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Review: ‘Drug War’

Hong Kong’s Johnnie To Makes First Mainland Film

Credit: Variance Films

Above: Louis Koo is a criminal and Sun Honglei is a cop in the procedural thriller, "Drug War."

Johnnie To may be Hong Kong’s best kept secret. His new film “Drug War” is currently playing at AMC Mission Valley. Go before it leaves.

Sorry to be getting to this so late, but Johnnie To is one of my favorite directors and I needed to get the word out even if it’s late.

Most people probably can’t name a single movie Johnnie To has directed (even though he’s made more than 50). That’s because for some reason his films never get distributed well in the U.S. It’s rare that his films even get picked up, but when they do, as with “Triad Election,” it’s a highly limited art house run. But To’s films are exquisite. They are an odd mix of art house elegance and gritty violence. At times his films have a distinctly existential feel or surreal humor. I guess what I’m trying to say is that they are hard to describe and impossible to pigeonhole. I fell in love with To in 1999 when I saw his film, “The Mission.” Subsequent films – “Election,” “Exiled,” “Sparrow,” “Vengeance” – only reaffirmed my passion for his work.

His latest film has the uninspired title of “Drug War.” Living on the border of Mexico, you can get tired of news and films about the Drug War. But To’s film gives it an Asian spin delivered with his particular flair.

To’s “Drug War” is an unsentimental and unflinching thriller focused on a cat and mouse game between a cop and a drug dealer. In China, manufacturing just fifty grams of meth can get you a death sentence. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) has manufactured tons. After a violent drug mishap, Choi ends up in the custody of the stoic Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei). He’s given a simple deal: turn informant and help Zhang’s team take down the cartel Choi is working for or face execution. He agrees but the alliance is a shaky one and Choi may not be trustworthy. As the cops grow more desperate, things begin to spin out of control and the death toll on both sides rises.

“Drug War” marks To’s first mainland production, and the result is a gritty, violent, and somewhat nihilistic film that finds a blurred line between the cops and the criminals. In To’s film, both are driven to violence – the cops under the pretense of seeking justice, and the criminals out of a sense of survival.

To’s film is solidly directed, and brutal and unflinching in its depiction of the drug world at the center of the story. As is usual for his films, the tech credits are impeccable with the film smartly shot, tensely cut, and flawlessly acted.

“Drug War” (rated R for strong violence, drug content and language, and in Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles) resists moralizing, and instead serves up characters who are so narrowly focused on a goal – Zhang on bringing down the cartel, Choi on self-preservation – that cannot see anything else.

Companion viewing: “The Mission,” “Exiled,” “The Opium War”

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