måndag 20 mars 2017

DRUG WAR (2012)

If possible, I prefer a film that can deliver the visceral and artistical pleasure of action cinema with a more human and highly complex narrative. Drug War sure as hell deliver. It pulls quite a sucker punch on the viewer. Drug War is  a  procedural movie that for the most part only depicts rather than employ a moral point of view for the audiences to identify with.  I really appriciate that. And Johnny To is a film maker that can make it work..

I´ve only seen a few of his works. Fulltime Killer which felt like a postmodern take on the John Woo hitman with-a-conscience/ duality between men formula. Flashy stuff mostly. Election, The Mission and this one all seem to be more realist and procedural, at the same time contain incredible stylistic elements, a fast moving plot and a highly  detailed exploration of the  world of Triad gangsters.

Louis Koo ( Robin B-Hood, Flashpoint) stars as Timmy Choi,  a very unfortunate high level Triad member getting caught by the police during a sting operation. In China there is a death penalty for drug dealers, so he is forced to make a deal with the police and doing some undercover work for them. Choi is struggling with his loyalty throughout the film which brings the film some tension.

The police officers in charged of this operation is depicted as incredibly professional and very good at what they do, so you can see that Choi can not easily blow smoke up their arse. They know the type of person they are dealing with here, someone who is out for themselves when its their own ass on the line. But that can easily change so they have to be wary of him.

Despite, or perhaps because of the lack of melodrama, the film presents us with a very grim world detached of consideration of human lives. The cops don´t care for Choi, if he lives or dies. And at the end nobody else does because of the choices he has made.

I guess the way Choi is presented as someone struggling with the situation, this is a point of view the film takes. As the cops are not really given much personalities, just hard assed professionals not giving a shit about Choi´s situation. They at some points come across as just as ruthless as the Triads.

The climactic shootout is a perfect example of the stylized procedural elements of the film. With very little attachement, To shows us," this person shot this person , and then this person shot this person". With the editing, the sequence becomes an almost rhytmic domino-effect of the conflict resolution. It is reminiscent of the big shoot out from Michael Mann´s Heat, but there is something disturbing about the callousness of all the murders.

I would rank this as highly as Infernal Affairs when it comes to hardboiled cop actiondrama from suutheast Asia and it deserves a wider audience than it probably will ever get.It is an intelligent film with strong central performances, tough action sequences and a gritty tone.

fredag 10 mars 2017

KILL ZONE ( a.k.a SPL) (2005)

Donnie Yen said in an interview regarding SPL (Kill Zone) that people are not used to heavy drama in fast paced actionfilms. He also in that same interview acknowledged that most of the films he has made  during his career, the story usually played second fiddle to the action sequences. But regarding this project he  started to collaborate with director Wilson Yip because he knew him to be able to pull of the dramatic story that gives the action  a  more emotionally powerful context. The result is a pretty potent sort of spectacle.

Most people watch action films just for the sake of the action. And that is fine. But , people, we need to strive forward and produce better stories and contextualize the fights better in order to make better action pictures. This is according to me ( and Donnie) an art form. And there is good art, there is bad art and then there is absolut garbage. Donnies awareness of the lack of focus on plot/story and character in conventional Hong Kong Action-Cinema  shows a determination and an willingness to make better films as well as action sequences. Commendable in  my opinion.

2005´s SPL ( Kill Zone outside of China) is a good example of an action cinema that carries a bit more dramatic weight than usual.. The plot focuses on a cops-and robbers narrative which have been popular in Hong Kong in recent years. perhaps thanks to the astounding success of Infernal Affairs (later remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed).  We have a team of cops so determined  putting  crime boss Wong Po (played by the kung fu legend Sammo Hung) behind bars that they go to extreme lengths to put him there  by framing him for murder. 

The cop in charge Chan Kwok Chung( Simon Yam) expericnced once how they were trying through correct police procedural ways by producing a witness that could in a court of law be the final nail in the crime boss´s coffin and the end of his reign. The witness and the family got brutally murdered. The only survivor was the child, which Yam decides to adopt and raise. Unfortunatly the incident made him so determined to put Sammo behind bars, that he neglect her upbringing. This is also a major motif in teh film, in which the more important parts of your life is being swept aside for petty revenge. All the other members of Simon´s team have families or issues that they neglect to deal with until it´s too late.

Simon Yam on the case
Kung Fu legend in unusual form as a villain taking the threats from the cop not too seriously.
Donnie worrying if he is going to kick some ass or not. ( he will, some rather large ass)

Simon Yams character also get the news that he has a brain tumour and just a few days left on the job he is about to be replaced with  Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen), but the team is reluctant to let him in, which creates some tension.

Yen is someone who questions the methods of the team, even the boss has his suspicions,  but he himself has a bit of a problematic past, as he once punched the hell out of some guy with his policing fists of fury. Everyone has some shades of grey in this film. Yams determination is understandable, but regrettable. Donnies character is not the clean cut hero either. And Sammo as the crime boss,  at the same being ruthless he is also shown to be a very caring father and husband, in scenes that actually, while being brief, sets things up quite beautifully. 

Being able  to produce a  somewhat complex drama  within a 90 minute framework ,that has to contain a fast-forward narrative with plenty of action, is pretty good job. The film has some hickups in the story/character department.  The central conflict is established through a convoluted in medias res fashion,  An unfortunate by product of this day and age when you have to "grab peoples attention". I would rather have had a slow build up to the explosive climax, where you can feel the tension between the rival central characters build up.

Prolific and legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman said in a very recent interview, that producing films for theatrical relase or for television/home video has different demands. With theatrical releases the restraint on producing , and throwing the audience in the mix early on is not that necessary,as the audience who´ve payed for the ticket usually sticks it out. But on TV/Homevidoe/On Demand the criteria  on the production can be quite harsh from the higher ups, as the audience can switch channel easily if nothing particularly interesting is happening.

SPL enjoyed a limited theatrical release outside of Hong Kong (according to IMDB only Japan and Singapore had theatrical releases), but I think this is still more of a stylistic choice from Wilson Yip. The movie is brimmed with stylistic devices to convey certain elements such as plot and character traits through such means as internal visualiations, flashbacks, split screen and all sorts of tricks, so it is possible that the convoluted opening was just artistic choice that Yip stuck with. Admittedly it makes a pretty powerful impact., so I don´t know what I am complaining about really. I just think it is sad that you have to pull out all your cinematic guns in the first minutes of a film instead of letting the story brew awhile. Maybe because this is the kind of film that ends with the usual explosive kung fu climax, so that it´s still possible for the film to not completely blow its load too early ( ohhh...)

The look of the film must be mentioned. It has none of the  washed out colors these types of "morally grey" cop dramas usually have. The cinematography is lush and full of vibrant colors, especially in the finale in Sammo Hungs gaudy night club.The finale contains a performative spectacle from two legendary kung fu masters, but also as  a scenographic spectacle it works incredible as a backdrop. Here are some shots from the climactic and classic finale between Donnie and Sammo:

I mean, look at that. A lush vibrant colourful cirque-de-soleil-esque spectacle. It (almost) ends with Donnie flipping the heavy set Sammo like this:

Jesus, that is awesome!

I don´t want to spoil the plot or the ending, butr if you call it a spoiler with two rivals dueling it out in awesome martial arts fashion, then you clearly need to see some more movies.

Some final thoughts:

I always love a good  action film that has the "martial arts-cop" trope. And Donnie has done this and several others , like the fairly  recent Flashpoint, but also In the Line of Duty and Tiger Cage 2.  So he has cracked a few cases over the years wth his kung fu skills in the police force.

The original title SPL  ( Sha po lang) is based around chinese zodiac symbolism concerning three stars  which is meant to be represented by the three main characters. This culturally local subtext would therefore be considered as an unsellable title abroad ,as the the people in charge thinks of action cinema as something slightly above porn. Something to sell to testosterone filled teenagers who hates the idea of a smart action film. 

"Just call it Kill Zone so they don´t  get confused on what kind of film it is."

Years has gone by and generations of people has grown up on martial arts cinema, People who are today grown up and can appreciate a good story with complexity. People that can choose a film from more than  "how cool" the title sounds. Instead some dipshit decided it would be better to rob the film of its internal meaning by turning it into the most generic sounding horseshit of a title.

I know this shit  has been done for so many years, but I think we can perhaps start to talk about films being distributed despite its local context  rather than what is most universal. That way we can start thinking about stories in different ways. It´s not like the film does not stand on its own outside of China. Quite the contrary. The title-change does little to change the actual film more than from a marketing perspective.  

But,seriously, the title  sound  like a Steven Seagal film shot in Bulgaria. Not a plus.

Anywat, this is a movie that on a second viewing has grown on me tremendously. A fine modern piece of action-cinema that is both focused in its narrative but still highly traditional and innovative in the form of how a kung fu movie should look like. In the years after 2005 we have had more martial arts films coming out of Asia with  examples such as Merantau, The Raid 1-2, Man of Tai Chi, Ip Man 1-3. All films at one level or another has shown that kung fu/martial arts cinema can still thrive in a CGI-heavy comicbook environment  that refuse the spectacle of the human body by replacing it with replicas of humans.

I will always prefer the performative spectacle of martial artists over  CGI wizards.

They made a sequel, that is just as good in my opinion,  and it is called... hold on to your horses.... Kill Zone 2!  They didn´t add the words Redemption or Retaliation in there. At least that is something.