Hong Kong director Johnnie To returns to form with his latest, Drug War. What is unknown to most Americans is that the inclusion of drugs in any film in China is normally taboo, so in his own way which tells the story of undercover cop Captain Zhang, played by Chinese mainland actor Sun Honglei, who meets a drug dealer Timmy Choi, played by Hong Kong actor Louis Koo. To avoid the death penalty, Choi agrees to reveal information about his partners who operate one of the areas largest cocaine rings. Throughout the investigation, Zhang’s suspicions of Choi’s honesty never falters. Even when Zhang must lead his men on a raid on the drug ring by trusting Choi himself.
Drugs are often a taboo subject in Hong Kong cinema. As a result many of the films that do choose to deal with them are typically exploitative and over-the-top, bordering on the ridiculous. As the title would imply, Drug War is a gritty, hard-edged story about the drug trade in China and the efforts of their police to bring about its demise. As the film opens we learn that Choi has survived an accident in one of his meth labs. The accident left him extremely ill and killed his wife and brother-in-law. Eventually, he is captured by Captain Zhang, who informs him that he will be facing the death penalty many times over for manufacturing, distribution and sales of illegal drugs. Choi knows what the charge means and falls to his knees, begging for mercy and promising to do anything if it will mean saving his life. He’s willing to give up family and friends in order to shorten his sentence and save his own skin. Choi offers to lead the Captain to notorious drug smuggler Bill Li. This crime lord is notoriously well-hidden and something of a myth within the drug trade. Zhang is immediately intrigued and wastes little time taking Choi up on his offer, which once again leads him undercover to find hard evidence that will put Bill Li away and sink the amphetamines market in China.
Drug War shows flashes of the kind of tough, military precision director Johnnie To showed in now classic films The Mission and Exiles. His characters are tough and driven, and each shows great guile and treachery as the film – and their relationship – wears on. But each has his own agenda and the cat and mouse game eventually must come to an end. And it does so in the spectacularly style director To is so well known for.
What is also interesting about this film is that Drug War is a crime film made and released in Mainland China by a Hong Kong film company and director. Whenever politics are involved there is will be an element of artistic compromise. In this case, the actors portraying policemen are Mainland Chinese and all the drug dealers are from Hong Kong. This obvious display of nationalism does nothing to take away from the performances or the film.
Drug War is a very engaging and powerful crime film and an excellent return to form from a great director.
Johnnie To’s Drug War debuts on Blu-ray and DVD on October 15 from Well Go USA Entertainment.