police not be mocked or criticized, but it works to the film’s advantage, because it lets the director have it both ways. He’s toeing the ideological line for the PRC, but he’s also criticizing them as a terrifying surveillance state. This is all in the subtext, which censors are notoriously bad at reading.
This probably isn’t my favorite of To’s movies. It’s a less personable film than I’m used to from him. Distant, even. But that’s quibbling unnecessarily. This is a state of the art crime film from a master of the form. To has suggested that he might retire soon, so we should treasure this why we’ve got it.