From the unexpected amount of silence surrounding The Counselor–no advance screenings, no reviews days before its release, no award buzz, and a couple incomprehensible trailers–one could infer that it’s a stinker. It would seem that the perfecting camera-eye of director Ridley Scott, working with a big name cast (Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt), hampers Pulitzer Prize-winner and first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s prose talents with excessive gloss, and 20th Century Fox has itself a big turd. This would tack on another stumble for the prestigious 75-year-old Sir Ridley, whose ability to impeccably create images is matched by his consistency in acquiring good casts and large budgets with ambivalent results: in days of yore, see the original cut ofBlade Runner, Legend, Black Rain, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, White Squall, GI Jane, and Hannibal. More recently, there’s the original cut of Kingdom of Heaven, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, Robin Hood, and of course, the mother of all middling movie reactors, Prometheus.
But while The Counselor invites derision with its dreary worldview (courtesy of McCarthy) and flashy decadence (hallmark of the one-time commercial director Scott), its uniformly unlikable characters speaking dialogue of cryptic parables, and its anomalous stand-alone scenes that have little apparent function other than feeding into its morose refrains of “Nothing,” this is Scott’s most wholly satisfying film in some time, an unnerving slow-burn nail-biter with nearly an hour of impending storm clouds and omens of violent death before the heads start to (literally) roll. A contemporary Kardashian-lit cousin to No Country for Old Men, the Coens’ McCarthy adaptation which Scott seems to know is impossibly formidable competition, The Counselor‘s apocalyptic joyride into a lavish inferno of well-off folks looking to make a quick buck (or $20 million) is of the same jittery DNA as Scott’s classic sci-fi horror breakthrough,Alien (1979), similarly featuring a cast getting picked off one by one. As with the xenomorph alien, McCarthy’s Death is not malicious, and that’s precisely what makes the barbarity more disconcerting. The titular Counselor (Fassbender–we never hear the character’s actual name), whose desire to pad his passionate romance with beautiful Laura (Penelope Cruz) leads him to invest with the drug trade, is given disgusting corporeal descriptions of how cartels do away with problem people–3,000 dead last year in Juarez alone. But “the violence is just business, there’s no smoldering rage beneath it.” Murder is simply the perfunctory predatory instinct of hungry capitalism.
“Nothing can doom [humankind] but the belief in doom, for this prevents the movement of Return.” — Martin Buber
Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in "Gravity"
Alfonso Cuarón makes myths. As a mainstream entertainer, ambitious artist, and passionate activist, his motion pictures are simultaneously fantastic escapes and symbolic mirrors brewing a Borgesian stew of realism, magic, philosophy, and politics, under the masks of myriad genres: children’s film (A Little Princess), romance (Great Expectations), erotic coming-of-age road movie (Y Tu Mamá También), fantasy (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and noir dystopia (Children of Men). All of these films have a fairy tale flavor within respective realities (or vice versa–his Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the Harry Potter franchise, rescues the series from the burdensome and overbearing confines of restrictive special effects, the actors finally appearing relaxed so they can act in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world), and Cuarón desires to have us reflect on the real world that birthed such stories, to open our eyes, ears, and mouth, to see and to honestly communicate rather than passively look on. One of the most important Information Age filmmakers, he understands the present’s technological magic, compressing time and flattening the Earth, and he senses that, with the treasures of inventive progress, we’re becoming increasingly disconnected from contexts (temporal and spatial) and from each other. The Earth seethes with conflict and tragedy, and the filmmaker displays how people cocoon themselves from duress and compassion in money, sex, work, televisions, and now outer space.
His newest film, Gravity, is an astounding 3-D visual feat where Cuarón’s troubled Earth is a beautiful background mural. His fledgling hero, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is a novice astronaut who finds herself disconnected and adrift in the inhospitable and silent void of outer space after an unexpected satellite explosion cuts off NASA’s transmission and destroys her mission’s spacecraft. As a bare bones thriller, the picture is a triumph of finely crafted intensity, with Ryan moving from one module of inhospitality to another, the perils of debris, physics, time, and technology working against her. But what lingers long after the visceral excitement fades, and is palpable throughout the levels of daring and contingency, relates to the divide between space’s infinite silence and isolation and what’s happening down there on the crowded Earth, so serene from the stratospheric vantage.The sound that bursts withGravity’s introductory title card, moving to the threshold of what’s sonically possible in a movie theater, anticipates not only the frenzied struggle of survival, but also a desperate longing pulsating beneath the film’s surface spectacle. “In space…there is nothing to carry sound,” we’re reminded by a written prelude, “Life in space is impossible” being the final declaration to offset the hubris of exploratory science.
“Kung Fu,” Ip Man (Tony Leung) tells us early on in The Grandmaster, amounts to “two words: horizontal and vertical.” If you’re horizontal, you’ve made a mistake.
Blurred lines: searching for clarity in the dense, obfuscated images of Wong Kar-wai's "The Grandmaster"
There’s an ironic knowing obscured by Ip’s aphoristic simplicity of two words with exacting references–vertical and horizontal, the seemingly absolute binary of victory and defeat. But Wong Kar-wai’s film biography of Ip Man, the martial artist from Foshan who lived through war, poverty, and heartbreak before relocating to Hong Kong and became the 20th century’s most renowned kung-fu teacher (Bruce Lee was a student), unspools like the simmering and mysterious filmic embodiment of the stalwart and observant figure played by Leung, reminding us of how powerful a voice–through whatever communicative vehicle–is. The Grandmaster runs over with verbal didacticism, as martial arts masters relay perennial wisdom through speech, but what’s spoken is in preternatural collaboration with Wong’s esoteric visual delivery, a spellbinding and stubbornly independent grammar and style that’s tied to the opening credits montage of ink ephemerally floating through the frame, abstract clouds drifting freely without the commanding precision of a written word. Even if we’re handed life lessons through dialogue, when for example Wong’s most honored film In the Mood for Love (2000) rapturously left the longing between cautious bodies unrequited and unconsummated, The Grandmaster is about how the simplicity of “words,” as with the plain self-evidence of a moment in time, nevertheless masks something elusive and larger than the familiar fields of one’s knowledge. The film is a symphonic whirlwind of visual leitmotifs more than a linear historical narrative, with alternating distinctive frame rates, blinding light glares, obscuring drapes and doorways, windows and mirrors with doubling reflective surfaces, thick explosions of steam, reflections rippled on water, and downpours of rain and snow: the camera, our window to observe action, is struggling to see through the obfuscating morass of time and matter in motion.
One of the great cinema sensualists, Wong’s breathtaking visual approach of hunting through cracks and foggy windows for the secret truth of a moment might be frustrating for some audiences who like their kung-fu a little more cut and dried and out in the open (watching its densely layered images, I remembered studio executives snarking about dailies from a film noir starring Lily Tomlin and Scott Glenn in Robert Altman’s The Player: “I can’t see anything!”). Some of Wong’s motifs, like cutting between very fast and exceedingly slow frame rates, are vulnerable to accusations of gimmickry. But if you surrender to his film, in both its 130-minute Chinese cut (available as an all-regions Blu Ray) or the inferior and more linear (though still entrancing) 108-minute version courtesy of distributor Harvey Weinstein, the repetition is hypnotic and comes to suggest animation, the blurry motion of time as an assemblage of separate photographs moving through the camera obscura–or vivid impressionistic paintings in motion. The collision of forms comes to resemble action combat less than montages of stunning abstraction.
Faraway, so close--vertical and horizontal--intimate and epic: Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang)
The form beautifully underscores the story’s sentiments of the unknowability of another person. In combat and in love, Wong’s characters are close but at a yawning distance. Few period epics or action films are so direct with the concentrated use of faces in close-up while being selective of wider shots (Wong’s fellow sensualist Michael Mann and Public Enemies–very frustrating for some viewers–comes to mind). The way Wong orients us through space is a unique sensibility and the viewer must work to adapt to it, our eyes sparring with Wong’s moves through environments as if viewer and film were themselves engaged in a kind of combat which is, as The Grandmaster shows again and again, a beautiful, sometimes erotic, dance (and also why some of those much-discussed explanatory titles in the U.S. cut are distracting–they get in the way of the “surrendering”). Bigger and more reflective world views battle the limits of one’s vision, a theme in the story that expresses Wong’s structural weaving. The aging and undefeated “Grandmaster” of the North, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), counters the expectations of his acolytes by building bridges with the South and looking to pass on a torch. “I’m creating opportunity,” he says. Meanwhile, with a Japanese invasion on the horizon, China–and the world–is also going through revolutions of change. At a crucial point, Ip delivers an insight to the old master, pointing out, “Why limit the world to North and South? It holds you back. Break from what you know and you will know more.”
The Grandmaster opens with a spectacular display of Ip Man’s talent as he proficiently handles over a dozen men in a stormy nocturnal street-fight. Wong makes every set-up and cut delicious, savoring Ip’s mastery of space as figures collide with blunt objects. It’s dirty and chaotic, abrasive yet guided with mastery, the precision of Ip Man parallel to Wong Kar-wai. Through the rain and shadows Wong introduces a sequence of circles, including Ip’s distinctive white hat, wheels from a carriage, and the ripples surrounding figures in puddles. The opening concludes with the final foe being knocked against a barred gate, which collapses. The fight sets the ideas and historical complications in motion, the perfect circles representing any number of things: precision and order, boundaries, movement, and spirals. Wong will display circular imagery throughout the film, as spherical omnipresence and hermetically sealed philosophies and landscapes collide with assaulting straight vectors, be it fists, blades, a funeral procession, or, in the film’s most dazzling set-piece (probably one of the most astounding cinematographic constructions I’ve ever seen), a train. Circles bring curve and nuance to the obtuse definitions of “horizontal” and “vertical,” revolving so as to confuse the directions. There is a need to hold on to ancient traditions, as Gong Yutian and his daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) possess knowledge of the “64 Hands” martial art. Time moves forward, leaving extinction and regret in its wake, altering horizontal and vertical (the Japanese invasion leads Wong to cut to Ip walking up a staircase, the camera turned 90 degrees so as to make his vertical movement horizontal), while circles denote some kind of totality, a transcendent dream space of whispered longings and forgotten whispers, where lost rituals and knowledge keep burning.
Perfect circles in Gong Er's dreams of the forgotten 64 Hands
Though Gong Yutian tries to peaceably pass on his legacy (“to bring things full circle,” he says), plans are foiled as Gong Er wants to challenge Ip Man and retain her family’s undefeated honor, and the old man’s most accomplished apprentice, the unruly Ma San (Jin Zhang), adapts opportunistically to the times, becoming a Japanese collaborator and murdering his master. “There is no turning back” is something we hear from both inheritors of the Gong tradition, whereas the old man realizes that turning back, whether in martial arts or in deep reflection, is key. “Life’s bigger than winning,” he says. “Take a longer view. Past the mountains, the world opens up.” He links it to appreciating one’s adversaries. “Not to see the good in others, not to admit their talent, is to lack generosity. Our high standards in martial arts apply to character as well.”
But as Wong laps up the phenomena under his lens, The Grandmaster demonstrates how difficult it is to have that stratospheric perspective. People are duplicated through reflections and muddled through drapes. The story could go in a few straight directions: Ip Man and Gong Er silently falling in love during their initial–and bloodless–fight, and so his emotional betrayal of his loyal and loving wife Zhang Yoshen; Gong Er’s quest for revenge on Ma San; or Ip Man’s place as the new Grandmaster, a kung fu master who will face off against some prodigious rival, like Ma San, Gong Er, or the equally lethal Chinese Nationalist agent “The Razor” (Chen Chang).
Instead, what Wong has designed (because this is a Wong Kar-wai movie) is a tapestry or chessboard, which has led some critics to accuse The Grandmaster of having a “jumbled plot.” The line of history interrupts the reliable old kung fu tropes, as old codes of honor wither away and desperation spreads. Spring, so Ip describes his life trajectory, goes unexpectedly to winter. Gong Er commits herself to vengeance and is sealed off from history with her vows. Appropriate for Wong, the death blows of vengeance and honor are less impactful than sentiments eluding expression. Mementos (like a button or the ashes of hair) are given as gifts, the simplicity of the offering opening an exponentially more complex maze of meanings and desires that can never be fully understood. A gesture like a letter or even offering a cigarette has a subtext akin to what’s within the wordless martial arts. We’re meant to ask what’s between the spaces and design of an infinite cinema matrix applied to history projected scrupulously and yet romantically. What’s in a photograph? What does it mean when Ip Man airily writes on his wife’s hand something that he can’t bring himself to say? What’s the difference between a word said vs. a word sung?
Shadows, fog, snow, and martial arts in "The Grandmaster"'s incredible train station confrontation between Gong Er and the traitorous Ma San
Every image and gesture, glistening with Wong’s perfection, makes the film somewhat difficult to wrap one’s head around. Concentrated though it is, The Grandmaster moves swiftly, and more rusty intelligences (such as mine) risk falling behind, which may explain an emotional disconnect several viewers have had in watching it. It’s a formidable picture begging for successive viewings, and having seen it three times (the American version once, the Chinese version twice), I think I’m finally touching its sublime fringe layers. The Grandmaster immerses us in its epic story obliquely, much like it orients to characters through space. We’re to fall between the ruffles of its delicate textures.
This ties to a complaint I have with the U.S. version, which pauses in its dance to mute the ineffable aura, as Harvey Weinstein’s cut (though approved and reportedly supervised by Wong) takes us away from temples, where the ancient Buddhas move as shadows chasing the fading light, and instead resolves itself in Ip Man’s Hong Kong schools of kung fu, where Bruce Lee–a special title informs us (not in the China cut)–was trained. This version concludes in the more profane dome of popular entertainment and a great teacher’s biographical legacy, steering away from the reverent long-view of the gods. The split between the two versions is evoked in a line Gong Er has in the Chinese version, as she looks up at the new kung fu training academies in the Hong Kong night: “The Martial World is a street of schools.”
The U.S. cut still marvels with its performances and show-stopping aesthetic, but the retreat at the conclusion–including a mid-end-credits razzle-dazzle wink that audiences in love with Marvel movies would dig–trivializes the original version’s chessboard of romance, art, and religion. Like Gong Er or the villainous Ma San, the U.S. version forcibly limits its vision, adjusting to the times. An attempt to clear up a film whose radical approach is there in the photography becomes something of a hindrance, muzzling the crushing emotional chords in the mandala’s center.
The disparity in richness between the two versions is most blatantly exemplified in Wong’s characterization of the enigmatic “Razor,” the Nationalist befriended (silently) by Gong Er on a train during a Japanese inspection, who is (as I recall) omitted from the American cut. The omission makes sense on a practical level. The Razor has no bridge to Gong Er or Ip Man (some viewers have mistaken him for Gong’s fiance). He’s a kind of texture, a component to the story against whom we compare the principal characters. While the fights featuring Ip Man, Ma San, and Gong Er are notably bloodless (even the chief Gong defender, an executioner of the old Republic accompanied memorably by a monkey, slices away at enemies and only sheds white fabric from their coats), the Razor reminds us of the corporeal reality of combat. His first appearance gives us a close-up of blood on his hands, and when he fights his former Nationalist allies, whom he is leaving, the sequence is meant to juxtapose against Ip Man’s opening battle, the camera now focusing on the deep red dripping in the rain. As we’ll see after Gong Er’s monumental train station confrontation with Ma San, there are consequences to blows landing on flesh and bone. The Razor’s enigmatic presence enriches the film, and points to the story’s inscrutability and sensual mysteries.
Character as texture: the enigmatic "Razor" (Chen Chang)
In an invaluable piece about Wong and the other great film sensualists of the ’00 decade (Mann, Malick, Lynch, Hou), Matt Zoller Seitz addressed such unique approaches to character and plot. “The point is to inspire associations, realizations, epiphanies–not in the character…but in the moviegoer.” He adds that “we experience life not as dramatic arcs or plot points or in-the-moment revelations, but as moments that cohere and define themselves in hindsight — as markers that don’t seem like markers when they happen.” The story is not a straight line, but more like a tapestry in which we lose ourselves, a chessboard of 64-squares (like the 64 Hands) in which we interact and play within the film’s maze, making our moves with each viewing (or post-viewing contemplation).
The Grandmaster exemplifies Wong’s fascination and longing for the eternal, to cross boundaries and be conjoined to another whom we’ve known for years and yet are strangers upon encounter. In a world that loves to preach No Worries and Carpe Diem, Wong Kar-wai is one of our chief saints of Regret, heralding and adorning it. The incredible train station fight, which feels like kung fu spectacle has been wedded to Tolstoy, is arranged with shadows and reflections in strobing light and snow as a vector of sharp accelerating metal crashes through a collision point, steam breathing through alternating figures and lights like vaporous ghosts. The cinematic execution is absolutely startling in its perfection, but what it captures is the sense that time and phenomena in space can’t be captured or controlled. The Grandmaster has these chapter-book moments centered around photographs being taken, the live action cinematography of posing characters fading to a framed black and white picture frame. One particularly eye-catching photograph occurs after Ip’s emotional betrayal to his wife. The parents pose with two children, an empty chair in the middle of the frame. The image cuts to the final framed picture–and there is no empty chair. It’s a different image. Then it cracks to pieces under the explosive assault of the Japanese invasion.
The final photograph: Ip Man with his students
IMDB lists this discrepancy as a goof. But excuse me as I lay my balls out and say, “Nah, it’s not.” As with the allegedDark Knight Rises flubs of Christopher Nolan (whom Wong greatly admires), there’s a method to the continuity gaps, linked to the elusive hidden meanings within images and art, from photographs to propaganda films to cordial letters to martial arts. What’s the meaning of that empty chair? Does it have something to do with Ip Man’s feelings for Gong Er, as he here plays the role of good family man and honorable warrior, his nuclear household now invaded by a haunting specter? The obliterated family photograph is representative of what’s in every set-up of The Grandmaster, a secret and an unread wish or prayer that wants to be deciphered but can’t be rendered as language. “Father, can you read what’s in my heart?” Gong Er prays to the departed in a temple as she mulls over revenge, eventually losing herself in a role like an opera character that Ip Man is watching as an applauding spectator. She chooses to remain in her era, “the times when I was happiest,” the 64 Hands now a snow-dust memory. Her tragedy is aesthetically perfect, a downfall played as a beautiful ballet incensed with opium smoke. The Grandmaster is a rapturous descent into the mystery of mementos and movement with a deep sadness in its appreciation of an iconic figure, whose teachers and lovers pass away too soon with only the closure of futile though sincere rituals, like photographic technology vainly trying to establish permanence. In heavenward victory there is moribund regret, the vertical and horizontal intersecting within the wheel of time that unspools through a cinema temple’s ever-burning bulbs.
Drug War has a title lending itself to the genre simplicity of a modern crime film. We have the expected participants of devoted cops matching wits with desperate criminals, a jittery-cool percussive guitar-synth score skipping along with grey urban metal and smokey noir nights, and information technology gadgets underlying the movement toward ineluctable violence. But all that, assuming that it’s under the masterly guiding arrangement of a director like Johnnie To (moving from his usual terrain of Hong Kong to mainland China), reminds us how good an honest genre picture can be, and how rare it is that Hollywood would allow one to glow with such a controlled slow-burn, the heated sensory alertness of frenetic action playing alongside cool precision and measured restraint, packed with blistering suspense from start to finish, though the film’s first gunshots aren’t heard for nearly 65 minutes. Focusing on a drug manufacturer, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), whose only way out of an immediate death sentence is to collaborate with a brilliant and multifaceted police captain, Zhang (Honglei Sun), Drug War is a lacerating procedural of cops infiltrating cartels, a diamond bullet dazzler of existential dread and undercover play-acting through insurmountable criminal layers where the players are pawns on a draconian police state grid. For both sides, action on the board is insanely desperate, and yet futile.
Dead Man Walking: meth maker Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) surrenders in a morgue in "Drug War"
The collision of hot and cold is there in the opening images: in the hazy distance, smoke rises from a meth lab explosion. The unseen bodies are already burned up with the lone survivor, Choi, fleeing, the squeal of accelerating tires and flurry of angles presenting the moment as a one-man car chase through dense city streets. Choi loses control of his faculties, vomiting and struggling to breathe, and finally crashes into a restaurant, rendering him comatose. The prologue gets under the surface of a pursue-and-catch plot. The landscape is captured by ubiquitous security cameras which damn individuals quickly to death, as in China, we gather, the cost of manufacturing and exporting narcotics isn’t just incriminating, it’s existential. To be caught is an automatic death sentence. The law is blunt and uncompromising, and the cameras are always registering, perched high over intersections and sometimes microscopically plugged in tight interior spaces. That the car-chase involves one man is telling. Cop and criminal are often juxtaposed against each other, but Drug War makes the mirror more intimate and almost schizophrenic, where one is already juxtaposed against their own nature. To shows the infinite variety of personae adopted by either side to achieve ends. Wearing droll faces that can adopt the giddy smiles of clown masks, these characters skip around a performative life-and-death chessboard.
Surveillance State as the film production set of Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun)
The story’s procedural aspect is front-and-center. We’re jacked into the process of police and criminals with a bravura toll station set piece, where vehicles from both groups (though from varying organizations) converge. An officer undercover as a station agent takes note of tiny details in the cars–a water bottle filled with urine, food wrappers, the physical disposition of the riders. Like the impersonal cameras overlooking everything, To’s people are always registering, scanning spaces. Meanwhile, a smoking bus of drug mules pulls up to the toll window. We’re not verbally navigated through the scenario, but intuit things through glances and gestures. The bus has been infiltrated by Captain Zhang’s crew, Zhang taking a central role as the drug ringleader’s closest companion on the commute. They share some fruit together while wading through the checkpoint suspense, displaying camaraderie. In a flash, the dealer, tugging Zhang along with him, runs, but the police with their many eyes are far ahead. Everyone’s handily apprehended, the primary dealer apoplectic about the betrayal. Zhang candidly head-butts him. “I didn’t betray you, I’m a cop,” he says without discernible affect.
Zhang is a blank slate and an unimpeded cyborg “terminator” more than the familiar melancholic cop. This is a trend that’s been increasingly pronounced in crime genre films through the digital information age. Like Kathryn Bigelow’sZero Dark Thirty last year, Drug War exemplifies how the shift to total surveillance and a drone mentality has rendered policing to an eerie post-human realm. Zhang and his team, most memorably Yang Xiaobei (Huang Yi), a tough-as-nails officer who can swiftly alternate between diminutive and servile femininity while working undercover before exploding with merciless and efficient violence, don’t make mention of lives behind the wire. These officers don’t have dreams or whisper hushed longings to the landscape. They infiltrate by acting, win trust at great risk, accrue evidence, collaborate with other police teams, and make arrests, with little thought to how all of these drug mules, pods of heroin uncomfortably lodged in their orifices, will be snappily executed, even though it’s apparent that most of these criminals are poor and desperate. Yang gives tissue to a weeping woman struggling to shit out pellets, but such empathy is on a short leash. Bodies are ushered through a systematic assembly line, and new leads immediately point to another group of drug runners. Zhang’s team moves again. There is no downtime, no rest. Just work.
Mutual imprisonment between police and criminals
The comatose Timmy Choi is the new lead. In the hospital, he wakes from his sleep and sneaks away from police on guard. Zhang, fresh from investigating the accident scene, is ahead of his prey. Choi is chased into the hospital morgue and instead of fighting, which would ensure a quick death, he drops his scalpel and gives up. To gives us a funny visual metaphor in this stark and antiseptic moment, as Choi pulls away plastic while on the corpse slab, his arms up: all of these individuals, on both sides of the system, are already dead. Choi says he’ll cooperate because, “I don’t want a death sentence. I just want a suspension.” The instinct for life overpowers resistence to imprisonment. His wife died in the meth lab fire, along with several other relatives and associates. He has his buyers and contacts and will give them up for more time. He has nothing to live for, but can’t bear dying.
The infiltration procedure is a complex puzzle and its own kind of “filmmaking,” Zhang directing with a steady crew who oversee and read the surveillance images. Undercover cops are improvising multiple roles in meeting Choi’s associates, and sometimes rewriting a given script of performance, adopting overheard idioms and idiosyncrasies like method actors. For instance, Zhang plays a morose and doped-out dealer who must sell himself to a kingpin, the aptly named Haha (who laughs in such a boisterous way we’re given cause to doubt the authenticity of his good humor, indicating the performative aspect is on both sides), being sure to get implicating photographic images and audio recording of all involved–the scene made strangely exuberant with some amusing surveillance camera slapstick thrown in (Haha’s mistress, in accommodating Zhang, keeps on putting delicacies in front of the roving cigarette case which holds the minuscule viewfinder). Successful, Zhang and Choi go to a dressing room, “get into character,” and quickly move on to another “set.” Zhang takes on the markedly different and expressive role of Haha, garnering the trust of the unknown dealer he was imitating in the earlier scene.
Johnnie To's photoscopic fantasy-land of theatricality, as a drug kingpin plays tourist.
Choi has a vested interest in fooling his collaborators in the drug ring because it keeps him alive. He knows the camera’s on him at all times. But the steely Zhang is vulnerable when, to prove goodwill, he is forced to snort a substantial amount of illegal nose candy. It’s a terrific nail-biting moment, a four-person volley of disguise and manipulation between Zhang, Choi, Yang, and the dealer, while a monitoring crew listens in. But Zhang, who also carried heroin pellets in his rectum during the opening raid, is committed more to his work–to the performance–than his well-being. It’s harrowing to see how his body reacts when the dealer leaves and the curtain comes up. The narcotics have a horrifying effect on him, and his stoic veneer crumbles as he shudders and begs for ice and water. Once recovered, wrapped up in bath towels, he’s fast to get serious with Choi and move on to the next stage of infiltration.
The way fluid identity inhabits the body is parallel to an unleashed contaminant, like the narcotics sniffed by Zhang. Drug War doesn’t separate the intricacies of the drug trade from the ramifications of drug use. In addition to Zhang’s near-breakdown in a hotel room, To follows a couple of Choi’s associates on a cross-country journey as they’re blitzed out on their product, eventually whittled down to giggling buffoons. Physiology is a key player, causing its own kind of violence in a story where there will be more than enough gunplay. Bodily interiors aren’t immune from impersonal camera-eye infiltration, an x-ray revealing a mule’s insides packed with drug pellets. We see another mule choking on blood after a pellet has burst inside of him, and we suffer with the unfortunate people who forcibly expel them in plastic buckets. There’s a sense of muted vacancy as Zhang looks down on the pellets forced from his own body, washing fecal residue off in a sink. This is a man so wrapped up in work that he’s alienated from intimacy with his own flesh.
Drug War is set over a matter of days, and has a vivid though subdued momentum behind every turn of events, often with the pull of real-time suspense. It’s so effective in grasping a chase’s urgency over 64-square contingencies that we’re off-guard when Choi, meeting with a pair of generous deaf employees at one of his factories, seems to stop play-acting (on instruction he’s set up tiny cameras, Zhang telling him earlier, “Make sure I can see every single corner”) and has a ritual pause to grieve for his dead wife. For the first time in 55 minutes, Drug War slides into the sanctuary of personal reflection, even though we can’t be sure if Choi has ulterior motives, and that this is just another layer to a performance. He sets his own money on fire during this pause, as a religious offering to the departed. “The dead can’t use real currency,” one of the surveilling police officers says. Though he’s extending his life through meager spoonfuls, as Choi watches the money burn he grasps how he’s already also departed.
As expected in a Johnnie To crime film, the intricate vectors magnificently lead to elaborately staged violent outcomes. Though To holds off on the action violence for which he’s famous, when it swiftly arrives more than halfway into this post-human odyssey it’s magnificently engineered and in absolute contrast to the hyperbolic chaos that currently pummels American audiences. One incredible sequence involves the deaf drug workers, who always wear their bullet proof vests (even showering with them). Their senses not distracted by the noise of gunplay, with bewildering grace under pressure they take on a whole force of raiding police. Again, we’re reminded how the defects or quirks of body chemistry determine outcomes in real space. From there To brings all of the disparate forces together in front of an elementary school, lines of crime and law converging once again in vehicles during midday daylight with the most vividly brutal and well-directed movie shoot-out in recent memory.
Final shootout: "Drug War"
In the detritus of these extended concluding moments, Drug War conveys a kind of banality to death along with impersonal gruesomeness. Life and death decisions are quick and ridiculous, and gestures of heroism almost absurdly casual rather than histrionic or romantic. The pretenses of personae fall off, and we realize that this film works because its two leads, Louis Koo and Honglei Sun, are so marvelous in losing themselves in the layers of capacious and ever-adapting human personality. To’s craftsmanship with masterful cutting and camera angles, with eye-grabbing ascending crane shots, affiliates his work as movie-maker to the Orwellian police state of steely surveillance eye voyeurism, the mechanical battleground where the personae adjust like hyperreal social network avatars, stage blood spattering on the lens (it’s worth pondering if the filmmaker, working under the auspices of mainland China–as compared to his usual Hong Kong stomping ground–is deftly smuggling in some critical notions about his own backers). Unlike its precedents and peers in the modern noir genre with which American audiences may be more attuned, Drug War isn’t romantically melancholic. It’s full blown nihilistic, where the war zone is a dead zone, and life and death are equally tuned to a humming electronic frequency.
For some of the most thorough writing on director Johnnie To, and Asian cinema generally, I can’t encourage you enough to check out Sean Gilman’s blog, The End of Cinema, a treasure trove of keen observations.