Drug War (US - BD RA)
Gabe finally sees what everyone else sees in Johnnie To's crime movies...
Manufacturing just 50 grams of meth in China will earn you a death sentence. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) just got caught making tons. Now he’s in the custody of Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) and has one chance to avoid execution – turn informant and help the cops bring down the powerful cartel he’s been cooking for. Over the next 72 sleepless hours, the sting spins out of control, the line between duty and recklessness is blurred, and it becomes unclear who actually has the upper hand. (From Well Go USA’s official synopsis)
Regular readers (mostly my family members) may remember that I’ve had trouble with post-‘90s Hong Kong crime films in the past. I find so many of them tonally flat, impenetrably melodramatic, and generally interchangeable. Take heart, though, I am aware that all of these complaints practically define my beloved Italian thrillers (gialli), so I needn’t be reminded of my blatant hypocrisy. I’ve long assumed that I had trouble with the ‘new school’ HK flicks, because I fell in love with their zanier, more excessive predecessors at a relatively young age – movies like John Woo’s Hard Boiled, Ringo Lam’s Full Contact, Jackie Chan’s Police Story, and Lau Kar-Leung’s Tiger on the Beat. Since movies like Infernal Affairs have taken the HK scene by storm, I’ve found myself drawn more to their South Korean and Japanese counterparts. On the other hand, I think my proclivity for not enjoying these films and my relative ignorance concerning their qualities makes my opinion on any given film a decent litmus test – if I like it, it must be particularly good, right? No, I don’t think I’m placing too much importance on my opinion, why do you ask?
Anyway, because I’m generally (and unfairly) disinterested in the genre I haven’t kept up on the blossoming career of director Johnnie To. I still prefer his all-star, female-led superhero/horror/action hybrid, Heroic Trio (1993), which I understand isn’t a particularly good indicator of the skills that make him an HK crime favourite. I sort of gave up after Election, its sequel, and PTU didn’t move me, and ended up missing out on a number of what I’ve been told are his best films, including Exiled, Mad Detective, Vengeance, and Punished. Apparently, Drug War isn’t entirely indicative of those other recent To ‘classics,’ because it was made with an eye towards mainland Chinese audiences (it is incredible and fantastic that, more than a decade after HK was absorbed by China, the HK film industry still remains relatively separate). That said, the whole film still has a stylistic sort of anti-reality. He’s not afraid to embrace strange characters and moments that verge on the cartoonish. The larger than life personalities and oddball touches are dialed back before they reach Takashi Miike-like levels of insanity, but keep the audience on their toes long enough to cover some of the more conventional story beats. The action is actually pretty light until the explosive climax, but To replaces that thrill with more subtle moments of physicality, like a bit where a drug lord almost discovers a camera hidden inside a cigarette box, only to have Choi casually intercept it at the last minute. And, when a shoot-out is unleashed, the direction isn’t overly flashy – slow-motion, handheld camera work, and editing are all kept to a minimum in favour of longer shots and well-established geographies.
Drug War was co-written by frequent To collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, alongside Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, and Yu Xi. That’s a lot of cooks in the proverbial kitchen, but they don’t strain the narrative with over-complicated side plots or unnecessary characters. The writers are brave, perhaps even foolhardy, to throw the audience into a situation we can’t possibly understand. We’re expected to unravel meaning in the context as it was delivered. Usually, this would be a hell of a hurdle for an audience not versed in Chinese crime cultural to surmount, but, even without an awareness of the intricate differentiations between US and HK law enforcement/drug running protocols, its generally easy to follow and it moves quickly. The last act lags a tad with technical complexities, but not enough to bog down the entire film – besides, the climax is tense enough to overlook such a minor infraction. The general lack of dialogue is also welcome, because it compels To to tell his story via images, instead of words (one sequence even involves a group of deaf characters and is told almost exclusive in sign language). I suppose heavy exposition is rarely a problem I’ve had with post-millennial Chinese crime movies.
Drug War was shot on 35mm film and is presented here in 1080p, 2.35:1 video. Well Go has been on a roll lately in terms of the quality of their Blu-ray releases, so I’m sad to say that this particularly anticipated release is something of a step back. The image isn’t so problematic that it ruins the viewing experience, but there are certainly problems. The biggest issue is over-sharpening. It seems to me that someone tried to ‘correct’ the softer edges of 35mm film stock by cranking the sharpness up to a degree that it causes an awful lot of haloes, especially during the first half of the film (I started to notice the haloes less and less as the disc advanced). The film is shot using a lot of shallow focus and with anamorphic lenses that distort the edges of the frame, so some of the more complex fine details are ironed out with blur. This is clearly a stylistic choice, not a problem with the transfer. The lack of grain in some scenes is a bit suspicious, too, but I didn’t notice many telltale signs of DNR enhancement. To and cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung have obviously digitally colour-corrected the film, opting to John Woo Blue-tint many of the scenes and highlight them with consistent, pastel reds and warm skin tones. A few of the interior sequences are warmly gold-tinted and these scenes tend to feature the fewest sharpening effects. Skin tones are a bit uncanny in terms of consistency, but these are tightly separated from the blue and green bases in most cases. Some of the darker and more harshly blued scenes have minor blocking and noise level problems, but the majority of the image is comparatively even and clean.
Well Go has presented Drug War’s original Mandarin soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. Some of the stereo effects are a bit weird, specifically in that they’re too widely spread. Objects to the slight left or right of the screen will be heard exclusively in the corresponding stereo channels. The surround channels are relatively bare, outside of some of the musical echoes and a few of the bigger action sequences (there are particularly lively shootouts around the one hour mark and during the climax). Otherwise, this is a pretty dynamic track that contrasts long bouts of relative silence (there’s often a underlying hum of some kind of noise) with sudden bursts of immersive sound. I often note that modern Chinese action films have oddly loud/artificial-sounding vocal tracks. I’ve heard that the region hasn’t continued the tradition of shooting without sound, which left me to assume that some of the actors were dubbed from Cantonese into Mandarin. In this case, it was pretty easy to verify that Louis Koo was dubbed. On the other hand, the rest of the dialogue is natural with surprising depth and, unlike those incidental sound effects, it sits pretty discretely in the center channel. Xavier Jamaux’s score has a distinctly ‘90s feel to it, somewhere between a Hollywood cop movie and the more subtle, moody electronic score of something like Infernal Affairs. Jamaux uses a lot of keyboards, guitar harmonics, and drums that bounce back and forth through the stereo speakers.
The extras are very light, including only a trailer and trailers for other Well Go USA releases.
Drug War isn’t a transformative experience, but it’s a good enough movie to turn me around on Johnnie To’s prevalent career in modern crime movies. I will be seeking out his other movies in my spare time. Other non-fans might find themselves similarly moved by the film’s tight plotting, restrained dialogue, and spectacular climax. To’s fans might be a little disappointed by this release’s occasionally over-sharpened transfer and lack of extras, but should be satisfied with the dynamic DTS-HD MA soundtrack.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 15th October 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Easter Egg: No
Director: Johnnie To
Cast: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung
Genre: Action, Crime and Drama
Length: 105 minutes
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