Dir:  Johnnie To. Hong Kong-China. 2012. 105mins

Drug War

Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To’s first action film to be shot in mainland China is gritty, uncompromising and hugely exhilarating. It feels like a step forward for a director whose more recent bullet ballets – in particular Sparrow (2008) and Vengeance (2009) – had started to feel increasingly stylised. There’s nothing mannered about the anti-trafficking police operation charted in Drug War (Duzhan): perhaps mindful of his need to prove to the censors that he’s taking narcotics seriously, To spends less time choreographing conflict and more charting, at a breakneck pace, the messiness of a nasty, vicious war.

The dirty realism is amplified by To’s use of natural light and anyway-they-fall camera angles.

It’s proof of the maturity of the Chinese production sector that it has bankrolled a film that comes on like The French Connection meets The Wire, and features several scenes of in-your-face (and in-their-noses) drug use.

Of course, mainland audiences may not be given the benefit of a domestic release, but elsewhere this feisty, pugnacious number will positively benefit from its pioneering location, among international cineastes curious to see the mean streets of the New China. To followers and Asian genre fans should embrace the film warmly, and auxiliary prospects look upbeat. The film was shoehorned into the Rome film festival at the last minute.

To’s determination not to glamourise his subject is clear from the get-go, when after a stake-out at a motorway toll booth that nets a haul of drug mules, we’re shown, in grubby detail, the painful excretion and washing of the drug-packed ovules these peasant pawns have swallowed. In the same hospital, Timmy (Koo, dubbed into Mandarin) is being kept under police watch while being treated for skin lesions caused by an explosion at the drug factory he operates. Re-apprehended after an escape attempt, a convalescent Timmy offers to help police narcotics unit captain Zhang (Honglei) in return for commutation of his death penalty (which is automatically handed out to large-scale drug producers and traffickers in China) to life imprisonment.

So begins a wary partnership between the tough yet circumspect old police officer and Louis Koo’s entrepreneurial young drug lieutenant, who helps to set up a meeting with his boss Brother HaHa (Ping), named after his trademark laugh. The jeopardy factor is nicely upped when, in order to get to the higher echelons of the drug supply and distribution chain, Zhang starts to impersonate Haha, supported by serious young policewoman Yang Xiaobei (Yi) in the role of the drug baron’s flouncy floozy wife. Helped by two out of town cops who have been trailing a lorry full of drug factory chemicals, Zhang’s team begin to home in on shadowy Uncle Bill (Zhenqi), who may or not be the regional drug world’s Mr Big.

Surveillance operations, stake-outs and undercover infiltrations succeed each other at breathless speed, taking us from luxe hotels to a drug factory presided over by two deaf-mute brothers to new-rich Chinese nightclubs with glam cabaret floorshows. The film is set in and around Tianjen, Beijing’s rapidly growing seaport, which is presented here as a place of savage, unregulated modernity. A scene in which Zhang, posing as Brother HaHa, orders the whole Tianjen fishing fleet out to sea to impress Uncle Bill, is rich with symbolic resonance, as we see dozens of merry Peoples’ Republic pennants flapping in the wind as the boats set sail, apparently at the beck and call of a sleazy drug baron.

Not since PTU (2003) and Breaking News (2004) has To really got under the skin of a working police unit to this extent. There’s not much psychological shading, to be sure, but little observations like the dash of the two out of town cops to urinate by the side of the road when they’re finally given time off by superior officer Zhang wryly nail the trials of the job, and the team exudes loyal esprit de corps without the need for heavy buddy-love dialogue.

It’s this understated solidarity, and the higher stakes of crime and its prevention in mainland China, that make the shootouts (especially the final school bus sequence) feel a lot more bruisingly than the urban gun dance of Sparrow or Exiled. The dirty realism is amplified by To’s use of natural light and anyway-they-fall camera angles: with almost a TV look at times, Drug War does its best to avoid the conventional noirish atmosphere and Hong Kong gangster aesthetic that To himself helped to define.

Production companies: Beijing Hairun Pictures Co Ltd, Huaxia Film Distribution Co Ltd, CCTV 6 Movie Channel

International sales: Media Asia Group Holdings Ltd, www.mediaasia.com

Producers: Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai

Executive producers: Liu Yanming, Gu Guoqing, Yan Xiaoming

Screenplay: Wai Ka Fai, Yau Nai Hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi

Cinematography: Cheng Siu Keung

Editor: Allen Leung

Production designer: Jackson Ha

Music: Xavier Jamaux

Main cast: Sun Honglei, Louis Koo, Huang Yi, Gao Yunxiang, Wallace Chung, Li Guangije, Hao Ping, Gan Tingting, Chang Taishen, Li Zhenqi, Guo Tao, Li Jing