(Johnnie To, 2012)
Johnnie To's second film made in mainland China is broadly more typical of his recent career than last years Romancing In Thin Air. Drug War is a police procedural chronicling the attempts by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) and his unit to best capitalise on the fact that Hong Kong drug manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) has fallen into their hands following an explosion at his factory. Using his reluctance to die by lethal injection - the fate reserved for drug traffickers and suppliers in China - they mount an improvised undercover operation in the hopes of snaring his partners. But Choi is unpredictable, his partners are extremely dangerous and mysterious, and the stakes are high for all involved.
The shift from To's usual locations in the teeming colour of Hong Kong's streets to mainland China seems to have prompted a matching stylistic shift - Drug War is a little less ostentatious in its camerawork and photography. There are fewer sweeping crane shots and startling compositional juxtapositions than in much of his work. Instead the style suits the story: terse, clipped and pared down, To shoots these locations with a great feel for the nuances of place and atmosphere. The plot mostly occurs in wintry Northern Chinese ports. The palette is grey and steely, and the action is mostly set on anonymous super-highways and in ugly industrial areas on the edge of massed urban sprawl. Surveillance technology and mobile communications are key to the plot, and To subtly uses that to make his criminals somehow seem more human than his cops. These police officers are coldly dedicated, constantly scanning cellphone and cctv screens, with no evidence of personal lives, whereas Choi mourns his dead wife with underlings who obviously regard him with warmth and respect. Indeed, Choi's survival instinct, which is foregrounded right to the last scene, may be the most recognisable human characteristic on display here. The cast are suitably low-key, but Koo and Honglei are both great, a magnetic pair of opposites, both intense and charismatic.
To gets around the censorship which is an issue for all films made in mainland China by embracing it; he peels away all but the basics. The setting is stark, extraneous detail excised. The police are driven and efficient, their loyalty to the state unquestioned. The mobsters are decadent, greedy. This allows him to make some quietly critical points - there is a single fantastic shot of a group of police officers scrabbling for cash while Choi literally burns money as a funeral rite.
The plot also suggests that the police - with their wealth of surveillance techniques - are always in control of what is happening until the climax pulls the rug out from beneath them in an epic running gun battle beside a primary school. It presents the Hong Kong mob as almost cartoonish figures, only semi-competent at the best of times. While the police are portrayed as almost inhumanly hyper-professional, the criminals here are grotesques, from Haha's buffoonery to the junked-up truck drivers Choi vents his frustrations upon to the two deaf-mutes running one of his factories.
But that makes them no less deadly, and To showcases his skill with action in two sequences of gunplay, each of them masterful studies in the coherent physical geography of violence.
These scenes are dazzling flourishes in a film which is otherwise superbly controlled and relentlessly gripping; an intense, superb piece of intelligent popular entertainment.