Prolific Hong Kong action auteur Johnnie To performs a border crossing with Drug War, his first cops-and-criminals film shot and set in mainland China, and in some ways the filmmaker is stretching his legs with all that extra space at his disposal. We follow police captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) as he teams up with repentant drug manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) to dismantle Choi’s former syndicate and take down his associates, and the film feels perpetually in transit as they’re on the chase, moving from city to city, on the road and via train. Overall, the shift doesn’t mark a radical departure for To. There’s definitely a different relationship to space and the urban environment, a changing-up of textures and details, but it all feels like a familiar overarching trajectory.
For example, the fact that the film ends in a slaughterhouse of a shootout is hardly the stuff of spoilers, though much of the first half is rather bloodless, almost sedate, as Zhang and his team track down leads and put together pieces of the puzzle, procedural-style. It’s more about surveillance and analysis and interrogation than gun battles, and instead To sharply mines the tension of potential flashpoints of violence that never quite get there. In those situations Zhang feels like an archetypal supercop, with an unremittingly loyal and deferential team and the ability to cow anyone he speaks to through sheer force of will. He’s chasing adversaries that may be 10 steps ahead, but he’s got a long stride and a sixth sense.
That relentless-lawman persona is justified in a centerpiece sequence where the cops intervene in a potential deal between criminal factions by playing both sides—that is, Zhang pretends to be each side to the other in a con game that barely holds together, with a ratcheting escalation that culminates in ultimatums and images that remain just on the good side of the line between iconic and cliché. Sun Honglei nails it here in the cycling between different personae, and in putting on a show that everything is copacetic when it’s actually a hair away from a bloodbath.
At the same time, there’s a way in which the protagonist feels a bit too shiny from over-polishing, which would perhaps go unnoticed except it’s coupled with an almost labored insistence on the resolve and righteousness of the Chinese police and justice system, in which evildoers are inevitably punished and the law will prevail. It’s not something that can be easily read as either political compromise or critique, and To’s world here is sufficiently stylized enough to distance itself from such concerns. Yet it might also serve as a marker for the trajectory of an increasingly intertwined Hong Kong and mainland cinema, even in a deftly constructed ballet of bullets such as this.
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And with Purgatorio, we take a trip to another border-crossing: the politically and emotionally charged U.S.-Mexico frontier. Mexican director Rodrigo Reyes’s essayistic documentary features shots of a drug addict injecting heroin and a survey of the fresh corpse of a murder victim, but amid those brutalities and others it contains a singularly arresting image that managed to elicit an even greater shock from the audience. Their gasps and winces were audible. In the shot, we watch in close-up as an animal control worker euthanizes a tiny dog inside a cage, and the camera holds on the animal as it slowly dies.
Even knowing that image is featured in the film is probably enough to drive a number of prospective viewers away. I once heard from a screenwriting expert that you can’t kill children and you can’t kill dogs. Well, you can, but whatever your movie’s about, it suddenly becomes about that instead. Reyes’s film is about “A Journey into the Heart of the Border,” and the inclusion of that dying dog is a thematic gambit trading on the hope that its symbolic resonance evokes some of the pain and despair at that heart. However, in that moment the visceral shock seems to outweigh everything else.
While that instance is the most extreme, Reyes structures his documentary around those kinds of sliding semantic shifts, of transitions in which dead bodies give way to industrial detritus and the fishermen of polluted canals segue to a funeral dirge for casualties in the war on drugs. The film, although it positions itself in dialogue with contemporary debates about the border, eschews a clearly delineated historical narrative; we flit through time and space in dislocated, tangential ways. There are interview subjects, but they gel with Reyes’s narrative less as individuals and more as emblems—striking as they might be, such as a man who cleans up litter along the border to remove any possible migratory trail markers. He stumbles into saying, “Some people hunt deer or elk, but hunting an individual…is an even greater thrill.”
The imagery that the film deploys is striking, especially in the way that it constructs la frontera as a postlapsarian space, where idyllic apolitical nature has been obliterated and replaced by a pulsing psychic wound. The borderlands are depicted as wastes in which both oppressive government authority and anarchic violence suffuse the landscape, and that perhaps the fears and anxieties that so energized the narratives of the western haven’t disappeared, but simply crystallized and mutated along a dividing line.
The most striking display of this comes in scenes which take place along a section of border fence. It’s far from impermeable, and as a physical barrier it doesn’t seem that difficult to climb over; in fact, we see someone do exactly that. But through Reyes’s lens, the fence imposes more strongly than its height would indicate: in the way that the prison-like bars stretch upward while giving a glimpse of the other side, and in the way they serve as the backdrop for a testimonial of forlorn hope. That image, perhaps, hints at the trauma underlining that scene of animal euthanasia. It’s not just the death on display, but it also airs out in the theater that we were perhaps already primed to think of dogs in cages.