“Drug War” – A Breakthrough into the 10th Year of CEPA

21 April 2013 18 h 36 min Comments Off

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(hkfilmart, Apr 20, 2013) As of 20 April, Johnnie TO’s “Drug War” pushed through RMB 180 million in Mainland China. It is expected that TO’s latest action film will surpass RMB 200 million.

More important than being bankable at box office, “Drug War” has also broken the some of the taboo of Hong Kong-China co-productions, making such co-productions more flexible in terms of content, and thus challenging the bottom-line of Mainland film censorship practices.

Hong Kong-Mainland co-productions have been the talk of the town in Hong Kong for more than a decade. Although Hong Kong many industry professionals are not receptive to co-productions, they have to nod on it because co-productions are where profits lie. A small number of filmmakers still resist filming in Mainland China and insist on staying in Hong Kong. Critics and the cultural industry are by and large skeptical about co-productions. They believe co-productions make Hong Kong cinema stray and more so “lose its soul”!

“Drug War”, however, indicates an acknowledgeable breakthrough. Featuring detailed scenes of drug trafficking, drug taking, gunfights and lethal injection for death penalty, the action thriller ends with a plot showing a Mainland police squad being annihilated in a raid, similar to that of “Expect the Unexpected” where a Simon Yam-led CID team is ambushed and annihilated. In the past, such onscreen defeat of the Chinese police was impossible, but in “Drug War”, it is not a problem anymore.

It was not clear whether all the squad members died as when the seriously injured squad leader (starring SUN Honglei) fell onto the ground he was able to handcuff a foot of the drug lord (starring Louis KOO). Maybe the squad leader survived. Maybe it’s a suspenseful plot for a possible sequel. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that “Drug War” is a big leap forward as any remote suggestion of the China police force would get shunned during the screening process conducted by the national film inspection committee or its related police department authorities. They would have questioned, “Members of our police force have been professionally trained. They would never get annihilated in the gunfire of criminals. Are you implying that our police force is incompetent now that your plot is filmed this way?”

According to Mainland media reports, TO initially planned to have a female squad member survive and appear in the ending scene to witness Koo receiving the lethal injection and to convey the message that her teammates did not die in vain. However, in reality the government policies forbid law enforcers to attend the execution of a criminal whose case was handled by them. As a result, the plot is changed. In other word, we might assume the whole squad was eradicated in the film.

It is not new to have scenes of drug abuse in co-productions. Derek YEE’s “Protege” has similar settings. Ann HUI’s “Goddess of Mercy” also depicts drug syndicates and police warfare. Johnnie TO’s attempt at a recurring subject in co-productions has received added attention due to the following facts:

First of all, he is the acclaimed Johnnie TO. According to a poll conducted by “Southern Metropolis Weekly” two weeks prior, TO was ranked top on “Most Admired Hong Kong Directors”. WONG Kar-Wai came in second and Ann HUI secured the third place.

Secondly, it is the appalling scenes mentioned earlier – police force being annihilated and drug lord receiving lethal injection.

In addition, TO also insists on his signature filming style. For instance, there is a twist in the plot when the ultimate brainer (starring LO Hoi Pang) behind this drug cartel was revealed. It is also a surprise to see that LAM Suet, a regular comedian in TO’s films, plays a highly intelligent mastermind. Making the audience expect the unexpected is how Milkway Image’s productions win the hearts of the moviegoers.

Ten years into CEPA, co-productions have transformed and “Drug War” is surely a milestone.

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