Career-wise, Johnnie To's not a director who takes his time—with 50 films since 1987, he's averaging nearly two a year—but one of his latest, Drug War, is so effective because he helms with a steady hand and gazes intensely at drug-trafficking. There's a pair of cops, tailing a drug-running truck all day as it waits for delivery confirmation; relieved from duty, they scramble out of their car to finally piss at the side of the road. There are the mules, arrested and squatting over plastic bedpans as the cops wait to confiscate the pods of drugs they swallowed hours before. There's the arrested boss, Timmy Choi (Eric Khoo), who agrees to a complex sting operation quickly set up by Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) in order to break the ring and nab the top guy, Bill Li. And there are the characters teetering on the edge of caricature but pulled back just in time: middle-man Haha (Hao Ping), who laughs as much to put himself at ease as to be jovial before a business deal; mute brothers who work in the methamphetamine lab and communicate with sign language.
To's a Hong Kong director—perhaps best known over here for the very good Election—who shot in mainland China for the first time; Drug War is a gritty, near-cynical take on today's China, where both police violence and drug-related violence seem inevitable but pointless. The uncompromising, hard-eyed Zhang runs Choi relentlessly but suspects Choi's playing him. (Choi's nearly immediate decision to work for the cops, though, comes when Zhang tells him he'll get the death penalty—a convenient and implausible justification of state executions.)
There's a documentary-like look to many sequences, though the film's also fairly stylized (particularly the many blue-lit scenes). The raid on the brothers' warehouse is coolly, efficiently, wordlessly memorable for the pair's unrattled response. Still, the climactic street shootout is such a melee, it's as much tragic as comic; the last moments are as much pathetic as nihilistic. All the clever bluffing and imposture throughout can't mask the fact that Drug War is a nicely tangled, smartly paced and cold little thriller—nothing more, nothing less.
Fri, Sep 27 – Wed, Oct 2
Metro Cinema at the Garneau