Drug War (毒戰, Johnnie To, 2012)

Drug War posterIn the world of the Hong Kong action flick, the bad guys are often the good guys, and the “good guys” not so good after all. Even crooks have their code and there are rules which cannot be broken ensuring the heroes, even when they’re forced into morally dubious acts, emerge with a degree of nobility in having made a free choice to preserve their honour over their life. In Mainland China, however, things are a little different. The bad guys have to be thoroughly bad and the good guys squeaky clean. You won’t find any dodgy cops or dashing villains in a thriller from the PRC where crime can never, ever, pay. And then, enter Johnnie To who manages to exactly what the censors board asks of him while at the same painting law and chaos as two sides of the same coin, each deluded and obsessed, engaged in an internecine war in which the idea of public safety has been all but forgotten.

The film begins with the conclusion of an undercover operation run by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) in which he successfully disrupts a large scale smuggling operation. Meanwhile, meth cook Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) attempts to escape after an explosion kills his wife and her brothers but drives directly into a restaurant and is picked up by the police. Timmy soon wakes up and tries to escape but is eventually recaptured – from inside the chiller cabinet in the morgue in a particularly grim slice of poetic irony. Seeing as drug manufacture carries the death penalty in the PRC, Timmy turns on the charm. He’ll talk, say anything he needs to say, to save his own life. Including giving up his buddies.

Timmy is, however, a cypher. His true intentions are never quite clear – is he really just an opportunist doing whatever it takes to survive, or does he still think he can escape and is engaged in a series of clever schemes designed outsmart the ice cool Zhang? Zhang takes the bait. Eyeing a bigger prize, he lets Timmy take him into the heart of a finely tuned operation even playing the part of loudmouth gangster Haha in a studied performance which reinforces the blankness of his officialdom. Zhang is certain he is in control. He is the law, he is the state, he is the good.

Could he have misread Timmy? Zhang doesn’t think so. Timmy remains calm, watchful. Eventually he leads Zhang to a bigger drug factory staffed by a pair of mute brothers who have immense respect for their boss. Suddenly Timmy’s impassive facade begins to crack as he tells his guys about his wife’s passing but it’s impossible to know if his momentary distress is genuine, a result of mounting adrenaline, or simply part of his plan – he does, after all, need to get the brothers to give themselves away. Unbeknownst to Timmy, however, the brothers are pretty smart and might even be playing their own game.

To pits Hong Konger Timmy against Captain Zhang of the PRC in a game of cat and mouse fuelled by conflicting loyalties and mutual doubts. Whatever he’s up to, Timmy is a no good weasel who is either selling out his guys or merely pretending to so that he can save them (or maybe just save himself and what’s left of his business). Zhang, meanwhile, is a singleminded “justice” machine who absolutely will not stop, ever, until all the drug dealers in China have been eradicated. Yet isn’t all of this destruction a little bit much? Zhang doesn’t really care about the drugs because drug abuse wrecks people’s lives, maybe he doesn’t really care about the law but only about order and control, and what men like Timmy represent is a dangerous anarchy which exists in direct opposition to his conception of the way the world ought to work.

There is a degree of subversive implication in the seemingly overwhelming power of the PRC coupled with its uncompromising rigidity which paradoxically makes it appear weak rather than strong, desperate to maintain an image of control if not the control itself. The final fight takes place in front of a school with a couple of completely non-fazed and very cute little children trapped inside a school bus – Timmy does at least try to keep them calm even while using them as part of his plan, but Zhang and his guys seem to care little for the direction of the stray bullets they are spraying in order to win the internecine battle with the drug dealers and stop Timmy in his tracks once and for all. A pared down, non-stop action juggernaut, Drug War (毒戰, Dú Zhàn) is another beautifully constructed, infinitely wry action farce from To which takes its rather grim sense of humour all the way to the tragically ironic conclusion.


International trailer (English subtitles)

A Better Tomorrow 2018 (英雄本色2018, Ding Sheng, 2018)

better tomorrow 2018 posterIn the history of Hong Kong cinema, there are few films which could realistically claim the same worldwide influence as John Woo’s 1986 landmark A Better Tomorrow. Commissioned by Tsui Hark, the then jobbing director Woo was tasked with creating a vehicle for a veteran Shaw Brothers star. Casting Cantopop idol Leslie Cheung and TV sensation Chow Yun-fat, Woo mixed traditional melodrama with hyper masculine emotionality to give birth to what would become the “heroic bloodshed” genre which was to dominate the island’s cinematic output well into the ‘90s. A Better Tomorrow, as its title implies, is the perfect evocation of its era and among the first to express an oncoming anxiety for Hong Kong’s “return” to China then only a decade away. Slick and oozing with ‘80s, macho cool, Woo’s film captured the imaginations of young men everywhere who suddenly took to wearing sunglasses and trench coats while chewing on match sticks, dreaming dreams of heroism in a sometimes gloomy world.

Which is all to say, attempting to “remake” Woo’s masterpiece may well be a fool’s errand. It is however one which has been frequently attempted, not least by Wong Jing in 1994 and Song Hae-sung in Korea in 2010. Korean cinema has perhaps become the heir of heroic bloodshed with its inherent love of melodrama which often finds its way into the nation’s bloody gangster epics whose generally high level of homosocial bonding is perfectly primed for male honour drama. Ding Sheng, apparently a huge fan of the original Hong Kong hit, brings the tale north to the Mainland, relocating to Qingdao which serves as a trading post for the drug running route from Japan.

As in the original we have two biological brothers – Kai (Wang Kai), a “sailor” who has fallen into smuggling to support his family who are unaware of his criminal occupation, and Chao (Ma Tianyu) – a rookie policeman. Meanwhile, Kai also has a criminal “brother” in his younger partner Mark (Wang Talu), an orphaned hothead from Taiwan. Kai is a “noble” smuggler who refuses to traffic drugs but a Hong Kong triad boss is hellbent on fishing out his Japanese contacts and after a job goes wrong, Kai ends up getting shot and arrested by his own brother who is heartbroken to discover the truth. Spending three years in prison during which time Kai’s father is killed in a raid on their home by gangsters looking for info on the Japanese, Kai tries to go straight but finds himself pulled back into the underworld after coming into conflict with villainous gangster Cang (Yu Ailei) who has taken over the Japan route (and forced Kai’s old girlfriend into prostitution after getting her hooked on drugs).

Ding’s film, while replicating the plot of Woo’s original, attempts to bring it into the “modern” era in which the stylised, manly melodrama of the ‘80s action movie has long since been replaced by a finer desire for “uncool” realism. Ding does not seem to be making a particular point about modern China, other than in persistent economic inequality which has forced an “honest” man like Kai into a life of crime for the otherwise honourable reason of taking care of his family. Though this itself maybe a subtle reference to the post-90s world, the major anxiety seems to be more with cross cultural interactions and possible pollution of “good” Chinese men like Kai who have been led astray by the false promises of, for example, gangsters from Hong Kong, and the old enemies in Japan. Interestingly enough, the relationships themselves are formalised and superficial. In Japan Kai and Mark are entertained in a “super Japanese” bar of the kind which only tourists frequent, decked to the ceilings with cherry blossoms and staffed with “geisha” girls, while in China they take their guests to a bar which has Peking Opera going on in the background as entertainment.

Kai is fond of telling his sworn brother that everything in the world may change, but brotherhood remains the same. This turns turn out to be an ironic comment in that his natural brother, Chao, disowns him in shame and loathing after his release from prison. Nevertheless, Kai never gives up striving for Chao’s approval even whilst reuniting with Mark who has been crippled and reduced to cleaning boats at the harbour after trying to exact revenge for Kai’s betrayal. The trio’s manly honour code is thrown into stark relief by the amoral Cang who, claiming that “the world has changed” and loyalty no longer means anything, thinks nothing of shooting anyone and everyone who stands between himself and financial gain. If Ding has a comment to make, it’s that the traditional ideas of brotherhood, loyalty, justice and goodness are being eroded by the lure of foreign gold promised by corruption, exploitation, and an absence of morality.

Ding isn’t trying to match Woo’s grand sweep of tragic inevitability so much as aiming for straightforward crime drama but his occasional concessions to melodrama never quite gel with his otherwise gritty approach, nor do his unsubtle his homages to the original film which find Leslie Cheung’s iconic theme song becoming a frequent musical motif as well as prominently featuring at an ultra cool hipster bar located in a disused boat which plays his record on a turntable with a large picture of a grinning Chow Yun-fat behind it. A Better Tomorrow 2018 succeeds as a passible action drama, but one without the heart and soul that made Woo’s original so special. 


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Trivisa (樹大招風, Frank Hui & Jevons Au & Vicky Wong, 2016)

Trivisa posterIt’s worth just taking a moment to appreciate the fact that a film named for the three Buddhist poisons – delusion, desire, and fury, is intended as a criticism of Hong Kong as an SAR that revels in the glory and subsequent downfall of three famous criminals who discover that crime does not pay right on the eve of the handover. Mentored by Johnnie To, Trivisa (樹大招風) is directed by three young hopefuls discovered through his Fresh Wave program each of whom directs one of the film’s three story strands which revolve around a trio of famous Hong Kong criminals.

Back in the ‘80s, as Mrs. Thatcher delivers her pledges on the Hong Kong handover, King of Thieves Kwai Ching-hung (Gordon Lam) gets stopped by a random police patrol, kills the officers, and then has to fake his identity to escape. 15 years later he’s a petty mobile phone trafficker dreaming of pulling off a big score. Meanwhile, Yip Kwok Foon (Richie Jen), once known for his AK47 brandishing robberies is a “legitimate businessman” smuggling black market electronics into Hong Kong and bribing Mainland officials to do it, while Cheuk Tze Keung (Jordan Chan) is a flamboyant gangster revelling in underworld glory and dreaming of eternal fame.

Rather than weave the three stories into one coherent whole or run them as entirely separate episodes, the three strands run across and through each other only to briefly reunite in the ironic conclusion. The most famous of the three real life criminals, Kwai Ching-hung’s arc is perhaps the most familiar though rather than fighting an existential battle against his bad self, Kwai’s quest is to regain his title as Hong Kong’s most audacious thief. To do this, he’s reunited with an old friend and comrade in arms who’s retired from the life and married a Thai woman with whom he has an adorable little daughter. Unbeknownst to him, Kwai has not come for old times’ sake but is taking advantage of the fact that the family live directly opposite his latest score. Employing two Mainland mercenaries, Kwai has his eyes on the prize but his friend is wilier than he remembered, is quickly suspicious of Kwai’s friendship with his daughter, and has his suspicions confirmed when he finds his kid’s backpack full of guns.

Yip’s story, by contrast, is one of diminished expectations and ongoing financial woes. An early scene at a restaurant finds Yip in the company of Mainland officials to whom he must scrape and bow, placating them with various bribes and engaging in the strange trade of precious vases which seems to pass as currency among corrupt civil servants. Corporate shenanigans and business disputes, however, are no substitute for good old fashioned firefights and Yip’s frustration with his new career is sure to lead to some kind of explosion at some point in time.

Cheuk becomes the lynchpin of the three as he takes an advantage of a rumour that the three “Kings of Thieves” are getting together to plan a giant heist to track down the other two and see if he can make it work for real. The most successful and happiest in his life, Cheuk has made his fortune out of ostentatious crime – kidnapping the sons of the extremely wealthy for hearty ransoms. He is, however, bored and dreams of making a giant splash which will ensure his name remains in the history books for evermore – i.e., blowing up the Queen.

Facing the approaching handover, each is aware the world will change, unsure as to how they’re in the process of trying to secure their futures either way. Kwai wants one last heist, Yip has already begun courting Chinese business, and Cheuk just wants to be the face in all the papers across the entire Chinese world. Kwai’s sin is “desire” – he wants one last hit as a criminal mastermind and he’s willing to take advantage of his friend (and even his friend’s young daughter) to get it, Yip’s sin is “fury” as dealing with constant humiliation leaves him longing for his AK 47, and Cheuk’s failing is “delusion” in his all encompassing need to be the big dog around town, all flashy suits and toothy grins. On the eve of the handover they all meet a reckoning – betrayal, a stupid and pointless death, or merely ridiculous downfall.

The heyday of crime has, it seems, ended but that’s definitely a bad thing, laying bare a change in dynamics between nations and a decline in the kind of independence which allows the flourishing of a criminal enterprise. Bearing To’s hallmark in its tripartite structure, ironic comments on fate and connection, and eventual decent into random gun battle, Trivisa is a ramshackle exploration of a watershed moment in which even hardened criminals must learn to live in a brave new world or risk being consumed by it.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

PTU (Johnnie To, 2003)

PTU_PosterMissing gun thrillers have become a mainstay of Asian cinema from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog right up to the Jiang Wen starring The Missing Gun. Less than a year after Lu Chuan’s existential drama, Johnnie To takes a typically ironic look at the same problem as an arrogant yet incompetent officer gets into a disagreement with a gang of thugs and loses his gun just as a particular moment of chaos is about to strike the local gang scene. Set over the course of a single night, To’s film has an ambiguous attitude to its central collection of street cops and detectives as they attempt to recover the missing firearm before it causes more harm than they are able to contain.

A gang of petty thugs led by local bigwig “Ponytail” marches into small restaurant and commandeers the best table, forcing the young man already sitting at it eating his dinner to move further back. A short time later, Officer Lo (Lam Suet) gets into an altercation with a young man outside and then marches in and commandeers Ponytail’s table, forcing the group onto the table behind, and the young man from before onto a tiny perch near the kitchen. Only a few minutes later, Lo gets a call and leaves but is followed by some of Ponytail’s guys while Ponytail stays behind is knifed in a shock execution attempt which threatens to permanently unbalance the precariously held equilibrium of the local underworld scene.

When Lo the leaves the restaurant, he discovers that the first guy who he arrogantly disrespected has thrown yellow paint all over his car but his real problem occurs when Ponytail’s guys start chasing him and he decides to play along, only to slip on a banana skin halfway through his big moment. When he wakes up surrounded by cops, he realises he’s missing his gun and that he has a big problem. Sympathetic nighttime beat cop Mike (Simon Yam) agrees to help him find it out of a sense of solidarity, managing to get his by the book colleague to agree to give them until dawn to sort it all out.

To opens the film with a news report of an event earlier in the evening in which a police officer was killed during a robbery. Some of the PTU guys react with gallows humour only to be shot down by the fairly humourless Mike who reminds them that one of their own died today and they ought to have some respect. That is perhaps why he decides to help Lo, whom all of the other police officers regard as something of a ridiculous embarrassment. A rare leading role for To favourite Lam Suet, Lo is a genial figure of fun whose ongoing self aggrandisement mixed with pure panic at the thought of all his dodgy dealings coming out if he has to report his gun stolen makes for entertaining viewing, especially as his incompetencies are usually of the amusing rather than dangerous kind.

Yet “good guy” Mike is not exactly the beacon of fairness that he first seems. His resentment at being shouldered with a straight laced rookie from HQ, tonight of all nights, is more than just irritation with playing babysitter. Concerned that HQ may have sent a spy to look in on his very own night watch, Mike keeps the rookie in the back away from the less palatable parts of his evening which include getting information out of suspects through torturing their friends, and nearly kicking a guy to death in an alleyway. King of the night, Mike knows each and every dodgy spot and is perfectly primed to track down Lo’s gun through his thorough knowledge of the local gang scene.

Taking the tripartite structure common to many of To’s films, PTU makes full use of the director’s familiar world view in which all outcomes are the result of random acts of fate and unforeseeable coincidence. Thus, Lo slips on a banana skin, an insignificant young man turns out to be of pivotal importance, and everyone keeps thinking their phone is ringing but it turns out to be someone else’s. The gun, the great Mcguffin in all this, is revealed to be an irrelevance, resolving itself in due course just as the real chaos – the all out gang war between two rival Triad clans, brings the evening to a close. At the end of this extremely long night, Lo, Mike, a female police detective investigating Ponytail’s murder, and just about everyone else has their own version of what really happened, but, as to be expected, none of them quite tally with the events we have just witnessed.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Mad Detective (神探, Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2007)

mad-detectiveThe border between “eccentric” and just “insane” can be quite a thin one but that tiny liminal space of uncertainty is where the hero of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s Mad Detective (神探) resides. The titular Mad Detective, Bun (Sean Lau Ching-Wan), is about as unreliable a narrator as they come owing to the fact that he experiences frequent hallucinations and delusions meaning that absolutely nothing of his perception can be taken at face value. Despite his unorthodox approach, Bun is a fine a detective with an almost supernatural crime solving ability but, tragically, sometimes he sees more than he would like of human nature.

The day rookie detective Ho (Andy On) joins the force, he walks in on an unusual scene. Knives and cutting implements are lined up on a table while a pig’s carcass hangs from the ceiling. Veteran cop Bun then enters into the mind of a killer by viciously stabbing the pig carcass (and lovingly caressing it afterwards), before tucking himself inside a suitcase which he asks Ho to throw down the stairs only so he can then leap out and shout “The guy at the ice-cream store did it!”. A montage of newspaper cuttings testifies to Bun’s track record, but his career is over when he suddenly decides to cut off his own ear and present it to his boss at his retirement party.

Not so long after, two cops enter a forrest and only one leaves. That’s one problem, but the missing cop’s gun has been used in a series of robbery/homicides which is another. Exhausting all leads in trying to find out what happened between gun losing Wong (Lee Kwok-Lun) and his shady partner Chi-wai (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) in a dark forest 18 months previously, Ho turns to Bun despite the misgivings of his colleagues. Bun’s wife begs him not to go back to police work, fearing for both his life and his mental state but Bun would rather live crazy than bored and so it’s back to burying himself alive and chatting with ghosts among other strange pursuits undertaken in the name of law enforcement.

Bun’s major talent is his ability to see people’s “inner personalities” which take the form of personified aspects of their psyches. We see through Bun’s POV as the figures in front of him change without warning – fighting one moment with a lady cop in a men’s bathroom but turning to see an overweight veteran in her place at the next. Bun comes to suspect Chi-wan thanks to his overly complicated personality which has seven different “ghosts” – an amusing sight when they all end up piled into the back of his tiny car. This goes someway to explaining the bemused looks Bun often attracts as he chats with people no one else can see.

Reactions to Bun’s outburst in a convenience store seem like they might just be mild embarrassment at his causing a scene, but could also easily be because he’s shouting at someone who isn’t really there. Whether “real” or not, it’s clear that Bun’s emotional intelligence and ability to read people are key to his crime solving talent. As he later tells Ho, it’s not about logic, it’s about emotion. Through “extreme profiling”, Bun “becomes” the killer, experiencing their emotions to get to the heart of the crime. Bun, like Manhunter’s Will Graham, absorbs too much of the world he sees around him and is unable to reconcile his reality with the commonly accepted one. Quite mad, but also brilliant, Bun’s genius makes him dangerous in a hundred different ways.

To and Wai create doubles and dualities left, right, and centre. Fittingly enough, Mad Detective takes inspiration from The Lady from Shanghai for its shoot out finale which occurs in a house of mirrors. This time it’s not just Bun’s vision which is uncertain even as he can see multiples of ghosting personalities, but ours too as reality fractures into tiny, reflective fragments. Ho, by the film’s conclusion, may have absorbed too much of Bun, but also perhaps of the worst aspects of his profession. Bun’s tragedy is his innocence – he literally sees the bad the in people and tries to exorcise demons through exposing their presence, but Ho’s is cowardice in his refusal to truly look at the people in front of him rather than blindly follow the nearest available leader. A supremely complex and original thriller, To and Wai’s Mad Detective is a fascinating psychological journey constructed with unusual rigour and as oblique and elliptical as it is entertaining.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Three (三人行, Johnnie To, 2016)

Johnnie To is best known as a purveyor of intricately plotted gangster thrillers in which tough guys outsmart and then later outshoot each other. However, To is a veritable Jack of all trades when it comes to genre and has tackled just about everything from action packed crime stories to frothy romantic comedies and even a musical. This time he’s back in world of the medical drama as an improbable farce develops driven by the three central cogs who precede to drive this particular crazy train all the way to its final destination.

Dr. Tong (Zhao Wei), is a tough as nails neurosurgeon. Having arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland at 17, she learned Cantonese, got into medical school and has built a fine career for herself but this same drive means she’s unwilling to delegate and constant overwork is beginning to eat into her statistics. She thinks her day can’t get much worse after an angry patient rants and calls her a quack because there has been a complication with his surgery and he’s currently unable to walk but her next patient, a man with a gunshot wound to the head brought in by the police, is about to add to her already long list of workplace stressors.

Shun (Wallace Chung) is actually almost OK except for having a bullet lodged in his brain. Against all the advice, Shun refuses the offer to have it removed surgically because he’s playing a long game with the police and it’s his one bargaining chip. The police’s story is that Shun grabbed a gun and tried to escape whereupon an officer shot him. However, this turns out to be not quite true and Inspector Chen (Louis Koo) has twin worries – finding Shun’s accomplices and covering up the extreme misconduct committed by his team members.

The original Chinese title of the film, 三人行 which means three people walking, is inspired by the traditional saying that among three people you will always find someone you can learn something from. However, the tragedy of these three is that they’re incapable of learning anything from anyone else and are actually quite disinterested in other people. Tong is always thinking of her targets and can’t bear the thought of losing again if Shun dies of his injuries, but rather than learning to step back and recharge, she continues to push herself to near breaking point. Chen is series of walking contradictions – a lawbreaking policeman, so certain of his own ability to counteract crime that he’s lost all accountability. Shun’s big personality flaw is taking far too much pleasure in his playful scams. He wants to make a phone call so he refuses surgery until he can (quoting Bertrand Russell and throwing the Hippocratic oath back at Tong, already nearing the boil), never quite realising that the delay could very well signal the end of everything.

Tong, Chen, and Shun are three pillars of society – the respectability of the medical profession, the authority of law enforcement, and the inevitability of crime. Tong, the most sympathetic, propels herself into overwork but her selfish need to prove herself to herself puts patients’ lives at risk. The police force which is supposed to represent protection under the law, is shown to be corrupt and little more than criminal in itself. Chen says he can break the law to enforce the law, but what he’s really trying to do is save his own skin after going too far. Shun is simply a sociopathic genius intent on showing off his cerebral prowess to anyone who will give him the slightest bit of attention but like all criminals he’s a goal orientated, short term thinker. Each of the three is, in a sense, moving in their own universe and driven only by their own certainty of primacy.

As much as Three is a crime thriller, psychological character piece, and medical drama, what lies at the heart of it is farce. In keeping with much of his work, To’s world is an absurd one filled with eccentric fringe characters who may be more important than they otherwise appear and, as usual, the final god is luck – a paralysed man attempts suicide by throwing himself down the stairs only to suddenly find he can stand up by himself at the bottom, and Chen’s gun jams several times preventing him from taking decisive action. At one very strange juncture, Shun even tries to escape the hospital by making use of the classic boys own adventure tactic of tying a number of sheets together and using them to climb out of the window. To’s true centrepiece takes the form of a tense, exciting shootout which looks like slow motion but was apparently filmed in real time with the actors moving slowly in perfectly choreographed formation. The improbable scene of carnage, prefaced by bombs going off right, left and centre, is conducted to a the strains of a genial pop song extolling Confucianist wisdom. Beautifully balletic, the bullets hit in real time but the actors react as if stunned, allowing us to fully experience all of their fear and confusion at the centre of such a shocking event.

The man who may have the most to teach us the genial old man with a key stealing habit who erupts into a bawdy song as he’s being discharged. He may have the right idea when he suggests that everyone follow his example and learn to laugh loudly to live a happy life. To reinforces his absurd intentions with intense realism, embracing the ritualistic, “theatrical” nature of the operating room with all of its various performances set atop the heated bloody scenes of bodily gore and coldly metallic nature of the surrounding equipment. To’s gleefully graceful aesthetic is back in force for this tale of lonely wandering planets pushed out of orbit by the imposing centrifugal forces of their rivals. Strange and tinged with absurd humour, Three is To is in a playful mood but nevertheless deadly serious.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)