Director's Cut: Johnnie To on 'Drug War'

johnnie to

Though Johnnie To has long been considered among the most accomplished genre filmmakers in the world, he remains something of an obscure property in the United States, where, despite the efforts of Western critics and festival programmers, mainstream success continues to elude him. His latest film, the supremely satisfying crime thriller “Drug War”, opens theatrically in New York on July 26th before expanding across North America two weeks later, and the nearly unanimous praise which has greeted it thus far suggests that To’s opportunity to impress a stateside audience has perhaps finally arrived. But even if “Drug War” fails to catch on with American moviegoers, it has already proven enormously successful in another important market: To’s increasing efforts to attract mainland Chinese audiences, already whetted by last year’s superb Yunnan drama “Romancing in Thin Air”, have paid off in widely favorable Chinese notices and career-high box office returns.

Johnnie To, now in the midst of a massive international press tour, visited Toronto over the weekend to speak before a sold-out double bill of his fan-favorite crime pictures “Election” and “Triad Election”. Before To’s presentation, however, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the master filmmaker in the press lounge at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for a brief interview, in which we discussed movie violence, audience sympathies and the many unexpected ways in which “Drug War” was shaped by Chinese censorship.

Beware spoilers.

CALUM MARSH: “Drug War” seems to humanize its criminal characters more so than the cops who are ostensibly the protagonists. I’m thinking specifically of how Timmy, the lead, has a backstory developed around his family and the death of his wife, whereas we don’t know much of anything about the personal lives of the police—we don’t even know if the hero, Zhang, has a family at all. Do you want the audience to sympathize more with the criminals in this way?

JOHNNIE TO: I think this is a very important question to think about, but no, I don’t think the answer is quite what you are thinking. When we were shooting this movie, we had to consider the issue of censorship, which can be a very big problem. In China, when you make a movie like this, you first have to have it be approved by the police, and then by the government’s film department. Talking too much about the background of the policemen, about their personal lives, that can complicate matters. This isn’t as much a problem now as it used to be, but it’s still something we needed to be careful about. The more you talk about things like family, or background in general, the more problems begin to appear.

The Chinese censors have a problem with backstory?

TO: The censors might not care, but maybe they will. It’s better to be safe. There are many things to consider. You’ll notice, for example, that all of the Hong Kongese actors play bad guys. All of the Chinese actors, or at least nearly all of them, play the good guys. This was a very conscious decision. In the 80s and the in 90s, and actually even to this day somewhat, it was common for Chinese actors to play the bad guys in Hong Kong films. But now we wanted to set out specifically to do the opposite. We wanted to show another side. What was hard was to convince the audience that it was interesting. If we had made Timmy a cop, if Louis Koo had been part of the police, it would have been less interesting. So the whole story is designed under this condition, that the Chinese would be the cops and the Hong Kongese would be the criminals. So it’s not so much the story that seems original, but the situation we show this time.

And, of course, the villains are not only played by Hong Kong actors, but by the actors with whom you most regularly work. Fans of yours will be instantly familiar with these faces, guys like Suet Lam who show up in the last act.

TO: Yes. But when we initially started making the film, it was just Louis Koo among the other Chinese actors. That was the plan. But the thing about “Drug War” is that it wasn’t made with a fixed script in mind: we were improvising as we went along, and we were revising the storyline while making the film. What happened is that a few weeks after we finished the original script and had the story mostly in place, we realized that the film was missing a Hong Kong touch. It was completely Chinese. That’s why we decided to use so many Hong Kong actors in the smaller roles, to give it that Hong Kong feel.

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Many of your films build toward violent climaxes.  “Drug War” likewise culminates in a spectacular battle in which everybody is killed, but unlike the endings of, say, “PTU” or “Exiled”, the shootout here doesn’t feel like an exciting release, and in fact the tone is sort of tragic. 

TO: Deciding how to end the film was actually quite a challenge, largely for censorship reasons. Usually in a Chinese action movie the police officers are not all supposed to die, obviously. So you can see how we would have some trouble trying to pull that off, and deciding who could die in the end. What I wanted to achieve with the Timmy character was to show his selfishness and its consequences. The point of that ending is that the protagonist is trying to get out of this situation however he can, but by achieving this selfish goal of survival at any cost, he entangles all of the other characters in his struggle and as a result they all die. That’s basically what the ending is trying to say: his selfishness causes the tragedy.

Our funding was cut short, but the original plan was that the Timmy character would actually escape the shootout successfully, and he would run off to the Yunnan province to live out his life in safety. He would continue to be involved in the drug business. Then we would flash forward to a few years later, when the original team of police officers would finally catch up with him and attempt to arrest him. There would be a shootout again and in the end Timmy would be pushed over the edge of a waterfall and would make his final escape. That was the original plan, rather than the death penalty. But I doubt that ending would have passed the censors.

Censorship has been coming up a lot in your answers. I didn’t want to ask you specifically about the censors because I thought you might be tired of talking about it, but clearly it’s important. Do you feel that you are able to express yourself personally despite the censorship?

TO: I think this question of censorship is important, but in the end people supported this movie, and we were able to make it as we liked. The story is as it is and I like to think of it as a chance to prove ourselves to the censors and to China. For the next movie, well, maybe we could do more, and maybe we could get away with doing more. But we had to make the first one, and we had to prove that it could be done. At the beginning we simply wanted to make a film like this in China and we shot this movie to show them that we could. We want to keep making movies so that the audience has the choice to see them. We knew all along that filming a police story the way we want to do it would be difficult. But at the end of the day people accepted this. They like it. For a lot of mainland audiences “Drug War” has proven very popular already. And we hope that with each new movie we can take another step forward.

"Drug War" will open in NYC at the IFC Center on July 26. The film will then expand in a platform release throughout the summer starting on August 2 with Los Angeles, and August 9 in the top 10 US markets including Canadian markets Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa (via Screen Daily).