Tag Archives: Johnnie To

Drug War

Drug War
Drug War

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 October 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Johnnie To

Writers: Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, Xi Yu

Cast: Honglei Sun, Louis Koo, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung

Original title: Du zhan

China, Hong Kong 2012

107 mins

Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To has attacked the crime genre from all sorts of angles. In Election the focus was Triad leaders vying for power in a Shakespearean saga, and in Sparrow it was the incidental, often comedic lives of small-time pickpockets. He’s explored good guys, of course, if you can count the barmy, supernatural methods displayed by Mad Detective’s Inspector Bun as being on the right side of the law. By comparison, Drug War will no doubt be regarded as To’s most straightforward, ‘normal’ crime thriller to date, but it is still a pretty intense affair.

Fans of the director might be saddened to learn that this isn’t as overtly experimental as his previous works, but at its core it remains a gamble. Drug War is a big-budget co-production between Hong Kong and mainland China, and making an action-packed crime movie to get past the notorious Chinese censors was never going to be easy. Already out of the frame are classic To themes like honour among thieves or any glamorisation of drugs or guns, but To’s personality still shines through in the carefully composed camerawork and the vicious shoot-outs that ramp up in the final third.

The plot is standard super-cop versus super-criminal stuff. A relentless policeman, Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun), has mid-level meth manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) land right in his lap. The penalty in China for cooking meth is death – so, with little coercion, Choi is ready to bargain for his life. Soon the pair are brokering deals to tease out the real king pins behind a gargantuan drug smuggling operation.

For the most part, Zhang is stony-faced; the only glimpse of personality comes out when he has to impersonate a chuckling drug runner named HaHa and mainline cocaine to prove his worth to someone higher up the food chain. Like the rest of the cops, Zhang is dogged and incorruptible, focused on the job at hand, only allowing himself a few hours of sleep a day. A line at the beginning is telling: after arresting someone he befriended while undercover, who then accuses him of betrayal, Zhang simply responds, ‘No, I’m a cop, I busted you.’ This is someone who does not ‘go native’ while on the job.

Choi is equally driven, but only to serve, or rather preserve, his own existence. At first he seems compliant, but as the drug network gets more and more shaky, he becomes increasingly slippery, guarding vital secrets in case he needs a bargaining chip later on. Choi’s mounting desperation is constantly prodded by Zhang’s blind ambition to snare the bigger fish, inevitably leading to a bloody, drawn-out showdown that allows To to break free of the hard-nosed realism of a police procedural, with all guns blazing.

It’s obvious that in a Chinese-produced cop film justice will prevail, but in To’s world it comes at a huge cost. This is a war of attrition on both sides. Imagine Heat but with none of the family soap operas, friendship, back-stabbing or macho posturing. It might sound boring, but Drug War’s intention is to portray stark reality over theatrics. Taking on the drug trade is a war fought through hard work and sheer luck, with no one turning the tide through a rousing speech or superior firepower. To has crafted something bleak yet compelling, and proves he can do mainstream crime tales just as well as edgier ones.

Richard Badley

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 15 April 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Johnnie To

Writers: Kin Chun Chan, Chi Keung Fung

Original title: Man jeuk

Cast: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Law Wing Cheong, Ka Tung Lam

UK 2008

87 mins

It’s clear from the opening scene of Sparrow that this isn’t a typical Johnnie To film. Simon Yam gets dressed in his tailored suit amid the impossibly chic retro furniture of his Technicolor apartment when a sparrow flits in through the open window. You half-expect Yam to start whistling Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. It’s a world away from the gritty gangster lands of To’s Election or Exiled, but then, as shown by the bonkers Mad Detective, To isn’t one for playing it safe.

Sparrow is all about lightness of touch and easy charm. So it’s fitting that Yam plays a quick-fingered pickpocket named Kei who, along with his three brothers, gads about old Hong Kong making an easy buck before riding about on his bike and taking photos with his cool antique camera. Yam takes to the playboy persona with ease, in a role akin to Cary Grant’s in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, and, inevitably, it’s a striking woman who knocks him off balance.

The brothers all have a chance meeting with the beautiful Chung Chun Lei (Kelly Lin), who’s desperate to escape the clutches of a rival pickpocket, the cigar-chomping Mr Fu (Hoi-Pang Lo). What ensues is a breezy collection of pickpocket ‘showdowns’ that test the various skills of the players. There’s little substance to these episodes, but To’s worked hard on some deft camera movements to capture the balletic nature of the pickpocket at work. It’s all highly romanticised, as if the protagonists were in a make-believe 60s Paris where such a crime is seen as an art form, but it’s a joy to watch thanks to the vintage cinematography and jazzy soundtrack.

There’s an element of screwball comedy to the proceedings, with To relying on slapstick comedy and visuals to move the story on, as if he was worried that any heavy expositional dialogue might stop it dead. And it largely works; the brothers don’t really talk to each other but their actions drive things forward. At first, they try to help Chung Chun Lei without Kei but end up in hot water, so they turn to their leader to sort things out. Things culminate in a largely wordless stand-off involving umbrellas and rain that To draws out with the confidence and flair he has become famous for.

While Sparrow has done without the realism and darkness of To’s previous movies, it still excites and engages in different ways. It’s something unique, a fusion of styles and cultures that you rarely find in cinema. Luckily there’s directors like To out there, who experiment with the different filmic languages they’ve been exposed to, and with Sparrow he’s put together a marvellous blend of hip European cool and offbeat Asian storytelling.

Richard Badley



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 28 June 2010

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Johnnie To

Writer: Ka-Fai Wai

Original title: Fuk sau

Cast: Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Gordon Lam, Lam Suet, Simon Yam

Hong Kong/France 2009

108 mins

In his recent movies, Hong Kong director Johnnie To has been pushing the crime genre in strange new directions. Mad Detective blended a police procedural with barmy surrealism, while Sparrow was much more light-hearted, a hip caper with plenty of nods to 60s French cinema. But Vengeance marks a return to what To does best - stripped down gangster stories with a hard-boiled edge and slickly executed stand-offs. With this film, he has gone back to the action of Exiled and the detachment of his crime saga Election.

The plot is simple - a woman barely survives the assassination of her family and demands that her father Costello (Hallyday), a French chef, take revenge on those responsible. Costello employs a trio of hitmen (played by To favourites Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Gordon Lam and Lam Suet) to track them down, but there are a number of twists and turns as the group make their way to Simon Yam’s unrepentant crime lord.

The main stumbling block is Costello’s own memory, which is slowly failing him. He takes pictures of people to remember their names and faces and his condition worsens to the point where he can forget where he actually is. While this all sounds a bit Memento, To keeps this theme very much in the background, playing out the shoot-outs and double crosses as you’d expect but leaving Costello’s degrading motivation as a nagging question for the audience - can he take revenge if he cannot even remember why he’s doing it?

Revenge in cinema often falls into two camps; either it is a moment of glorious catharsis or it transforms the protagonist into the sort of person who wronged him in the first place. Vengeance is less clear-cut. Here, revenge becomes a commodity, bought and sold by the various parties involved in the criminal world, so much so that Costello is almost completely removed from proceedings and his original goal ceases to matter. But To isn’t one to hammer these points home, and Costello’s condition is played subtly at first while To wallows in the seedily lit Macau location, showing that he is still very much about style and visuals.

As usual, To provides some memorable set-pieces that are both playful and fraught with tension. One is the climactic shootout that sees Costello’s hired assassins surrounded by gangsters who roll out huge bales of paper ahead of them as protection. The other is the final face-off in which Costello’s enemy is plastered with stickers so that the Frenchman can remember who he’s hunting, and once his target works that out he starts sticking the flags on other people to confuse him. It’s this simple poetry that gives To’s films a distinctive mark, this touch of the bizarre and the humorous that sets his work out from the crowd.

Vengeance might be a little Westernised for some die-hard To fans. It goes at a slower pace and the inclusion of French singer/actor Hallyday might seem like To is pandering to European audiences, but the director proves himself once again to be a master of the crime film. With each new film he manages to approach the genre from a fresh, unexpected angle and Vengeance takes revenge into dark, compelling territory.

Richard Badley

Vengeance screened at the Terracotta Festival of Far East Film in May 2010.