The big stateside breakthrough that Johnnie To’s American fans have been hoping for no longer seems possible. To is as talented an action director as Kathryn Bigelow or Michael Mann, yet he was unlucky enough to find his voice long after the American vogue for Hong Kong cinema had peaked and the art-house circuit had imploded. The releases of Election (05), Triad Election (06) and Exiled (06) produced negligible box-office returns, while some of To’s best films, like Sparrow (08), have gone entirely un-released in the U.S. He’s shown little interest in working on these shores, no doubt learning from the mistakes of his compatriots in the Nineties; apart from the rom-com Romancing in Thin Air (12), he’s never catered to mainland Chinese audiences. With a few exceptions (Exiled was shot on Macao), his cinema remains grounded in Hong Kong life, with all its political and social overtones.
Drug War is his first genre co-production with the PRC. The Chinese government doesn’t seem to have placed many restrictions on his depiction of violence, and the bullets and blood fly freely, especially in the film’s final 15 minutes. However, the mainland authorities do seem to have exerted some ideological pressure. Not only does the film never question the ethics of a war on drugs in which dealers and manufacturers are subject to the death penalty, it appears to enthusiastically endorse it. It even includes a scene in which an undercover cop tries cocaine and freaks out like a character in a Partnership for a Drug-Free America PSA. If you’re looking for a nuanced treatment of drug policy, this isn’t the film for you.
In the city of Jinhai, police inspector Zhang (Sun Honglei) meets Hong Kong resident Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) at the hospital, where he’s being treated for chemical burns supposedly suffered in a car accident. Zhang discovers that Choi’s an amphetamine manufacturer, and after a failed escape attempt, Choi tries to evade the death penalty by agreeing to act as a snitch and help Zhang take down a drug gang in an undercover operation. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go according to plan.
If John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and The Killer were ballets of bloody gunplay, Drug War is closer to action painting. That’s not to say that it isn’t dynamic, but one comes away from the film mostly remembering its vivid splashes of color. Blue is dominant. It’s on the walls of the hospital where Choi is treated, it’s in the nocturnal lighting that illustrates many scenes, it’s even present in tiny visual details such as the flicker of a cigarette lighter. It contrasts with the golden hues that seem to be To’s other favorite color.
The stylization of the film’s palette overlays To’s emphasis on Hawksian professionalism. More than action, he’s interested in the mechanics of breaking up a drug ring. There are long scenes of tense dialogue. This is pretty old territory for To, but the novel setting makes it feel different. Jinhai feels grittier than Hong Kong, and To makes no attempt to romanticize the city as he did with his hometown in Sparrow.
Drug War engages in some fairly intricate storytelling, with a large cast of cops and gangsters facing off against each other, but the struggle between Zhang and Choi sits at the core of the film. Zhang must go undercover twice, Choi has to betray his family and associates, and at various points both men are forced to pretend to be something they’re not. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen Infernal Affairs—the comparisons Drug War makes between cops and criminals are nothing new, and I get the feeling that the mainland Chinese censors might have prevented To from exploring their moral implications more fully. In the end, the film is mostly memorable as an exercise in style. Kind of blue…