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October 08, 2013

Drug War

drug war 1.jpg

Du zhan
Johnny To - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

There is a seriousness in Drug War that I haven't seen previously from Johnny To. Maybe it is in response to the laws of mainland China, where this film was shot. While the film was made with some of To's usual collaborators like screenwriter Wai Ka-Fai and editior David Richardson behind the camera, and Louis Koo and To mascot Lam Suet in the cast, the playfulness seen in the Hong Kong films is absent. Even when the usually no nonsense cop, Zhang, played by Sun Honglei impersonates a top drug smuggler named Haha due to his constant chortle, there is no reason to laugh.

With his baritone voice, almost deadpan in expression, there's the immediate sense that Zhang is not a guy you want to fuck around with. Yet that's what captured drug dealer Timmy tries to do. As Timmy, we first see Timmy frothing from the mouth, driving erratically until he crashes into a restaurant. At about the same time, a bus carrying several people serving as drug mules are caught. There is also a truck filled with the stuff needed to manufacture meth, driven by a drug addled pair. Timmy attempts to spare himself a certain death sentence by providing Zhang with information on the top drug dealers in northeastern China. Part of the sting operation in place involves Zhang impersonating the smuggler Haha, with the equally serious policewoman, Yang Xiaobei, playing his wife.

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Much of the first hour and a half is of culling information through observation. Images from traffic surveillance cameras, tiny video cameras, and binoculars are used. Both sides use hidden radio communications. For Zhang and Timmy, their lives depend on subterfuge - Zhang's pretending to be a high level gangster, and Timmy's new identity as police informant.

There is a culturally specific scene worth noting. Timmy gets together with two deaf-mute brothers who operate one of his two drug factories. He mentions how his wife and her brothers had been killed in an explosion in the other factory. Realizing that they do not have incense to burn in an impromptu memorial ceremony, money is burned instead.

One of the more intense scenes is of Zhang as Haha, goaded into snorting cocaine in order to get in the good graces of a leading crime boss. The real Haha has been seen boasting that while he sells drugs, he never indulges himself of the product. Zhang, as Haha, repeats his words verbatim, only to find that he cannot progress unless he takes a line, which becomes two lines, of the drug. What makes the scene interesting is how Zhang is first seen sniffing at a passed out Timmy in the beginning of the film, as well as covering his nose when he inspects Timmy's meth factory following the explosion. Part of Zhang's detection is through his sense of smell.

The cat and mouse games give way to a climatic shoot out. While it is as bloody as anything seen in previous To films, there isn't the sense of bravura, such as might be seen in Exiled. This is more straightforward as cops and criminals shoot each other. Without giving too much away, there is an incredible image when Timmy finds that there is no way he can escape Zhang. Timmy desperately clings to the illusion that he will be granted freedom, even at the moment of his inevitable fate.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 8, 2013 07:52 AM