The Seattle International Film Festival scored the North American premiere of Johnnie To’s crime film, Drug War. The guy who introduced it last night said, “SIFF lasts for 25 days. It takes Johnnie To 25 days to make a movie.” (His new movie, Blind Detective, just premiered at Cannes.)
Drug War is a return to old themes and scenarios for To and his Milkyway partner, Wai Ka-Fai. Sun Honglei plays a narcotics cop, and Louis Koo is the drug lord who is captured and bargains to help the police in exchange for more lenient treatment. (His crimes would usually earn the death penalty.) Knowledgeable commentators say that what’s unusual about the film is the setting on mainland China and To’s pushing of the boundaries for what’s allowable in the PRC for cinematic depictions of drug use, gangster and police behavior, and the death penalty.
To is a slick, formalist film-maker, and I usually have a hard time getting an emotional handle on his movies even as I enjoy the way he puts them together. All the elements of this film seem very familiar, but there are some very effective moments that come from judicious deployment of information. One of the best scenes comes midway through when Koo is allowed to reconnect with his meth-manufacturing partners, who are deaf-mute. The sudden burst of sign language that reveals this is unexpected to the audience, but not to the cops, who are looking on and have an interpreter ready. This twist is interesting enough in itself, but on top of that this is the point in the film where Koo’s character finally allows himself to react to the death of a loved one that we had learned about from the cops earlier but which surprisingly seemed to have no effect on Koo. This is a powerful sign of how much he is able to hide what he’s feeling and thinking.
The bulk of the film is about the cops trying to infiltrate the ring of drug bosses above Koo. Again, this is all fairly standard business, handled with To’s usual professionalism and attention to detail. It moves along swiftly and steadily. The one scene that struck me as complete fantasy comes when Sun’s character has to snort some meth to convince a gangster that he’s a drug lord himself. His reaction to the meth (which he manages to stifle until its safe) plays like one of those lunatic anti-drug propaganda films they used to show us in junior high. Kids, don’t do this at home! Perhaps that was the payment To had to make for showing drug use at all. More interesting is the way the film explores the criminal underworld in the PRC and the surrounding countries in Asia.
The climax is a bloodbath in the gritty Johnnie To mode, which is quite different from, say, John Woo’s old bullet ballets. It once again feels like something we’ve seen before, but it has a number of grace notes (and brutal notes) that keep it interesting on its own terms. The coda is a piece of black humor that carries a nice punch. The film may be more interesting for its setting than for its story, but it still works just fine as a story. It feels torn from today’s headlines even as it looks like old news.