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Film review: Drug War

Paul Fonoroff

 

Starring: Sun Honglei, Louis Koo Tin-lok, Crystal Huang Yi
Director: Johnnie To Kei-fung
Category: IIB (Putonghua and Cantonese)

 

Hong Kong-style action with mainland characteristics is on display in Drug War, director-producer Johnnie To Kei-fung's first genre effort set entirely on the mainland. The terrain may be unfamiliar, but the picture is unmistakably To: fantastic violence, gritty realism and dark humour that is as viable in the open spaces of Jinghai as it is in To's usual SAR stomping ground.

True to its title, the narrative deals with the illicit narcotics trade, opening with an impressively orchestrated chase that culminates in a storefront crash featuring transplanted Hong Kong drug manufacturer Choi Tin-ming (Louis Koo Tin-lok). We see him literally foaming at the mouth as he attempts to flee an explosion, the casualties of which include Choi's illicit operation and several family members.

It is a fitting prelude to a thriller that liberally mixes realism and absurdity as the crime-busting squad led by officer Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) coerces Choi to "co-operate" or face imminent, government-sanctioned death.

To's sense of the incongruous shines through with supporting characters such as the deaf and mute siblings (Guo Tao and Li Jing) who savagely run a drug plant, and guffawing mob boss Haha (Hao Ping), who the seemingly straight-as-an-arrow Captain Zhang has to impersonate. He is also typically excessive in the bloodletting, leading to a grand finale outside a school in which the body count is high but conveniently, leaves the tykes unscathed.

Enjoyable for the logistics and sheer technical skill on show, the film goes on so long and involves so many participants that it becomes difficult to keep track of who is on which side.

However, sequences such as the shoot-out at the mute brothers' factory are brilliantly staged and edited. And, rare for ordinarily over-scored Chinese-language fare, the latter scene is all the more effective for its total lack of music.

Despite the abundance of nefarious dealings, the most chilling aspect of Drug War is its depiction of mainland justice. While refraining from even a hint of political statement, the scenario graphically reveals the suspects' lack of basic legal rights. Zhang and his colleagues are judge and jury, aided by a pervasive surveillance apparatus that would make the CIA envious.

If nothing else, it begs the question of how such a seemingly efficient system could result in the vast cesspool inhabited by the film's many combatants.

48hours@scmp.com

 

Drug War opens April 18

 

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