Johnnie To’s “Drug War” Breaks Taboos in Mainland Films

Johnnie To’s (杜琪峰) Drug War <毒战> opened in Chinese theaters on April 2. Although Drug War is not To’s best work, it pushed boundaries where previous mainland crime films have not gone. Viewers were allowed a rare glimpse on taboo subjects that the mainland censorship authorities have previously shunned.

Drug War, which was filmed and based in China, tells the story of a police captain (Sun Honglei 孙红雷), who partners with a drug lord (Louis Koo 古天樂) to bust a drug syndicate. To avoid the death penalty, Louis Koo agrees to turn informer and betray his partners who operate a cocaine ring. Although Louis initially helps the police, his loyalties remain unclear as he plays to both sides.

The film touched on sensitive topics such as drug abuse, violent gun fights and the death penalty. These topics are rarely seen in mainland theaters, but Johnnie To’s clever filming restraint allowed Drug War to skirt by the mainland censorship. Past narcotics films often featured a straightforward plot, without much elaboration on the details prior to a criminal’s arrest. Aside from its procedural scenes, Drug War breaks new ground by showing closeups of drug injections.

Also a rarity in mainland films is to see humanity in drug criminals, in which their emotions are thoroughly explored. Louis’ drug lord reveals his vulnerabilities when he mourned his wife’s death. His deaf/mute brothers-in-crime played by Guo Tao (郭涛) and Li Ching (李菁) also have emotional sides to them and may win the sympathies of the viewers.

In the finale, there is a gunfight between the police and the drug traffickers. The police officers are portrayed as righteous upholders of justice. Besides scenes of blood and gore, many policemen were also killed in the process. Once again, this was considered taboo previously. The image of the public security force in China is so well-maintained that even if an officer were to die onscreen, it would be due to heroic sacrifice, and not killed in an arms exchange. Some of the policemen in the movie were even depicted as incapable, with their gunshots always missing their targets.

Drug War is considerably light-handed compared to Johnnie To’s past films, but placed in China, it is regarded as one of the best Chinese crime thrillers due to its gritty realism.


This article is written by Karen for

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  1. Tired of this theme already, Drug lord, drug addict, undercover cop, psycho cop etc…

  2. Believe me, ita, it’s worth watching it. I already watched during International Film Festival Rotterdam in Holland/The Netherlands.
    I really think it’s well filmed…

  3. It wouldn’t be a Johnny To film if there werent hundreds/thousands of rounds being shot and only a few casualties.
    I don’t think that reflects the bad shooting skills of mainland police, it is just for effect. He does that in HK as well, even though the shooters are suppose to be experts.
    Still looking forward to this movie, even though the author says it is not one of his best.

    1. Erhmm.. I think you will find that it won’t be just a few casualties in this case..

  4. Must have applied a lot of makeup on him! His brown tan is completely gone in the photo! 😀

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