DRUG WAR (2013) and the Economics of Excitement

December 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

To watch a film like Johnnie To’s Drug War with a critical outlook is a foolhardy venture, at least for first-time viewing. The first scenes unravel at a pace that ordinarily would befit the climax of another movie, and indeed we are at the ending of one story. Hong-Lei Sun’s Captain Zhang leads a team of men who finally arrest drugrunner Tin-ming Choi (Louis Koo) after a chase that takes them into a frigid morgue. Meanwhile, Zhang encounters a pair of officers who have been following a drug shipment for almost twenty-four hours, and the phone the drivers keep calling is Choi’s. This ruthless pacing, this structure of setup after setup, everything stripped away but the plot, makes it mighty difficult to dissect the fascinations and diversions of Drug War. You can’t do much analysis when your critical thinking skills have taken a backseat.

But To’s movie is brilliant in its way, subversive for a number of political reasons but also in its relationship to the tropes of Western action filmmaking that make his picture so accessible to English-speaking audiences. Settings like a ferry crowded with fishing boats might be unfamiliar, as will the legally specific detail that sparks the plot: under Chinese law, Choi’s involvement in the manufacture of illegal drugs will earn him the death penalty should he refuse to cooperate with police. The editing, on the other hand, belongs to the school of “intensified continuity” – a contemporary style reliant on brief average shot lengths and densely patterned cutting, identified by David Bordwell and most recognizable in action thrillers like The Bourne Ultimatum – in which Western audiences are now fluent. Intensified continuity has roots in the quick pace of Hong Kong New Wave cinema, but the crane shots and exaggerated reactions which also typify those pictures are largely absent from To’s latest.

For although the film opens with a suspenseful action scene that seems to forespell non-stop chases and gunfire, To’s use of his action setpieces emerges as more strategic than as a model for the film’s structure. Opening with a chase, rather than the character information and background that would normally occupy the opening minutes of a Hollywood film, allows Drug War to obscure specific details about its characters. The first scene that we spend in uninterrupted conversation with Zhang and Choi, then, is one in which both men are engaged in a deception: Zhang pretending to be Li Suchang, a high-level operative in the drug empire, and Choi enabling the deception as a collaborator. This sort of gamesmanship results in the film’s most suspenseful, tension-filled passages, particularly the climax of the second impersonation scene. That moment sees Zhang forced to snort high-grade cocaine to pull off his deception, while in character as the ostentatious wannabe player HaHa, his rising fear and quick thinking obscured by HaHa’s obnoxious mannerisms.

The resulting dilemma is the peak of the film’s tension and a segue into the more subversive elements of its second half, yet what To’s accomplished in these first forty-five minutes is also worth examining. The lack of another major action or suspense setpiece until the last two scenes, two brief, violent gunfights that leave nearly every major character dead, stabs back against the typical Western thriller model that values progressive action. Films often open with a bang, then slow down and parcel out character and plot information before doling out a series of progressively longer, more choreographed and almost certainly more violent action sequences.

A recent film like Homefront exemplifies this approach. Despite the rushed and unfinished qualities of its narrative (potential avenues like the effect of Jason Statham’s narc-in-hiding’s violent behavior on his relationship with his daughter are never explored, and a romantic subplot forgotten altogether in the second half), there’s a clear and classical progression to the presentation of its action scenes. First, an explosive opening scene relates the character’s backstory while ostensibly hooking the audience with the kind of fireworks this film promises to deliver again. Then, things quiet down to establish his life in hiding, leading inevitably to a brief tussle with a local. This brief moment of action punctures the narrative stasis and leads to a scene in which Statham must fend off three men at a gas station, and eventually a full-on siege at his home with a small army before the final confrontation with James Franco’s Gator. While this last confrontation, as with most action films, is a one-on-one encounter, the physical stakes by now have been substituted with the emotional weight of Gator’s involvement in the plot, and the Statham character’s righteous anger at his opponent.

Drug War lacks such a clear antagonist to unite viewers’ antipathy, at least until Choi turns tail again in the finale. His betrayal of Zhang, though, works along with a theme that’s gone understated in the film so far, the moralist thread we recognize in the old adage: no honor among thieves. Why trust a man willing to betray everyone he’s worked alongside for years? It’s a question that To’s patterns of filmmaking – propulsive, cutting out everything not germane to the forward progression of the procedural – haven’t allowed us space to contemplate. The emergence of the human equation in the third act, as Zhang and his force prove ultimately and fatally fallible, is the loose thread that unravels everything else To’s woven together.

To has made films in the past that seemed to be constantly working toward climax, like his 2006 Exiled, which contains no less than three Mexican standoff setpieces composed like the drawn-out finales of Sergio Leone’s most renowned Westerns. Instead, Drug War begins in furor and then tapers off before imploding in the final minutes. Why? He’s working with a different sort of suspense here, one not based on the classical, Hitchcockian model of information provided to the audience but concealed from the characters, but instead working from the expectations that arrive along with viewers sitting down for a cop thriller like Drug War.

David Bordwell has further commented on the picture’s tendency toward a limited strategy of communicating information to the audience, which means that viewers must pay close attention during each shot or miss out on crucial plot details. Without repeated dialogue cues to remind them, Western audiences can easily overlook the significance of the highway pickup scene, in which the undercover Zhang, along with Choi and the other agents, accepts a package which could contain either drugs or a decoy to ascertain whether Choi has betrayed his colleagues. This foreshadows Choi’s eventual double-cross in the finale, as a series of shots wordlessly signifies his realization that only he can save himself from both the law and the vengeance of his associates.

Bordwell identifies this as a storytelling pattern distinct to To’s production company, Milkyway Image. But it is important to recognize the strategy as not simply a different one, or a personal trademark, but as a crucial tool for the impact of Drug War’s finale. Throughout the picture, To’s refusal to clarify or to revisit plot points creates an uncertain effect in the minds of viewers, especially on a first viewing. The sequence which, in a Westernized version of the film, would have the greatest emotional impact, here becomes simply part of Drug War’s relentless procedural progression. The scene in question is Choi’s return to the home of his mute employees, where he reveals to them the death of his wife in the explosion which took place shortly before the beginning of the film.

By this time, however, we have already seen Choi engaged in heavy deception, playing a part with those who seem to value his word most highly. Can audiences believe Choi, even when his associates contribute to an expensive ceremony in his wife’s honor by burning currency outside? To’s certainly not interested in clarifying. Always we are forced to distrust, our sympathy displaced, roving restlessly somewhere on the fringes of the narrative, looking for a character or value to latch onto. Most telling about To’s purpose here is the juxtaposition of police officers counting cash with a video stream of the ceremony; if Choi’s lying, we still know nothing about the values and sympathies of his handlers, particularly Zhang.

It’s only in the finale that To strongly nudges our sympathies in one direction, as Choi’s subterfuge is revealed to both parties and we can easily think of him as a rat. Yet here we’re also aligned with characters on both sides through brief shots that diverge from the plot; in one instance as the wife of a gangster crouches behind a car, bleeding to death, and attempting to fix her shoe; another, as a character climbs into a shot-up car and tries desperately to hotwire it, the camera lingering on his anguished face. Both shots take place (rather deliberately) during a lull in the cross-fire, giving us a rare, almost unprecedented moment to savor these character details before the persons themselves are obliterated.

Choi gets away, but not before a final shootout in which a dying Zhang handcuffs himself to the traitor’s leg, not only acting as a far neater metaphor than anything Drug War’s delivered so far, but ensuring that none of the major players in this scheme get out alive as the sirens close in. The final equation of To’s film, in which the values of drugrunner and cop are kept deliberately obscured throughout, cancels out both sides. The one action necessary to toe the line of censorship – Choi must betray his handlers in order to establish himself as a villain, which in turn ensures his capture and execution – receives a neat visual rejoinder in the final images, as Choi tries desperately to save himself from lethal injection. His pleas go unanswered as a black cloth is draped over his face, a callback to the roleplaying of the first half: all disguises and potential identities are irrelevant once the process of justice has been completed, and the only necessary mask is a death mask. – Brendan


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