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)

Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Raman Hui, 2015)

Monster Hunt posterA runaway box office hit and veritable pop culture phenomenon, you’d be forgiven for assuming that 2015’s Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Zhuō Yāo Jì) is nothing more than a slice of family friendly entertainment in the vein of a dozen other live-action/animation hybrid fantasy films. The monsters are cute, yes, and there is enough darkness here to rival Lord of the Rings, but there’s a little more going on under the surface of this otherwise heartwarming tale of a persecuted minority and its hidden princeling. A family drama of epic proportions, Monster Hunt speaks directly to China’s left behind children and to those who, perhaps, were worried their destiny had always been misplaced.

Set sometime in the distant fantasy past, Monster Hunt takes place in a universe in which men and Monsters co-exist but, owing to their defeat in a war, the Monsters have been forced back into the forests and mountains away from humankind many of whom no longer even believe they exist. However, there is fresh strife among the Monsters forcing a pregnant Queen to flee along with her retainers, straying into the human world in hope of saving her baby. Luckily she finds herself in a small village presided over by a kindly mayor with a limp, Tianyin (Jing Boran), who is also the son of a long missing Monster Hunter but much prefers domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing to hunting Monsters. The Queen manages to “transfer” her baby to Tianyin just before she dies, leaving him quite literally holding the baby assisted only by cynical bounty hunter Xiaolan (Bai Baihe).

Inspired by ancient folklore, Monster Hunt plays the chosen one trope to the max as Tianyin wrestles with his destiny while the baby, a true king displaced from his throne, awaits in ignorance. Like many contemporary fantasy tales, Monster Hunt also revels in subverting genre norms with its noticeably feminised hero. Tianyin is the son of a great warrior, but it’s his grandmother who practices kung fu and goes out looking for her long lost son, while Tianyin professes his love of domesticity, staying home cooking and sewing. His simplicity and softness is contrasted with the more masculine figure of the cynical Monster Hunter Xiaolan who becomes Tianyin’s casual love interest and the putative “father” in the loose family unit they form with the tiny baby radish-like figure they eventually christen Wuba.

The formation of a family unit in itself proves a problematic development for both Tianyin and Xiaolan who have both been abandoned by their own families and left to fend for themselves (with almost opposite results). Resentful at having been cast out by his apparently “heroic” father, Tianyin has definite views about the nature of fatherhood and the mistakes he does not wish to repeat with his own children while Xiaolan has grown wary of forming attachments altogether and strives to remind herself that she is only looking after Wuba until he’s big enough to sell on the Monster Hunter black market. Nevertheless, the pair cannot help becoming “accidental” parents even if they must first make a mistake they later need to rectify in trying to abandon their charge for financial gain. Tianyin “repeats” the “mistake” of his own father but finally comes to understand it for what it was – a father’s sacrifice of his paternal love to keep his child safe. Something that will certainly ring true for children who may be living apart from their own parents for reasons they don’t quite understand.

Yet a fairytale darkness is never far away as Tianyin and Xiaolan consider selling off little Wuba to a dodgy mahjong obsessed Monster fence (Tang Wei) who apparently knows how valuable he is but is planning to sell him to a local restaurant anyway. Despite the fact that everyone has forgotten Monsters exist, Monster meat is a delicacy reserved for the super rich (a subtle dig at China’s eat anything that can’t run faster than you philosophy ushered in by the sight of caged monkeys at the roadside) and little Wuba does look quite like a tasty daikon radish.

Cute monsters getting chopped up and eaten may be a horror too far for sensitive young children (if it weren’t for the fact the Monsters are all inspired by veggies Monster Hunt might be the greatest proselytising mechanism for vegetarianism the world has ever seen) but rest assured, little Wuba is quite the resourceful little tyke and he does after all have a grand destiny awaiting him. A tribute to unlikely heroes, gentle men, feisty women, and atypical families, Monster Hunt is an oddly subversive family friendly adventure and one which has clearly hit its mark in capturing the hearts of a whole generation who will doubtless be excited for the further adventures of Wuba as he moves closer towards his own Messianic destiny.


International trailer (English captions)

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)