Drug War has a title lending itself to the genre simplicity of a modern crime film. We have the expected participants of devoted cops matching wits with desperate criminals, a jittery-cool percussive guitar-synth score skipping along with grey urban metal and smokey noir nights, and information technology gadgets underlying the movement toward ineluctable violence. But all that, assuming that it’s under the masterly guiding arrangement of a director like Johnnie To (moving from his usual terrain of Hong Kong to mainland China), reminds us how good an honest genre picture can be, and how rare it is that Hollywood would allow one to glow with such a controlled slow-burn, the heated sensory alertness of frenetic action playing alongside cool precision and measured restraint, packed with blistering suspense from start to finish, though the film’s first gunshots aren’t heard for nearly 65 minutes. Focusing on a drug manufacturer, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), whose only way out of an immediate death sentence is to collaborate with a brilliant and multifaceted police captain, Zhang (Honglei Sun), Drug War is a lacerating procedural of cops infiltrating cartels, a diamond bullet dazzler of existential dread and undercover play-acting through insurmountable criminal layers where the players are pawns on a draconian police state grid. For both sides, action on the board is insanely desperate, and yet futile.
Dead Man Walking: meth maker Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) surrenders in a morgue in "Drug War"
The collision of hot and cold is there in the opening images: in the hazy distance, smoke rises from a meth lab explosion. The unseen bodies are already burned up with the lone survivor, Choi, fleeing, the squeal of accelerating tires and flurry of angles presenting the moment as a one-man car chase through dense city streets. Choi loses control of his faculties, vomiting and struggling to breathe, and finally crashes into a restaurant, rendering him comatose. The prologue gets under the surface of a pursue-and-catch plot. The landscape is captured by ubiquitous security cameras which damn individuals quickly to death, as in China, we gather, the cost of manufacturing and exporting narcotics isn’t just incriminating, it’s existential. To be caught is an automatic death sentence. The law is blunt and uncompromising, and the cameras are always registering, perched high over intersections and sometimes microscopically plugged in tight interior spaces. That the car-chase involves one man is telling. Cop and criminal are often juxtaposed against each other, but Drug War makes the mirror more intimate and almost schizophrenic, where one is already juxtaposed against their own nature. To shows the infinite variety of personae adopted by either side to achieve ends. Wearing droll faces that can adopt the giddy smiles of clown masks, these characters skip around a performative life-and-death chessboard.
Surveillance State as the film production set of Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun)
The story’s procedural aspect is front-and-center. We’re jacked into the process of police and criminals with a bravura toll station set piece, where vehicles from both groups (though from varying organizations) converge. An officer undercover as a station agent takes note of tiny details in the cars–a water bottle filled with urine, food wrappers, the physical disposition of the riders. Like the impersonal cameras overlooking everything, To’s people are always registering, scanning spaces. Meanwhile, a smoking bus of drug mules pulls up to the toll window. We’re not verbally navigated through the scenario, but intuit things through glances and gestures. The bus has been infiltrated by Captain Zhang’s crew, Zhang taking a central role as the drug ringleader’s closest companion on the commute. They share some fruit together while wading through the checkpoint suspense, displaying camaraderie. In a flash, the dealer, tugging Zhang along with him, runs, but the police with their many eyes are far ahead. Everyone’s handily apprehended, the primary dealer apoplectic about the betrayal. Zhang candidly head-butts him. “I didn’t betray you, I’m a cop,” he says without discernible affect.
Zhang is a blank slate and an unimpeded cyborg “terminator” more than the familiar melancholic cop. This is a trend that’s been increasingly pronounced in crime genre films through the digital information age. Like Kathryn Bigelow’sZero Dark Thirty last year, Drug War exemplifies how the shift to total surveillance and a drone mentality has rendered policing to an eerie post-human realm. Zhang and his team, most memorably Yang Xiaobei (Huang Yi), a tough-as-nails officer who can swiftly alternate between diminutive and servile femininity while working undercover before exploding with merciless and efficient violence, don’t make mention of lives behind the wire. These officers don’t have dreams or whisper hushed longings to the landscape. They infiltrate by acting, win trust at great risk, accrue evidence, collaborate with other police teams, and make arrests, with little thought to how all of these drug mules, pods of heroin uncomfortably lodged in their orifices, will be snappily executed, even though it’s apparent that most of these criminals are poor and desperate. Yang gives tissue to a weeping woman struggling to shit out pellets, but such empathy is on a short leash. Bodies are ushered through a systematic assembly line, and new leads immediately point to another group of drug runners. Zhang’s team moves again. There is no downtime, no rest. Just work.
Mutual imprisonment between police and criminals
The comatose Timmy Choi is the new lead. In the hospital, he wakes from his sleep and sneaks away from police on guard. Zhang, fresh from investigating the accident scene, is ahead of his prey. Choi is chased into the hospital morgue and instead of fighting, which would ensure a quick death, he drops his scalpel and gives up. To gives us a funny visual metaphor in this stark and antiseptic moment, as Choi pulls away plastic while on the corpse slab, his arms up: all of these individuals, on both sides of the system, are already dead. Choi says he’ll cooperate because, “I don’t want a death sentence. I just want a suspension.” The instinct for life overpowers resistence to imprisonment. His wife died in the meth lab fire, along with several other relatives and associates. He has his buyers and contacts and will give them up for more time. He has nothing to live for, but can’t bear dying.
The infiltration procedure is a complex puzzle and its own kind of “filmmaking,” Zhang directing with a steady crew who oversee and read the surveillance images. Undercover cops are improvising multiple roles in meeting Choi’s associates, and sometimes rewriting a given script of performance, adopting overheard idioms and idiosyncrasies like method actors. For instance, Zhang plays a morose and doped-out dealer who must sell himself to a kingpin, the aptly named Haha (who laughs in such a boisterous way we’re given cause to doubt the authenticity of his good humor, indicating the performative aspect is on both sides), being sure to get implicating photographic images and audio recording of all involved–the scene made strangely exuberant with some amusing surveillance camera slapstick thrown in (Haha’s mistress, in accommodating Zhang, keeps on putting delicacies in front of the roving cigarette case which holds the minuscule viewfinder). Successful, Zhang and Choi go to a dressing room, “get into character,” and quickly move on to another “set.” Zhang takes on the markedly different and expressive role of Haha, garnering the trust of the unknown dealer he was imitating in the earlier scene.
Johnnie To's photoscopic fantasy-land of theatricality, as a drug kingpin plays tourist.
Choi has a vested interest in fooling his collaborators in the drug ring because it keeps him alive. He knows the camera’s on him at all times. But the steely Zhang is vulnerable when, to prove goodwill, he is forced to snort a substantial amount of illegal nose candy. It’s a terrific nail-biting moment, a four-person volley of disguise and manipulation between Zhang, Choi, Yang, and the dealer, while a monitoring crew listens in. But Zhang, who also carried heroin pellets in his rectum during the opening raid, is committed more to his work–to the performance–than his well-being. It’s harrowing to see how his body reacts when the dealer leaves and the curtain comes up. The narcotics have a horrifying effect on him, and his stoic veneer crumbles as he shudders and begs for ice and water. Once recovered, wrapped up in bath towels, he’s fast to get serious with Choi and move on to the next stage of infiltration.
The way fluid identity inhabits the body is parallel to an unleashed contaminant, like the narcotics sniffed by Zhang. Drug War doesn’t separate the intricacies of the drug trade from the ramifications of drug use. In addition to Zhang’s near-breakdown in a hotel room, To follows a couple of Choi’s associates on a cross-country journey as they’re blitzed out on their product, eventually whittled down to giggling buffoons. Physiology is a key player, causing its own kind of violence in a story where there will be more than enough gunplay. Bodily interiors aren’t immune from impersonal camera-eye infiltration, an x-ray revealing a mule’s insides packed with drug pellets. We see another mule choking on blood after a pellet has burst inside of him, and we suffer with the unfortunate people who forcibly expel them in plastic buckets. There’s a sense of muted vacancy as Zhang looks down on the pellets forced from his own body, washing fecal residue off in a sink. This is a man so wrapped up in work that he’s alienated from intimacy with his own flesh.
Drug War is set over a matter of days, and has a vivid though subdued momentum behind every turn of events, often with the pull of real-time suspense. It’s so effective in grasping a chase’s urgency over 64-square contingencies that we’re off-guard when Choi, meeting with a pair of generous deaf employees at one of his factories, seems to stop play-acting (on instruction he’s set up tiny cameras, Zhang telling him earlier, “Make sure I can see every single corner”) and has a ritual pause to grieve for his dead wife. For the first time in 55 minutes, Drug War slides into the sanctuary of personal reflection, even though we can’t be sure if Choi has ulterior motives, and that this is just another layer to a performance. He sets his own money on fire during this pause, as a religious offering to the departed. “The dead can’t use real currency,” one of the surveilling police officers says. Though he’s extending his life through meager spoonfuls, as Choi watches the money burn he grasps how he’s already also departed.
As expected in a Johnnie To crime film, the intricate vectors magnificently lead to elaborately staged violent outcomes. Though To holds off on the action violence for which he’s famous, when it swiftly arrives more than halfway into this post-human odyssey it’s magnificently engineered and in absolute contrast to the hyperbolic chaos that currently pummels American audiences. One incredible sequence involves the deaf drug workers, who always wear their bullet proof vests (even showering with them). Their senses not distracted by the noise of gunplay, with bewildering grace under pressure they take on a whole force of raiding police. Again, we’re reminded how the defects or quirks of body chemistry determine outcomes in real space. From there To brings all of the disparate forces together in front of an elementary school, lines of crime and law converging once again in vehicles during midday daylight with the most vividly brutal and well-directed movie shoot-out in recent memory.
Final shootout: "Drug War"
In the detritus of these extended concluding moments, Drug War conveys a kind of banality to death along with impersonal gruesomeness. Life and death decisions are quick and ridiculous, and gestures of heroism almost absurdly casual rather than histrionic or romantic. The pretenses of personae fall off, and we realize that this film works because its two leads, Louis Koo and Honglei Sun, are so marvelous in losing themselves in the layers of capacious and ever-adapting human personality. To’s craftsmanship with masterful cutting and camera angles, with eye-grabbing ascending crane shots, affiliates his work as movie-maker to the Orwellian police state of steely surveillance eye voyeurism, the mechanical battleground where the personae adjust like hyperreal social network avatars, stage blood spattering on the lens (it’s worth pondering if the filmmaker, working under the auspices of mainland China–as compared to his usual Hong Kong stomping ground–is deftly smuggling in some critical notions about his own backers). Unlike its precedents and peers in the modern noir genre with which American audiences may be more attuned, Drug War isn’t romantically melancholic. It’s full blown nihilistic, where the war zone is a dead zone, and life and death are equally tuned to a humming electronic frequency.
For some of the most thorough writing on director Johnnie To, and Asian cinema generally, I can’t encourage you enough to check out Sean Gilman’s blog, The End of Cinema, a treasure trove of keen observations.