by Jaime Grijalba.
Du zhan (2012, Johnnie To)
Remember the badass 90’s Hong Kong action films that everyone loved and seemed to enjoy so much? Well, they didn’t stop in the 90’s, people loved it not only overseas but inside of Hong Kong as well, the police-mob dramas with a lot of gunplay and action are among the top earners any year in the island, as well as being among the most exportable films that come out from there, sometimes bringing them over on direct-to-video releases and in smaller doses, theatrical releases. Of course the genre took a huge blow in the early 2000’s when a little movie called ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000) came out to everyone’s disbelief and practically put the kung fu and the wuxia back in scene, this time more based in Mainland China than in Hong Kong, but with products that came from both sides of the sea, giving old stars as well as newcomers the chance to entertain the people, again with the same results, some small theatrical releases while most of the rest came out on DVD or never saw the light of day in this side of the world. Just as much as the crime films of the 90’s have continued to this day, the wuxia movies have been for a while since the late 60’s with varying degrees of popularity and critical approach, while most of them being catalogued as part of the cult or bizarre world, others were elegant supporters of the beauty of the genre and the martial arts, competing even to what was wrongly called the first ‘elegant’ wuxia, the oscarized 2000 movie directed by Ang Lee. But let’s get back to the crime films, while there was an auteur in those starting years that finally made the jump and started doing crappy action films in the United States, John Woo, there was another great amount of Hong Kong filmmakers that wanted to imprint a personal style to the films they made, some of them made the jump from the crime to the wuxia when they saw the opportunity (Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak and Felix Chong come to mind at first), while others have maintained some kind of loyalty to the crime and the mob that gave them their initial fame (although with some reservations and wild cards here and there), and here I’m talking about the much talked-about Hong Kong director Johnnie To, who has directed 53 movies since 1980 and has no sign of stopping.
But this time is different. Johnnie To, used to produce and direct his films using his own producing company in Hong Kong, has made a deal (with the devil, you could say) by having a film produced and shot in Mainland China. You could think that this makes up for a blander To film, but as a non-expert of To’s filmography, being someone just with enough expertise on the action HK bullet drama, I can say that if this is watered down Johnnie To, man… I can’t wait for the real Johnnie To! This movie is crazy and I can’t believe that it passed the censorship in China. It has incredible amount of blood, drugs, guns and shootings between innocents and evil lords alike. We can see the chinese police going deep explorations and interventions to people, in a way evidencing the power that they have to break into the private life of people, even though in this case it’s used to trap the baddies, it’s just one of the subtler ways that To has to deliver a certain critique of the elements that are wrong in the politics and laws of China, and even though some people think that the final scene is a seal of aprooval from the director towards certain chinese sentence to their criminals, the context and the way in that its presented reveals much more about how wrong it actually is. This is a movie that never stops, and every scene seems to be the climax of the movie and that it will end in the next five minutes, that is something that is achieved through a particular eye for editing and at the same time a way to frame and shoot the characters inside the frame of the film, they always seem to be on the edge of something incredible, and that also helps to build the tension and the sensation of uneasyness tha always is permeated through all the characters. The cinematography, while not striking and incredible as in other To films (as I have been able to see in stills and trailers) is still serviceable and has some fun with the windows of the cars and how it distorts what we can see inside of them as well as the colour of the skin of the people who are inside. The action coreography is superb and the gunplay is just magnificent… but is this all worthwhile if it has a shit of a plot?
Thankfully, it doesn’t, it’s actually one of the most interesting classic iterations of the relation between mob and police, reminiscing of ‘Infernal Affairs’ (2002), but at the same time with the finger put on the trigger and the action more than in the reflections and the consequences of being an informant. The movie starts with a series of characters that are presented really early on at a toll booth, passing from one side to the other: policemen, policewomen in disguise, drug lords, drug transporters, everything is mixed up in a confusing way, as if this particular opening scene is a prediction of what will happen. At the same time as the police finds dozens of people transporting drug bags inside of their stomachs, they also find one of the drug lords that ordered that transport of those metanphetamines as well as raw materials in a truck that is being followed by the police. The drug cartel boss tries to escape but he is quickly found and told how he could be sentenced to death penalty, but he decides he’s better off denouncing and betraying those around him than having himself killed. He quickly starts to plan with the police a complicated thread that will allow them to play both parts: negotiator and client, passing in front of the counterpart as both, using the information learned by the negotiator (passing as the important client) to then go to the client and pass as the negotiator. The police commander is one of the principal people here, putting himself at the front of the operation and in the most direct contact with the crime itself, forming some kind of untrustworthy alliance between him and the trapped betraying drug lord. It’s a complicated web of relations but it’s presented in such a simple manner that it’s easily understandable, and when the threads start to get loose and in the final confrontation we see all the parties involved literally crash with each other, it becomes one of the most thrilling sequences that you could see this year at the movies. This is maybe the biggest discovery I’ve made in a long time, how great and amazing the world of Johnnie To could be (after an initial dissapointment with ‘Romancing in Thin Air’ (2012) that I found to be terrible, boring and offensive in so many ways), and I hope that you can find your To fix near you, it’s highly recommended from this particular doctor. (****1/2)