Director: Johnnie To
Starring: Louis Koo, Honglei Sun, Michelle Ye, Gordon Lam, Yi Huang, Suet Lam
Given the incredibly low key arrival of Drug War to Western screens, it is hard to believe that, not so long ago, the release of a new Johnnie To action movie was a source of genuine excitement for Hong Kong cinema enthusiasts. When Western audiences became exposed to To’s work in the middle part of the last decade there was a feeling that he would become the torch bearer for Hong Kong, and perhaps even Asian, action cinema. The gangster saga of Election vol. 1 and Election vol. 2 appeared to offer itself as Hong Kong’s answer to The Godfather series, combining as it did a searing analysis of the emptiness and hypocrisy of Triad culture with an implicit sociopolitical critique of the emptiness and hypocrisy of the mainland Chinese government’s rhetoric concerning the democratic rights and autonomy of Hong Kong. Exiled, released around the same time, was a super cool, cine-literate, post-Heroic Bloodshed Triad film that was considered by many to be what a Triad action movie would look like if it had been directed by Sergio Leone. And just before them came Breaking News, admittedly a slightly more heavy handed heist/hostage movie, but one that still contained some of the most exhilarating action sequences to come out of Hong Kong since the early nineties. Especially this opening 6 minute tracking shot.
What linked all of these films was their style and their eschewal of the hyper sincere, romanticised portrayals of cops and robbers commonly associated with the Hong Kong action film. They combined a distinctive visual élan with a self-aware, postmodern take on the Heroic Bloodshed genre. Basically, these films were really cool and, by extension, Johnnie To became pretty cool too. And then, when one began to mine his back catalogue, other much more obscure but equally cool and exciting thrillers and gangster films emerged. Two of the more artistically successful efforts were The Mission and Longest Nite. The former was a Jim Jarmusch-style exploration of the Triad movie, the latter a very noir Noir that violently played out the travails of an entirely unsympathetic corrupt cop, played by Tony Leung, and his equally unsympathetic gangster foes, over a single night against a dangerous, neon Macau backdrop. And then there were other less easily categorised, and perhaps slightly less stylish, films like Running on Karma, a strange Buddhist, supernatural, muscle action film starring the famously lithe Andy Lau in a preposterous prosthetic bodybuilder costume. But there were also the more explicit genre experiments like PTU and Expect the Unexpected (previously examined here) that seemed to endorse his position as a master of the arthouse Asian genre movie on the global film festival circuit.
Yet, at the same time, To was also making pretty dire comedies and romance movies aimed almost exclusively at a domestic Hong Kong audience. Really awful stuff, both in terms of their production values and content. It should be noted that several critics, in particular David Bordwell, have defended the singularity of To’s authorial voice, however I think that there was something of a consensus in Western critical circles that To split his work between domestic “low-brow” genre fare (tacky comedies) and global arthouse circuit, “high-brow” genre fare (classy policiers). Sort of one step beyond the standard “one for me, one for the moneymen” approach apparently favoured by directors like Gus van Sandt, with the added bonus for To that the commercially focused, critically derided crap wouldn’t be seen by Western critics anyway.
But things weren’t really this simple either. It is interesting to note that despite having either directed or co-directed at least 20 films prior to 1997, Johnnie To wasn’t a well known figure during this period, even amongst Hong Kong cinema aficionados. In Hammond and Wilkins 1996 Hong Kong cinema anthology, Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head, he is actually listed in the index as 2 different people, Johnny To and Johnny Kei-Fung To, for directing the films The Big Heat and The Heroic Trio. Although the anglicisation of To’s name has varied and he has been credited under both of the variations listed (amongst others), it is instructive that two authorities on South East Asian cinema did not make the connection between the monikers. This would appear to indicate that To was something of a peripheral (or at least critically anonymous) figure in the Hong Kong film industry of the late ’80s and early ’90s. So what changed?
I think that the undoubted consensus would be that around the time of the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong back to China To happened upon his postmodern, reflexive approach to the crime genre. The Hong Kong film industry had always found Western markets most receptive to crime and action films whereas To, with some exceptions, had previously directed mainly comedies and melodramas. His two best known films to Western audiences up to this point were probably the sci-fi martial arts film, The Heroic Trio, and its sequel, The Executioners. Although excerpts from The Heroic Trio feature heavily in the Olivier Assayas metafiction, Irma Vep, To, as the film’s director, is not mentioned once. Indeed, unsurprisingly, attention on the film focused on its all star female cast of Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung. But a postmodern take on a genre to which certain international audiences were already predisposed was sure to garner some attention for this previously anonymous director. And when one then takes into account the exodus of cinematic talent from Hong Kong amidst the uncertainty of the Handover and the devastating effect of both the Asian economic crisis of the mid-’90s and the proliferation of video piracy in the region during the same period on the Hong Kong film industry, an opportunity arose for a new standard bearer for Hong Kong commercial cinema. And it was out of these ashes that To emerged as the festival friendly face of a flagging industry, but with the added bonus that he was also capable of offering a financially sound, domestic output.
And yet, in 2010 To released Vengeance, the last of a loose gangster trilogy (the other two segments being The Mission and Exiled) and, to date, the last of his festival focused, self-reflexive genre efforts. The picture was much anticipated as it marked To’s return to the genre following several slightly odder efforts such as Throw Down, Mad Detective and Sparrow, all of which took place outside of the more familiar guns and gangsters milieu. But although Vengeance contained several of the stylistic flourishes we had come to expect from To in its gunfight sequences, the film was ultimately a disappointment and a pretty shameless rip-off of Memento to boot. To make matters worse, it was released on the back of To’s failure to get a couple of tantalising potential projects made – neither his English language remake of Le Cercle Rouge nor his proposed Alain Delon collaboration ever got past pre-production. And Johnny Hallyday, the star of Vengeance, I think we can all agree, is no Alain Delon.
And now in 2013, Drug War, although it might not be immediately apparent, would appear to mark a new period in To’s oeuvre. On the surface it’s a return to the cool type of cops and robbers movies for which he garnered renown. The protagonists are a Hong Kong drug lord, Timmy Choi (played by Louis Koo), and a bad ass mainland cop, Zheng Lei (played by Sun Honglei). Choi is taken into custody early in the movie by Lei and, facing the death penalty, agrees to help Lei and his squad take down the power brokers of his drug operation in exchange for a reduced sentence. The central narrative conceit of the film hinges on the uncertainty surrounding Choi’s motives and trustworthiness. Part Usual Suspects, part Hong Kong/Chinese noir, it’s actually a pretty stylish and unpredictable movie that initially suggests that perhaps To has returned to the style and genre that has served him best in the past. Several of the tropes of the Johnnie To gangster movie are on display – the ironic undercutting of the idea of honour amongst thieves, the bumbling criminals who emerge as surprisingly adept marksmen, the exquisite and original action sequences and the opaque narrative style in which key plot and character points are deliberately withheld. To’s occasionally subtle, yet cynical, sense of humour also reveals itself at times, such as in an early scene where, following a drug bust, a number of peasant drug mules are forced to squat over toilet pans and shit out the bags of heroin they were carrying. It is a rather uncomfortable scene, particularly the image of a young woman, in tears, trying to defecate in front of several police officers. Huang Yi’s young female police officer then appears and, in what would probably be a pretty ham-fisted attempt at displaying the officer’s underlying humanity in a more conventional genre picture, offers the detainee a tissue. However, the moment is undercut by To’s peculiar dry humour as the girl takes the tissue and then hesitates as she and we, the audience, are unsure whether she is meant to use it to dry her eyes or wipe her arse. She eventually elects for the former as the film, in typical To fashion, straddles the line between sincerity and irony.
However, while To’s earlier crime movies were aimed at the global festival circuit and niche audiences, Drug War is, quite explicitly, aimed at the ever growing Chinese market. For starters, the film is shot entirely in Mandarin rather than in To’s native Cantonese. Indeed, Louis Koo, perhaps the most famous actor in the movie to audiences outside of mainland China, actually has his voice dubbed over by a Mandarin speaker. The casting is also very interesting. The ostensible heroes of the piece, the cops, are all played by mainland actors while the majority of the drug gang are played by recognisable Hong Kong character actors, including Gordon Lam, Suet Lam and Michelle Ye.
And then there is the ending. I mentioned in a previous post the need for Hong Kong filmmakers to pre-emptively negotiate the ethical considerations of Chinese censors and, although I’m not going to give away the ending (for once), Drug War is no different in this regard. This actually makes for quite an interesting viewing experience. Viewers familiar with recent Hong Kong crime movies that have had to make such concessions to mainland censors will be aware that certain conventional narrative avenues are closed off to filmmakers. Crime cannot pay and, while the ending of Drug War does seem a little tacked on and out of kilter with the rest of the piece, the possibility of a bleak ending is just as likely as a happy one*, making these types of movies, in many ways, much less predictable than their Hollywood equivalents. The role of endings in recent Hong Kong crime movies is reminiscent of Code-era Hollywood gangster films like Angels with Dirty Faces which glamorised the gangster lifestyle but then, at the end, always undercut the glamour with a moral ending that kowtowed to the censorial demands of the period. I am sure that a more sophisticated viewer than I will eventually discern distinct narrative tropes than can be associated with the Hong Kong/PRC gangster film in this respect but for now, in spite of my own moral misgivings concerning censorship, these constraints do make for a fascinating viewing experience.
This shift in To’s focus from the festival circuit to the Chinese market seems to cement his reputation as a man for all economic seasons. It will be very interesting to see what direction his career takes from this point on both in terms of the genres he chooses to work in and the audiences he chooses to cater to. But whatever path he chooses Drug War is definitely, to borrow a phrase from any review of any Woody Allen film released in the last 10 years, “a return to form”.
*As an actor said to a bishop.