This year we have two Johnnie To films hitting our screen - well at least I'm hoping Blind Detective does so soon after its bow in Cannes - and what would be striking in Drug War is that it's done with Chinese collaboration. After all, being shot in the Mainland, with a production partner and a majority of the cast hailing from China, it's a trend that won't see itself buckling anytime soon, and even Hollywood sees China as unexplored territory for opportunities from production right down to distribution. But the murmuring about having different versions for the Chinese audience, or self-censoring, cannot be more pronounced, so how does that affect Johnnie To's crime flicks?
Quite a bit I must say, with pros and cons which Drug War seem to be caught under that crossfire. There are a few rules that the Chinese play by, and chief to that is the morals imposed where the bad guys cannot go scot free. So even without stepping into the cinema, or hear what this film is about, the ending is already cast in stone, which takes a little shine off the fun in being able to follow through the story, and waiting to be surprised at the finale. No matter how tight one's writing can be, it leads to that inevitable finish, so that expectation is quite the bitch.
Otherwise, China presents itself a new playground in which filmmakers can go and get their vision presented through landscapes yet to be familiar playgrounds. The filmmakers here have ventured beyond the bigger and well known cities, and opted for smaller second tier ones to present that small town, rustic look where one supposes a crime syndicate could thrive under, and operate without too much attention being paid to it. Until Louis Koo's Cai is seen driving a car in haphazard fashion, suffering from injuries yet to be explained, and setting the stage for something special from the imagination of To and long time collaborator Wai Ka-Fai. That, and a trailer that's making its rounds for a delivery of its cargo, made up of ingredients necessary for the big time production of ketamine.
Then we must be introduced to the cops, where the anti-narcotic department is given the spotlight for the film's focus on a drug syndicate. Chinese actor Sun Honglei leads the charge here as the division chief Inspector Zhang, getting introduced as a no-nonsense, hands off type of leader who walks the talk, and never shying away from being in the thick of the action when the need calls for it. In many scenes, it is Sun Honglei's charismatic presence and superb acting that made this watchable, since his character dabbles in a little bit of role play while undercover, utilizing a vast array of skills within his ability to make it convincing not only to the other characters he deals with, but to the audience as well.
The crux of the story lies in the power and cat and mouse play that both Zhang and Cai engage in, with the latter under the former's custody, and facing the mandatory death sentence if convicted. Wanting to survive, he strikes a deal with Zhang to allow him access to the bigger fish in the pond, and for Zhang, this is too big an opportunity in his career, and for the wider group of population he serves, to give up. So together with his team, they form an uneasy partnership with Cai, since trust is yet to be earned, suspicion always round the corner that Cai will bolt, and whether they're walking into a known trap set up by him. The story's kept at a steady pace by Johnnie To, keeping things quite cerebral in leaving you wondering about Cai's motivation for the most parts, especially since having to reveal that Cai is quite the slimy, street smart person going all out to ensure his survival.
And I suppose a Milkyway crime thriller isn't a Milkyway crime thriller if the usual suspects don't turn up in any capacity. With a relatively fresh faced cast from the Mainland, and with recognizable faces such as Huang Yi playing Sun Honglei's able deputy, it never really feels quite right without To's stable of actors tossed into the mix, and thankfully this is one formula that's being kept. Better yet, this version screened here kept their Cantonese dialogue intact - even Louis Koo was undubbed - and that serves as a more authentic presentation. There's Lam Suet, Eddie Cheung, Lo Hoi Pang, and Lam Ka Tung amongst others who make an appearance, and contribute where it mattered most, allowing reason for fan boys to cheer.
There's a wider subtext in the film though, dealing with Hong Kong and China, where the former group sees opportunities in making money in the Mainland, but the message is that collaboration and mutual trust is key. Should one group try to breakaway from an alliance, it serves nobody any advantage, and the outcome may be dire straits. It's an unfair alliance to begin with since there's a larger body involved compared to the smaller partner who's not given a level playing field or too much of a bargaining power, but to play within the rules set will ensure survival.
Not since Election 2 has a Johnnie To film been so direct with its metaphors and allegories, and this is what sets Drug War apart from other run of the mill crime thrillers done by other filmmakers. The Milkyway team has ventured into China with their romantic comedy to some degree of success, and they've now shown the way that crime capers also have an avenue in the mainland despite having to play by the rules set by others. This is well worth a watch despite an extended sequence that vaguely resembled something out of MI:4 Ghost Protocol, which is just as gripping as it was opportunity for Sun Honglei to showoff some acting chops, and the expected moans and groans about the ending where To delivers his usual shoot out spectacle to outgun and outlast any John Woo picture. Recommended!