Johnnie To is a prime example of a director whose name means one thing to overseas audiences, and quite another to those in his native Hong Kong. While his home fans know him as a prolific genre-hopping polyglot whose production company Milkyway Image is a force to be reckoned with on the national filmmaking scene, abroad, especially in the U.S., he’s primarily known as an action/thriller director; a less-stylized John Woo. And so his newest film, “Drug War” (“Du Zhan“), which was a late “surprise” addition to the Rome Film Festival line-up, should export neatly. A bruising procedural, the film covers in unflinching detail just a couple of packed days in the course of a sprawling and complex sting operation to bring down a cadre of drug kingpins. Despite a strict, almost ascetic attention to narrative logic, To’s storytelling skill somehow kept us engaged through long periods of talkiness and complex plotting, until a climax so violent in its gunplay, so merciless in who it kills and so long, that we felt physically drained when it finally ended.
But what’s perhaps most impressive is that without resorting to love triangles or interpersonal complications, in fact without a shred of backstory or a single moment of personal time given to any of the many principals, you come to care for the characters nonetheless, simply for their uncompromising determination, which results for many of them in the ultimate sacrifice. This is an achievement that shouldn’t be understated, and huge props have to go to the cast, especially Honglei Sun, who is so, so good as the singleminded Captain Zhang. Despite the film being shot in a fairly pedestrian, not to say ugly manner, with no particular aesthetic filter (there’s little beauty to be had in scenes of policemen washing the shit off egg-like bags of powder confiscated from various rear ends, after all), and despite the humdrum feel of the first half hour or so before the plan is put properly into action, Zhang emerges as a fascinating character. His unimpeachable integrity and intelligence give him an almost monk-like cool — whatever the cost, we feel, he is going to get his man.
An explosion happens in a drug manufacturing base, and only the underworld-connected boss gets out alive, though barely. Face splattered with a corrosive substance and vomiting wildly, he drives his car into a restaurant and is brought to hospital. This is where he meets Captain Zhang, who sees in him the opportunity to put into practice a daring plan to bring down a whole cartel. In this endeavor he’s ably abetted by Michelle Ye‘s similarly dogged, unsmiling lieutenant character, and a host of other resourceful and utterly dedicated officers. And for the majority of the film, that’s how it plays out, in low-key, quite talky form (which can be wearing for the subtitle readers), a complicated game of cat and mouse which requires them both Captain and Lieutenant to assume double identities, and to seldom sleep.
But that’s not to say To doesn’t find moments of levity. In fact, the narrative trick of having the ambitious wannabe distributor who Zhang impersonates be named Brother Haha on account of his constant barks of inappropriate laughter, lends a darkly humorous edge. Zhang’s impersonation is spot-on, and means that otherwise sinister scenes are punctuated with breezy guffaws that both lighten and heighten discomfort. Similarly, an amusing moment in which a pair of officers who have been pursuing a suspect truck for 24 hours are relieved, and promptly pull over to, er, relieve themselves, raises a laugh, but also serves to keep the proceedings grounded in reality.
In fact, the film does sometimes lag fractionally, and the lack of visual pyrotechnics and the constant introduction of new characters on both sides gets a little monotonous. We get it, we think, this is a gritty, grounded meticulous drama that hews fairly close to life in that for long periods of time most of what happens is people talking in a room — and accordingly, going in to the final third, our energy level may be low. But it’s tempting to even see that as a deliberate move on To’s part (though we could be giving him too much credit) because the low-key nature of what’s come before simply serves to render all the more effective the final shootout, when the film careens completely, and bloodily, off the rails. In a bravura, multi-location, almost wordless climax, bullets fly and bodies mount up on both sides, with a distinctly un-Hollywood disregard for any character’s screen time to that point. It’s on no level art, but as a commercial film it’s impressively unglamourised and unrelenting, albeit wildly exaggerrated (it’s not social commentary either). It hooks you early, draws you in gradually, and then beats you soundly around the head for the last twenty minutes. Masochists that we are, it’s how we like to be treated. [B]