The main reason I started this blog was to make me watch more movies, and to vary the kinds of movies I watched. The first part of that has been well and truly accomplished with me watching hundreds of movies for the first time, instead of falling back on old favourites over and over again. But l’m not sure if I’ve varied my selections enough. I still watch mainly American movies, with directors, writers and actors that make them a pretty safe bet. So this year, I’m forcing myself to seek out more international movies. With Foreign Language Weekends, every weekend(ish) during 2016, I’ll review two(ish) non-English language movies.
“I will help you to live. Or I will send you to die.”
In the 80s and 90s, Hong Kong cinema introduced the world to a new kind of movie. Lead by director John Woo, these movies combined gritty, street level stories, with overblown, kinetic action. The influence can still be seen in mainstream Hollywood now, with movies like the Fast and Furious franchise taking the idea to ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining extremes. I’ve seen one or two of these kinds of movies from their native Hong Kong, but I know it’s a genre I need to dig deeper into. Which is why I just watched a slightly more modern entry into the genre, with Drug War.
At a border crossing, several suspicious vehicles line up and get ready for entry. There’s the red sedan with two restless guys and apparent raw ingredients for the manufacture of drugs. There’s the truck containing two tweekers whose manic energy can be seen a mile away. And there’s the seemingly innocent bus load of regular Joes. Regular Joes who turn out to have clackers full of drugs and are the target of an undercover sting by Zhang Lee (Hiong Lei Sun).
As Lee waits for his new prisoners to pass their contraband in a prison hospital, he spots Timmy Choi, whose chemical burns betray him as the victim of a drug lab mishap. Lee immediately decides to use Choi as the key to his next operation. He’ll go undercover as Choi’s associate to make his way up the drug trafficking ladder to catch some bigger fish. Bigger fish that may also be connected to the red sedan and truck from the earlier border crossing.
For the first half hour or so, I found the stony faced, dead pan performance of Hing Lee Sun a little much. It’s one thing for a hero to be the strong, silent type, but I felt like he was pushing it to lifeless, boring extremes. But then, Drug War throws him into a quick succession of scenes where he takes on different characteristics and mannerisms as part of his undercover work, and Sun’s performance really comes alive. The straight faced, monotone of his base character only makes the cartoonishness of his undercover characters all the more entertaining.
Drug War isn’t as hyper and kinetic as the John Woo movies that put modern Hong Kong cinema on the map. But it’s not attempting pure realism either. It takes a very believable story, and adds just enough theatrics to make sure the audience is always on edge. Will a police captain commit so much to his deep cover that he’ll almost OD on cocaine? Will a pair of deaf mute brothers be able to take out an entire SWAT team? Even in the world of this movie, these things are unlikely, but they never seem impossible either. Or even all that implausible.