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Cult favourite and auteur Johnnie To joins the ranks of Hong Kong directors trying their luck on the Mainland with the thriller “Drug War”, following up on his co-produced “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “Romancing in Thin Air”. Seeing him work again with regular partner and writer Wai Ka Fai, the Milkyway outing has To returning once more to the violent world of cops and crooks, with shifting loyalties and shootouts being the order of the day. Having played at Venice in competition and at other international festivals, the film has been eagerly awaited by fans and critics, in particular with regards to seeing how the director deals with the notoriously strict Mainland censors, who generally frown upon his usual brand of bloody moral grey areas.
Sun Hong Lei (“Lethal Hostage”) stars as narcotics squad captain Zhang Lei, who gets a break in his case when drug dealer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo, “Overheard”) shows up in a hospital after being involved in a car crash in Jinhai. Desperate to save his own skin, Choi immediately starts ratting on his organisation, offering to help Zhang bring down the leaders of a cartel smuggling drugs from Southern China. Aided by his squad and advised by Choi, Zhang goes undercover and starts working his way up the chain towards the shady group behind the scenes, though it quickly becomes apparent that trusting his new informant might not be the safest of plans.
With most Mainland genre films tending to be toothless affairs with limited depictions of the blurred lines between right, wrong, loyalty and the law, the big question here was always going to be whether Johnnie To would succeed where so many others have failed. Thankfully, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he passes the test with flying colours, and “Drug War” is a superb thriller, even by his own considerable standards. With the film having been fully approved from the start of production by SART (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television), it does differ somewhat from To and Wai Ka Fai’s usual Milkyway affairs, being less character driven and sticking more with the narrative and police investigation – presumably as a neat way of sidestepping the need to delve too deeply into criminal motivations or to humanise Choi and his fellow heels to a substantial degree.
This works very well indeed, the script being fantastically taut throughout, progressing through unpredictable and suspenseful set pieces with some excellent storytelling and well-timed revelations. Character twists and reversals rather than exploration are at the fore, though this makes for some clever shifts which To manipulates to gripping effect on a variety of levels. Through this and some of the later developments, it’s certainly tempting to read something deeper into the film, and it does touch on issues of identity and the unease of Hong Kong – Mainland relations. However, this is kept strictly as a subtle background concern at most, the film’s focus being not so much political as economic, or simply driven by self-preservation and survival.
More importantly for most viewers is the fact that To has managed to transplant his film making motifs and style over the border as well, making excellent and atmospheric use of Mainland scenery and locations, giving things a gritty yet visually slick look. The action scenes build excitingly through the film, from early on bursts of sudden and shocking violence, through an amazingly shot extended final gun battle which ranks amongst To’s very best work. While extremely bloody in places, with plenty of explosive gunshots, the film also runs an entertaining line in offbeat humour and leftfield touches, thanks in no small part to some great work by the supporting cast of familiar faces in eccentric roles, including Guo Tao (“Million Dollar Crocodile”) and Li Jing (“A Chinese Ghost Story”) as deaf mechanics, Hao Ping as a bizarre laughing drug dealer called Ha Ha, and of course, a variety of other Johnnie To and Hong Kong regulars, headed by Lam Suet.
For fans of the director or Milkyway, there’s really nothing to not love about “Drug War”, a film which exceeds expectations and stands as one of the best and most accomplished thrillers of the year. Seemingly energised by the change of scenery and the need to inventively work his way around the Mainland restrictions, Johnnie To has delivered a top piece of genre cinema that proves morally complex and edgy films are possible even under the watchful eyes of the Chinese censors.
Johnnie To (director) / Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, Xi Yu (screenplay)
CAST: Louis Koo