Du zhan / Drug War (2012)

19 08 2013

I hesitate to call Johnny To a “critic’s filmmaker” because the phrase could mean plenty of things. On the other hand, a film like this, a genre film so smartly constructed and confidently composed is the sort of thing that film nerds love. That’s not a dismissal, though, because there’s truly something remarkable here from a technical perspective. Perhaps it lacks something in the pathos department, but it twists and bends the action film genre to its most logical point. It’s not going to make you cry or anything, but there’s something so exciting about watching a filmmaker who is so sure of himself.


Druglord Timmy Choi begins vomiting profusely while driving, which results in him crashing his car into a restaurant. Meanwhile, Zhang has just made a huge drug bust. Choi is hospitalized, but faces the death penalty. Zhang gives him the opportunity to get out of it if he helps the police by going undercover. He agrees, but things don’t run smoothly, and Choi’s allegiance is never clear.


The setup here is pretty straightforward, which is ultimately a positive with the amount of narrative developments that are present. It would be exhausting to revisit all of them in text, but thankfully one can’t say the same for To’s images. They serve a purpose, sure, but his film doesn’t feel like a crime film dressed up with nice cinematography. At the same time, calling the visual style “functional” implies something negative, that it is less than great. To make things a bit more simple: the intricacy of the story (multiple viewings is probably wise) is less frustrating because To’s technical wizardry carries the momentum. One never gets the impression of walking through a puddle of exposition.


Here comes another description of To that seems negative: clever. Sure, maybe it’s condescending but I struggle to find another way to describe the scene where Zhang meets HaHa while impersonating Li Suchang, which is followed by the scene where he meets Li Suchang while impersonating HaHa. It’s a narrative move that is apparently a theme of To’s work. The idea alone is brilliant, but To executes it with such confidence that you never get the impression that he’s elbowing the audience in the ribs. It seems like he could be justified in doing so.


Not all of To’s tricks work at the same level as the scene described above. The bit with the deaf men feels corny enough to make Tarantino roll his eyes. His best moment might be the film’s finale, which is as exhausting as it is brilliant, an extended shootout scene devoid of a soundtrack beyond the sound of bullets flying. It’s a bit ridiculous, but it feels cathartic. The result of the shootout is To’s twisting of the crime film, so much so that it seems to betray the genre itself yet at the same time it feels like the most “real” outcome of such a scenario. As To begins to gain popularity in the west, I can’t think of a better film to convert potential fans.




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