Violence is the birthright of the Hong Kong auteur. There's that one about the sharpshooter with the degenerative hand condition. Or that scene where the guy spits a bullet into the chamber of his gun and fires it in one continuous movement, all while flying through the air.1 And the time the bloodied, stumbling hero tells the even bloodier, bedraggled villain to "go masturbate in hell" as the final bullet rips through his throat. Watch a few Hong Kong gangster movies from the 1980s and 1990s and you will soon be convinced that every method of launching a body through the air has been discovered and every shade of fake blood has already been splattered.
Inventing new ways to maim, kill, or double-cross: It's a responsibility that has long vexed 58-year-old director and producer Johnnie To. On the surface, his movies are consistent with the tradition that produced him. Like all the rest, they are stories of loyalty and brotherhood featuring obsessive, hunch-driven cops and swaggering triad gang members and always ending with bodies scattered everywhere, perforated with bullet holes. But over the past decade, To has become one of Asia's most thoughtful commercial filmmakers by exploring his own ambivalence about the worlds he depicts. This week marks the U.S. DVD release of Drug War, To's latest masterpiece and his first gangster movie to be filmed in China. It's a sprawling, hypnotic story of a tireless investigator and a mysterious, turncoat drug trafficker; in their shared fate, we witness some of the darkest depictions of China in some time. It's something that can't be avoided.
Hong Kong's peculiar history helps explain how this all came to be. As a British colony for nearly the entire 20th century, Hong Kong remained abstractly beholden to Chinese tradition and history, yet shielded from China's political and economic tumult. Instead, Hong Kong's burgeoning movie studios borrowed freely from a past the Communist mainland was willfully ignoring: the camp theatrics and acrobatic flair of Chinese opera, the philosophy and contortionist elastics of martial arts. Business began to boom in the 1960s and early 1970s, thanks in part to the rise of Bruce Lee and a new foreign market for kung fu flicks. European and American production companies began collaborating with their Hong Kong counterparts, though this rarely involved more than air-dropping a kung fu fighter into the Wild West (Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh's "kung fu spaghetti Western" The Stranger and the Gunfighter) or manufacturing reasons for a stateless hit man to learn the ways of the fist.2
But Hong Kong didn't need global attention to develop its unique style and attitude. A different kind of moviegoing community incubated in Hong Kong's cramped, narcoleptic quarters. Studios would hold special midnight screenings a few days before a movie's official release and hastily edit or reshoot scenes according to the audience's shouted insults or break-of-dawn tearoom chatter. Even though there were only a few genres available to filmmakers — it was easier to export products clearly marked "KUNG FU" — the intense demand gave them the freedom to experiment within the boundaries of, say, the police procedural. These traditions conditioned Hong Kong moviegoers to seek a different kind of thrill from their action movies, more melodrama and sentiment from their romantic dramas. After some wars it's hard to remember that the contest was ever in doubt. Imagine that for decades Hong Kong was one of these bizarre places largely immune to the lures of Hollywood.
Throughout the 1980s, local movies provided the surface upon which everyday people could project their questions about the uniqueness of Hong Kong and, as the British prepared to return the colony to China in 1997, their anxieties about its future. There was plenty of mimicry and irreverent bootlegging in the local movies — Top Gun, for example, begat the reckless young mavericks of Proud and Confident. But Hong Kong filmmakers crafted a style unique to the city's hysterical rhythms and mazy, jumbled architecture. When directors started making gangster movies in the 1980s, the action had to rival the grace of an old-time sword fight or the impossible sky-walking of classic kung fu films; a shootout had to aspire toward art and beauty.3 Terms like "heroic bloodshed" or "gun fu" (kung fu with guns!) were coined to help explain these elaborate new movies and the moral conundrums they presented.
Hong Kong film was at its liveliest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a tiny, tireless universe powered by fierce competition and tenacious copycats. The success of 1989's God of Gamblers, for example, inspired at least 10 imitation or parody gambling-themed movies: All for the Winner, King of Gambler [sic], All for the Gamblers, The Top Bet, Queen of Gamble [sic], Money Maker, The Gambling Ghost (wherein Sammo Hung plays three different characters), Casino Tycoon, Casino Tycoon II, and The Mighty Gambler. And these were just the ones released between 1990 and 1992. Perhaps it was inevitable that the studios would overheat and eventually falter. There are only so many ways to pirouette out of a bullet's path. By the mid-1990s, thanks to a slumping regional economy, rampant bootlegging, and exhausted ideas, the Hong Kong movie business began its slow decline. Hollywood was taking a more calculated approach to the foreign markets and traces of Hong Kong style showed up in The Matrix and just about anything Quentin Tarantino touched. By the time Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, imported blockbusters had finally started to do more business than local productions.
It was around this time that To and longtime collaborator Wai Ka-Fai began to establish themselves. After working in television for nearly two decades, To started Milkyway Image, a production company that specialized in essentially two things: lighthearted mainstream comedies and grimy triad movies. The comedies made money; the gangster movies seemed like a space to rethink the legacies that the late-1990s Hong Kong director was inheriting. Being a few years late to the party gave him a unique freedom. While To's movies were still about triad gangsters and determined cops, they asked different questions of their scenarios: What happens after the smoke clears? Do ideas of honor or brotherhood look different now that Hong Kong has been returned to China? What constitutes turf in a globalized world? And how thin is the line dividing passion from madness?
"I'd rather die than live miserably," the titular madman of Mad Detective says to his wife when she expresses concern that he is obsessed with his work. It seems like a generic, persona-establishing thing to say, a scene that has played out hundreds of times in the name of man-apart heroism. Then again, within a few minutes you come upon the very real possibility that this sockless, head-bandaged detective sprinting down alleyways muttering to himself is, indeed, insane.
Drug War is To's first action film shot in China.4 It's about a midlevel drug trafficker who agrees to help the police break a wide-reaching syndicate in order to avoid the death penalty. Instead of the glimmering clutter of Hong Kong, there's the hazy vastness of China's glamour-free second- and third-tier cities, metropolises that have modernized at an astonishing rate because of their proximity to highways or shipping ports. Rather than breakneck car chases in the shadows of skyscrapers, there are tediously long bus rides and transactions conducted amid traffic jams. There's an ambient tension as plans unravel, drug dealers drive in circles for days on end, and the ubiquitous Chinese surveillance cameras whir into focus to capture all the inaction. It's a muted and atmospheric experience, more like The Wire than anything To's predecessors were doing in the 1990s — and much like The Wire, it's never really clear if you should be picking a side. It's almost pointless to do so.
Movies are portals into other worlds and, when movies depict worlds that don't at all look like yours, your sense of place and belonging can feel a little skewed. I came across Hong Kong's unique take on the action movie in the early 1990s, marooned in Taiwan each summer. I was bored out of my mind and spent an appalling amount of time watching TV. This being an anecdote about some place other than America in the early 1990s, there never seemed to be anything good on TV. I eventually surrendered to the crude action flicks that seemed to play on a loop, if only because they seemed so outlandish. Beyond their contortionist slap fights and rare gunplay, everyone looked like a version of someone my parents knew, which was a strange sensation.
I had no real grasp on life in Taiwan or Hong Kong, but there was something thrilling about seeing these radically normal-looking Chinese people tote guns and crack wise. I never trusted Jackie Chan — he seemed too pliable and elastic, too eager to please. Jet Li didn't seem long for a world vexed by modern problems — gun smuggling, drug trafficking, financial collapses. I was mostly obsessed with the nonchalant swagger of Chow Yun-fat, the meticulously choreographed shootouts of directors like John Woo or Ringo Lam. I had little understanding at the time of where these movies came from. They recalibrated my sense of what I could demand from a movie, not just in terms of high-quality onscreen gunplay but also the possibilities of who could play the hero or villain. They were someone else's dreams. Maybe, in one of the densest cities in the world, the possibility of sprinting down the street by yourself was pure fantasy, and that's all you needed.
Drug War feels like a movie about the influence To's forebears cast on generations of kids in Hong Kong and beyond.5 The movies of the 1980s and 1990s were about blurring the line between right and wrong to uphold a more intimate set of values — loyalty, faith, community. When borders melt down and the promise of brotherhood no longer suffices, what are you left with? When the safe geometry of the city gives way to a horizon with no end, where is the law? If filmmakers of the 1990s fixated on the shared nobility of the cop and the criminal, then what happens when neither side feels much of anything?
In 2015, To plans to release the third installment of Election, his classic meditation on triad bureaucracy. If his predecessors had to work within the constraints of a crowded city, then maybe the next challenge of To's career will be dealing with the whims of Chinese censors, who likely prefer inert rom-coms or stirring historical epics to movies about the drug trade in which — spoiler alert — nearly everyone dies. Drug War is one of To's most absorbing movies partly because it draws on the jaded desolation of the land it depicts. There's but one moment of warmth, as the overseers of a meth lab halt production to welcome back their weary, wounded boss. They sit around the table, the only sound the bubbling of a hot pot. He breaks down and cries, revealing to them (and the audience) that he has just lost his wife to an explosion at one of their other factories. Devastated, his minions begin burning piles of ill-gotten cash as an offering to her spirit. It's a reminder that the past is always present.