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Drug War
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by Jay Seaver

"Even Chinese censors can't keep Johnnie To from creating great crime."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL:"Procedural" gets thrown around like it's a dirty word when discussing crime dramas, but it needn't be; in the right hands, it can be a fantastic way to produce taut suspense with the melodrama drained away, while sneakily allowing the cast to create interesting characters without showy theatrics. And as anybody who has been watching genre film for the past couple decades can tell you, Johnnie To has the right hands, with "Drug War" a fine example of what he can do.

While Captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) and his team are busting a group of drug smugglers at a Jin Hai toll booth, a crystal meth factory belonging to Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) explodes, leaving him temporarily disoriented enough to crash his car. After an aborted escape attempt, he surrenders to Zhang - and since 50 grams of meth can get you the death sentence in China and he processes it by the ton, it behooves him to start talking.

And from there, To and a group of four writers (including frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai) just keep moving on to the next steps in a quickly-mounted sting operation, injecting themselves into meetings with potential distributor Haha (Hao Ping) and drug lords like Bill Li (Li Zhenqi) and his nephew Chang (Tan Kai), through which they discover other targets of opportunity. Unspoken but obvious is that the anti-drug squad's moves have to be made quickly, lest their targets find out that Timmy is working with them, and this mostly-unspoken circumstance allows To and company to steadily move from one situation to the next without worrying much about transitions or much in the way of subplots. The effect is almost that of a story being played out in real time, with no moments to step back and regroup, although To and editors Allen Leung & David M. Richardson are able to make sure the audience feels the passage of time as the sun goes down or comes up, or signs of fatigue show up in the characters' body language.

The audience isn't given any background on the characters, but To and the cast make sure who they are in the present moment is always very clear. Sun Honglei, for instance, gives Zhang an unmistakable air of confidence and authority, and Zhang is still unmistakably himself even when imitating another character in an undercover operation. Louis Koo, meanwhile, is cleverly restrained with Timmy's cowardice - this isn't a character who snivels, or who won't try something bold when given the opportunity, but no matter what seemingly-positive move he makes, or what talk there is of "redemption", fear and greed are driving him, and one just has to squint a little to see it. Aside from him, the crooks are portrayed by a fantastic brace of character actors: Hao Ping gets the biggest chance to play to the balcony as the aptly-named Haha, and he's fantastic in the part, but Tan Kai is just as memorable as the severe representative of "Uncle Bill". Guo Tao and Li Jing transform a pair of deaf-mute brothers from gimmick henchmen to serious threats, and a handful and a half of Milkyway regulars pop up in the last act (including Lam Suet playing another character named "Fatso"; the guy deserves better nicknames). The cops don't get to be nearly so colorful a group, but I suspect everyone who watches this will keep an eye out for "Crystal" Huang Yi in the future; her Xiao Hei is as utterly no-nonsense as she is striking, but Huang does well with the little bits of humanity even while establishing this petite detective as the one you should mess with the least.

The slow, constant build means that there aren't many big action scenes throughout the first half of the movie; there would be momentary relief and a moment to regroup when they ended, after all. There are some nice teases, though - what momentarily looks like a developing car chase becomes something similarly cool, and scenes will occasionally explode into something surprising. Because of that, the audience is primed when the movie takes a hard turn into action - To gives it just enough time to recognize that things are about to go completely crazy (and look for signs of a double-twist) before the guns come out and the bullets start flying. It's actually an amazingly well-done piece; by this point, there are a couple dozen identifiable characters in play, and they're shooting at each other just outside an elementary school. Tension mounts, bullets and blood fly, and some of the moments of release are darkly humorous indeed.

The skill of To and his Milkyway production crew becomes most evident in that sequence; Cheng Siu-keung's camerawork is precise and as sharp as it has been throughout the movie (although the shots with what I presume is Choi's meth factory in the background have a haunted look to them). Sound is used brilliantly, with the chatter of children appearing at just the right times to make things a little more tense. It's a slick, well-produced movie, though never too glossy or stylized. And while this is To's first crime movie produced in mainland China (he'd already done a romantic comedy there), he and the rest of his crew prove surprisingly adept at handling the censors' dictates - it doesn't feel that different from his Hong Kong work.

And who would want it to be different? To is good at this sort of thing, whether he does it in Hong Kong, Macau, or the People's Republic. "Drug War" isn't overly fancy, but it certainly gets the job done.

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originally posted: 07/20/13 22:35:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 15-Oct-2013


  18-Apr-2013 (MA)

Directed by
  Johnnie To

Written by
  Ryker Chan
  Ka-Fai Wai
  Nai-Hoi Yau
  Xi Yu

  Louis Koo
  Honglei Sun
  Yi Huang
  Michelle Ye
  Siu-Fai Cheung
  Wallace Chung

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