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In Johnnie To's Drug War, a tapestry in code

The master of the violent showdown weaves a dizzying action opus.

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The design of Johnnie To's latest masterpiece resembles a tapestry. Drug War proceeds mainly in short takes, and the editing (supervised by To's longtime collaborator David Richardson) brings them together in a manner akin to cross-stitching, cutting between radically different perspectives and kinds of movement within the frame. In a typical scene, To will jump from an overhead shot to a low-angle one, from a long-shot to a close-up, or from an objective master shot to the subjective point-of-view of a surveillance camera. The constant visual bustle shows some affinities with that of the late Tony Scott, but where Scott created mosaics, To maintains a fluid sense of progression. The filmmaking is graceful, even rapturous—which seems especially remarkable given the gritty subject matter.

The movie begins in breathless motion, as drug cartel boss Timmy Choi (Louis Koo, who typically plays heroes in To's movies) crashes his car into a store window after fleeing a meth lab explosion that's killed his wife and signaled the police to his whereabouts. In mainland China, manufacturing more than 50 grams of methamphetamine is punishable by death; once he's arrested, Choi tries to save his skin by promising to lead vice officer Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) to several other cartel bosses. Over the next three days Choi introduces Zhang to the major players, with the supercop assuming a different criminal alias at nearly every meeting. As Zhang closes in on the bosses, he kindles tension between their organizations, setting the stage for the sort of violent showdown that To orchestrates more beautifully than any other living filmmaker.

Form and content are in perfect harmony here; the intricate visual scheme mirrors the ever-shifting allegiances between cops, informants, and criminal organizations. Fittingly, many of the visual motifs play on the theme of transformation. A tiny camera hidden in a cigar case is the centerpiece of the movie's most suspenseful extended sequence; a school bus becomes a makeshift tank in the finale. Much of the communication transpires in code: cartel members send each other text messages in a secret numerical language, and in one of the movie's most creative touches, one of Choi's labs is staffed entirely by deaf-mutes. (When's the last time you saw a gunfight where all the dialogue was in sign language?)

The complexity can be dizzying; even on my second viewing of Drug War, I had trouble keeping track of who was who. Yet on the whole the story seems crystal clear, thanks to the uninterrupted flow of the storytelling. This sort of operation isn't as easy as it looks. As To reminds us through his extreme close-ups of pivotal objects (like that cigar case, for instance), Drug War could devolve into chaos if any one of its many details were an inch out of place.

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