“Drug War” opened this weekend at the IFC Center in New York—it will expand to other markets in mid-August, beginning with Los Angeles on August 2nd—and for most American audiences the occasion will serve as a long-awaited introduction to the film’s director, Johnnie To. Though a prolific and successful thirty-year career has secured his status as a celebrated auteur in his native Hong Kong, To has had little international presence beyond the niche recognition of the festival circuit, where recent efforts like “Exiled” and the French co-production “Vengeance” were warmly received. But “Drug War”, the first of his films tailored to appeal primarily to mainland Chinese audiences, is somewhat ironically poised to become To’s first North American hit, as though the restraint required to appease fickle Chinese censors had incidentally made his style more palatable abroad.
To has long been well-regarded in certain cinephilic circles, but if he is familiar to Western audiences at all it is almost exclusively as a purveyor of Hong Kong crime thrillers, a subgenre of the action film which began to attract American attention in the early 2000s and reached its peak when Martin Scorsese remade Andrew Lau’s “Infernal Affairs” as “The Departed” in 2006. Unsurprisingly, To’s most well-known and well-liked films abroad fit comfortably within the trend: “The Mission”, “PTU”, “Breaking News”, “Fulltime Killer”, “Mad Detective”, “Election” and “Triad Election” offer variations on a template which inevitably features stylized gunplay, tense showdowns, and an elaborate interplay of cops and gangsters. That several of these films rank among To’s best work to date suggests that their popularity is not unwarranted. And yet a simple problem remains: the attention they continue to receive has the unfortunate consequence of eclipsing the rich and varied work To has produced in other styles and genres, creating the false impression, in this country at least, that he is a director of violent action pictures and nothing more.
As Film.com’s own Jake Cole declared in his exhaustive rundown and ranking of Johnnie To’s 50 feature films to date, the director’s crowning achievement and greatest masterpiece is none other than “Romancing in Thin Air”, a romantic drama and stirring paean to the cinema. Released and well-received in China last year, the film failed to receive even limited theatrical distribution in the United States—making it technically ineligible, despite acclaim from those who saw it, for most critics’ year-end lists—and, like most of To’s output, it remains unavailable on Region 1 home video. (It is, however, available to stream online via Hulu). For those who know To’s filmography well, this will hardly come as a surprise: though he has directed nearly 20 romantic comedies and dramas over the course of his career, not a single one is available to watch on DVD or Netflix Instant in the states. Their absence is deeply regrettable.
Much as “Drug War” represented a concerted effort to recalibrate To’s crime-film sensibility with Chinese audiences (and the censors deciding what they can see) in mind—a process you can read more about in our recent interview with the director—the story told by “Romancing in Thin Air” has a distinctly mainland feel by design, relocating the drama from Hong Kong to the snow-covered mountains of the Yunnan province and making the lead a mainland Chinese star. The decision to change milieus has been described as financially motivated, owing largely to the box office disappointments of “Vengeance” and “Sparrow”, and this is understandable given his vested interest in the ongoing success of his films. In addition to directing his films, To is responsible for their financing, as he partly owns and operates the production company, Milky Way Image, which has been producing and distributing them for years. But in this case necessity yielded something special: To’s attempts to court a new audience also seemed to open up his style and expand his vision, marrying his peerless talents as a visual stylist to material with higher emotional and psychological aspirations. The result is not only his most accomplished film, but, more significantly, it is his richest.
As a director primarily of genre pictures, To has always approached the concepts and conventions of his work with more sophistication than the bulk of his contemporaries, lending even his most straightforward action films an uncommon depth. The same principle applies here, but it has been extended further. “Romancing in Thin Air” seems at first blush to be merely a modest, gently comic romance, pleasant but unassuming, and it introduces its weightiest ideas so gradually that it isn’t until the final act that they begin to pay off. The premise is simple and, taken on its own, not especially remarkable: Michael Lau (Louis Koo), a hugely popular movie star, has retreated in secret to the hills of Shangri-La after his bride to be abandons him at the altar, leaving him publicly humiliated and terribly depressed. While there he meets Sue (Sammi Cheng), the owner of a guesthouse for tourists, whose husband disappeared several years ago while searching for a missing child in the nearby woods. Sue seems to either not recognize Michael or not care about his fame, but it is soon revealed that, far from indifferent, she is actually his biggest fan—so much so that her husband won her over, years earlier, by styling himself after this celebrity crush.
This revelation arrives unexpectedly, and with it comes a mad rush of ideas: questions of self-identity and our relationship to the movies are posed so simply and elegantly that it can be hard, at first, to recognize their intelligence, and the shift from the film merely teasing a prospective romance to working through serious ideas is handled so deftly that it hardly seems to be a shift at all. From its second act on, “Romancing in Thin Air” becomes less a film about a man and woman falling in love than a film about how and why people fall in love in the first place, and it soon becomes clear that the climax it is working toward isn’t an obvious union but, much more remarkably, an act of forgiveness, reconciliation, and much-needed catharsis. By the end, the film is attempting to articulate a rather extraordinary idea—that the cinema has the power, in its capacity to fabricate reality, to heal real wounds and to offer genuine solutions. The tragedy endured by Sue has an unhappy ending, but in the movies she finds her story effectively rewritten, and it proves enough to change her life. It’s a beautiful idea, one that should resonate to any lover of film.
Watch "Romancing in Thin Air" right here: