In just under twelve months, I’ve had the good fortune to have watched three superb new release Asian crime movies. In my opinion, they mark a turning point in their respective film cultures. The films are: from India, Gangs of Wasseypur, a very un-Bollywood-like crime saga which chronicles a century long blood feud; the Chinese feature Lethal Hostage from wannabe auteur Cheng Er; and Johnnie To’s first mainland produced and financed cop drama, Drug War. More on the latter title — later.
I’ve been a fan of the crime film genre for as long as I can remember and it’s nearly always been the Hollywood crime movies (with the occasional European diversion) which have been so memorable. I have invariably seen it as a typically American genre, with the confluence of capitalism and crime creating the allure of easy money and its visceral rewards, as opposed to a lifetime of grinding poverty or aching middle-class boredom.
It’s generally agreed that the crime genre in America shone brightest during the 1970s, with highly profitable films and the major studios regularly producing crime movies with big stars and big budgets. The best crime pics of this period came from a deep pool of titles and talent.
The following movies readily bubble up as being my favourites: The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2, where director Francis Ford Coppola and writer Mario Puzo take a knuckleduster to the American dream and give new meaning to the term “family values”; the Don Siegel movie Charley Varrick, starring Walter Matthau as a classic 1970’s anti-hero, a cropduster and part-time bank robber who finds himself being hunted by a mafia psychopath named Molly (Joe Don Baker). For me, it’s close to being the perfect crime flick; and, The Outfit, from studio helmer John Flynn via the pen of pulp royalty Richard Stark, is as downbeat as its seedy locations where three small-time gunsels hell bent on revenge hit the mob hard and often.
But Hollywood could be losing its crime genre crown with the worldwide pivot towards Asia. With the growing unfettered capitalism of the region we are now seeing the countries at the centre of this economic boom, China and India, producing crime films equivalent to the best that America can make.
Drug War lives up to all its promise and is an excellent straight-up-and-down crime flick which is documentary-like at times. For a Johnnie To / Milkyway production it’s idiosyncratic-lite and, in the main, the gunplay is kept to a minimum; but the atmosphere and tension that director To creates grips the viewer for the duration. Drug War has also survived China’s censors intact, although the China-Hong Kong production team occasionally treads carefully. The drug-related content would have been enough four years ago to sink the film’s official release in China.
Most of the movie is set in and around the port town of Jin Hai in North Eastern China. Inspector Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) is head of the city’s anti-drug squad. He’s a straight arrow cop who knows exactly which side of the law he’s on; early in the pic he headbutts a mouthy drug courier and roars at him, “I’m a cop – you’re a drug dealer!” But the screenwriters certainly don’t trot out law and order propaganda: Zhang is a tough and intelligent cop who can also make mistakes in the heat of the moment. He’s supported by a team of resourceful and tech savvy officers, typified by the stern-minded Xiao Bei (Crystal Huang Yi).
Through instinct and solid police work Zhang uncovers the identity of the lone survivor of an explosion in a local drug factory. A mid-level Southern Chinese dealer, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) knows he faces the death penalty for illegal drug manufacturing, and in a desperate bid to reduce the charge he offers Zhang a deal in which he would inform on the higher-up figures in the syndicate. Zhang agrees and an elaborate surveillance operation begins.
The relationship between Zhang and Choi is at the heart of the film, but we won’t be seeing a clever Milkyway yin-yang psychodrama unfold — this is a grounded narrative which takes place in the here and now. Louis Koo is at his duplicitous best and gives his finest screen performance since Soi Cheang’s Accident. The granite-faced Sun Honglei (Lethal Hostage) is a popular and well established character actor in China and Drug War should introduce his talents to a wider Western audience — hopefully on the big screen, probably on DVD.
Forget the sunny climes of Southern China where the RomComs are made; this film is set firmly in North East China, a bitterly cold, sleet-filled region with a grim mixture of industrial and commercial drudgery, the reality of China’s economic miracle for much of this population.
This is most likely the best written Johnnie To film I’ve seen. Apart from being very well structured, we’re introduced to some fascinating characters in this treacherous milieu. Ha-Ha (Hao Ping) is an ebullient, rich drug dealer who owns a small slice of Northern China and runs his business like a gaudy game show with him at centre stage. And the “mute boys”, two deaf brothers who operate a drug factory for Choi. To dismiss these siblings as criminal curios would be a lethal mistake. The closest we get to a Milkyway moment is a multi-million-dollar drug transaction which takes place at a busy city intersection and is concluded in a single traffic light sequence.
The trust between Zhang and Choi is tenuous at best when each needs the other. In the end, Zhang has the upper hand and tells Choi he can throw him to the wolves whenever he wants. Choi offers new information on a cashed-up cabal of Chinese gangsters who intend to smuggle large quantities of drugs into Korea and Japan. This group is led by veteran HK actor Lam Suet (Vengeance) as Fatso, who manipulates the other gang members into following his lead by telling them “High risk – high return.” One of his team is Sal (Michelle Ye), a vacuous Southerner who has a yen for designer clothes, and a thoroughly pitiless streak when cornered.
As the police shadow the criminals moving around Northern China and setting up the big drug deal, their paths eventually converge back in Jin Hai where the final hand of this deadly game is about to be played.
In a genuine surprise to the police and their quarry, both groups find themselves guns drawn and metres apart outside a primary school teeming with parents and young children. A gun battle breaks out, and soon a minibus with students inside has been hijacked by one of the wounded gang. This leads to a protracted shootout on the concrete tundra of the city’s outskirts. What happens here and how it happens could easily change an audience’s perception of contemporary Chinese cinema. It’s that confronting! And it’s that good!
For nearly all viewers the above will be a revelation, but for hardcore Johnnie To buffs and longtime fans of Canto cinema this final bloodshed and chaos will be recognised as a direct take from the 1998 HK crime pic Expect the Unexpected, which was produced by Johnnie To and Milkyway Image.
But for the vast majority of audiences inside and outside China, Drug War will be seen as a groundbreaking crime drama on many fronts.