Monday, August 26, 2013

Drug War (2012)

WHO: Johnnie To directed and co-produced this.

WHAT: In his essay in the 2007 book Hong Kong Film: Hollywood and the New Global Cinema, Peter Rist proposes that Johnnie To is "the most prominent Hong Kong film director/producer not to have tried his luck in Hollywood". If prominence is measured in critical acclaim and festival acceptance in Euope and North America, it's hard to think of another candidate for this title. (If there are other measurements, then Stephen Chow, Ann Hui, and other possibilities might be considered.) Though Rist's piece suggests the director could fit right into the Hollywood filmmaking system, in six years after publication, To has still resisted such a call. Instead, he's been making advances into mainland China and its rapidly growing theatrical market, Drug War is, like Romancing In Thin Air,  a Hong Kong/China co-production, and was filmed in China, in this case in the cities of Jinhai and Erzhou.

David Bordwell has published a detailed analysis of Drug War with special attention given to several of its most memorable scenes, but I'm equally thankful for his publication of Grady Hendrix;s analysis of the film as a viewpoint on China vis-a-vis Hong Kong. An excerpt from his analysis (published as an addendum to Bordwell's article) follows:
The cops in the film are China personified: they have unlimited resources, massive numbers, infinite organization, but they are heartless towards outsiders, unforgiving, and they don’t trust anyone. The criminals are all the stereotypes of Hong Kong-ers: they are family, they are stylish and chic, they eat meals together (Hong Kong people love to eat, after all) but they are only interested in money.
Drug War is one of the best new movies I've seen all summer, and is highly recommended if you can squeeze in a showing.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens through this Thursday at the 4-Star at 1:00, 4:50, and 8:40 daily.

WHY: When I hear the term "neighborhood theatre" I think first of the 4-Star, located in the heart of the Richmond District, where I grew up. There were other theatres in my old 'hood, including the Balboa (which still survives and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign in the hopes of extending its survival for at least another decade), the Alexandria (which has been closed for nearly a decade now but still stand), the Bridge (which just closed last December), the Coliseum (which was gutted in 2000 and is now virtually unrecognizable as a Walgreens) and the Coronet (which was shut in 2005 and has since been demolished). But the 4-Star was the closest to my house and the one I walked past just about every day on the way to school. Mostly it played art films of no interest to an average kid, but I do remember occasionally attending for a special repertory screening of something like The Wizard of Oz. When I first began reading newspaper movie reviews and articles as a teenager I remember being thrilled to learn that my neighborhood theatre was to be showing Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey and I determined to be among the crowds lining up for a first-day showing as I had for Tim Burton's Batman a few weeks (if I remember the timeline correctly) before. I was surprised to be one of a small handful of people in the theatre at all. I didn't quite get that there was a difference in public awareness and acceptance of a Hollywood fantasy film vis-a-vis a foreign-made, independently distributed one.

In 1992 the theatre operation was taken over by Frank Lee, who had grown up in the business of operating Chinatown theatres and was looking to expand Chinese-language cinema to a neighborhood sometimes called "New Chinatown" or "Second Chinatown". Since then Lee has frequently screened Chinese-language classics and new releases sent directly from Asian distributors, along with films distributed by American outfits. This is where I saw my first Milkyway Production, Too Many Ways To Be #1 (directed by Wai Ka-Fei), which instantly made me a fan, as well as many Johnnie To films including several which never had "official" US distribution but played for a week or more at the 4-Star: My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Throw Down and (for my money To's greatest masterpiece) Sparrow come to mind. In the past several years the 4-Star's programming of Chinese-language films has become more sporadic than consistent, but I'm always glad to see when they program Asian films. I'm especially pleased that after Drug War's expected run ends Thursday, Wong Kar-Wai's latest film The Grandmaster will open for at least a week starting this Friday August 30th, in a 35mm print. I'll be surprised if this martial arts film, which was shot mostly on 35mm cameras, will be showing on 35mm anywhere else in the Frisco Bay region.

HOW: Drug War was shot digitally and is being projected digitally.


  1. Brian: According to the Variety review and IMDB, Drug War was shot in 35mm( using two different kinds of Arriflex cameras.) I'm going to hold out, stubborn as I am, until someone presents it on film

  2. Thanks for the correction, Larry! I don't know how this escaped me. I guess I was fooled by what seemed to be a very digital look in the DCP I viewed. My eyes need more training...

  3. Brian: I popped in for the last few minutes, before I caught up with Fruitvale Station there yesterday in 35mm. The video projection of Drug War looked rather washed out.

  4. It's unfortunate, then, that the 4-Star was unable to project an exhibition print. I wonder if any have been struck at all. Did you like Fruitvale Station?

  5. Yes, Fruitvale Station is a fine piece of work, in the humanist tradition.I'm glad I was able to catch it in the right circumstances and to benefit from waiting a while and avoiding the hype that sometimes spoils such acclaimed works if one rushes to see them the first week.