Johnnie To's "Drug War."
Johnnie To's "Drug War."

Among the 30-plus features I saw in Rotterdam, Johnnie To’s "Drug War" is the one that has the concrete feel of a masterpiece. The reviews I’ve seen out of this festival as well as from its world premiere last fall in Rome suggest a solid, unexceptional potboiler by a reliable genre craftsman. To has yet to receive his due as a world-class director whose films are as cinematically inventive and socially illuminating as those of Jia Zhangke. With this, his first film produced within the mainland Chinese system, the Hong-Kong based filmmaker enters the same minefield of censorship encircling Jia and other Chinese auteurs, and he has come out with a stunningly multivalent film that works as both riveting crime flick and subversive critique of the system.

The mid-career virtuosity that To exhibits in "Drug War" is a far cry from the quality of a decidedly lackluster competition slate.

The film follows the elaborate sting operation enacted by Chinese government agents within a deeply entrenched drug network, with everything pretty much hinging on the veracity of a captured drug maker (a phenomenally supple Louis Koo) in giving up his bosses in exchange for his life. His questionable loyalties bring dramatic tension from one scene to the next, leading to a spectacularly violent chain reaction climax. But Koo plays him convincingly as a victim trapped between two worlds: the cold virtue and machine-like efficiency of the government vs. the warm-blooded family values of the triad. For a censor-approved film, it's a shocking vision of contemporary China as a system with no center, where heroes and villains ultimately become indistinguishable through the collision of irreconcilable values. In its jaw-socking choreography of carnage with dark moral undertones, this is the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" thinks it is.

READ MORE: Dispatch From Rotterdam: Neo-Nazis, Dog Killers, and Yorgos Lanthimos' Crazy New More

The mid-career virtuosity that To exhibits in "Drug War" is a far cry from the quality of a decidedly lackluster competition slate, as covered in my last dispatch. Of the three Hivos Tiger Award winners - Slovakia's "My Dog Killer" and Austria's "Soldier Jane," and Iran's "Fat Shaker" - the last was the only one I found deserving, due to its inspired idiosyncrasies - a quality reprised by director Mohammad Shirvani's acceptance of his prize, as he pulled pages of his speech from different pockets and the bottom of one of his boots.

Next page: Where was the real talent of this year's festival?