Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Johnnie To’s Drug War and its Depiction of the Chinese Police

As I watched Johnnie To’s technically excellent police thriller Drug War, about a courageous mainland police unit and their efforts to bust a gathering of Hong Kong drug lords, I kept thinking of the plight of Chen Yongzhou.  Chen, a journalist for Guangzhou’s New Express, was arrested on October 19th of this year after writing a series of controversial articles about Zoomlion, a Chinese manufacturer of sanitation and construction equipment.  According to the BBC, Chen had accused Zoomlion of “improperly account[ing] for sales;” this report led to a dip in Zoomlion’s stock value on the Hong Kong stock exchange, which prompted the police in Hunan—and Zoomlion is partially owned by the Hunan provincial government—to arrest Chen for “damage to business reputation.” In response to Chen’s arrest (or detention, the exact circumstances are not clear), The New Express published a front page headline calling for his release, a rare and bold move in a country where the press is still generally forced to toe the government line.  In fact, according to the BBC, the government of Xi Jinping is currently engaged in a crackdown on bloggers and reporters deemed to have gone too far in their criticisms of the Chinese authorities (or, in the case of Chen Yongzhou, of a company in which the authorities have an interest).
Ok, now what does all of this have to do with To’s Drug War, his first Mainland production and an engrossing thriller?  The problem here—and it’s a problem with cinematic depictions of the police elsewhere, including in the U.S., for that matter—is that the heroic cops in Drug War are theoretically the same cops who arrested Chen Yongzhou; the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who sought asylum in the US in dramatic fashion last year; and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned after calling on the Chinese government to recognize the human rights enshrined in its own constitution. 

The Chinese police do a lot of awful things, but you wouldn’t know it from Drug War.  This is a far cry from South Korean cinema, where the police are almost without exception depicted as sadistic and incompetent.  It’s even different from the cinema of Hong Kong, where To himself has depicted the police in a far more nuanced light, sometimes as pragmatists willing to broker deals with gangsters (as in the Election films) or as dangerously corrupt (as in Mad Detective, which To co-directed with frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai).  One is forced to raise the question, “Has To sacrificed some of the moral integrity of his art, or at least compromised it, in making a film on the Chinese Mainland?” Or has he perhaps done the best he could under the circumstances? Or is this not a relevant question to ask, given the kind of story that To was seeking to tell in Drug War? I’m trying to think of other examples that I’ve seen of police in Mainland films: there’s Lu Chuan’s The Missing Gun, which focuses on the struggles of one individual cop who’s very much enmeshed in the life of his small town.  One could also consider two of Jia Zhangke’s movies, Xiao Wu (also known as Pickpocket) and Unknown Pleasures, where the task of the police is to keep in line a motley assortment of dumb, small-town hoodlums.

I don’t have a solid answer to the questions raised here.  It will be interesting to see how the issues of freedom of expression and criticism of the authorities play out as Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese film continue the fruitful exchange that has in recent years produced some of the greatest films of either of their cinemas.

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