Credit: Lark Films Distribution

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Thomas Atkinson

One of Fritz Lang’s most prolific spiritual descendants is Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To. Since beginning his career in the 1980s, he has directed or co-directed, credited or uncredited, nearly 60 films, and he has an expansive range of genre interests (in the last decade alone, he has directed several rom-coms, a musical, and crime films of varying moodiness and depth). Look only to the films for which he is known in the Euro-American sphere, however, and one notices a more specific fascination with the function of social structures. That fascination is symbolised in the subjects of three To films – Election (2005), Sparrow (2008), and Drug War (2012) – each of which suggests its own internecine sense of organisation, whether external or internal. They might involve the rigid, pseudo-governmental operations of criminal syndicates, the binary oppositions of cops and robbers, or the navigational prowess of small-time crooks within the larger rat run of a city.

As a genre filmmaker, however, To’s style is only distinct because of his incredible spatial dexterity and the intricacies of his narratives. Take Throw Down (2004). With its reduction of complex characters to emblems in a formal exercise, To abstracts the crime movie’s construction. Like squinting at a painting to better understand its constituent parts (or watching a movie at four-times speed to better understand its structure!), it is the narrational equivalent of the painting’s daubs of colour and light, practically unchained from the concrete details of plot. Like Fritz Lang, To can be found here in possession of “an intellect that transforms images into ideas”, as was put by Andrew Sarris in his essential acclamation of Lang in The American Cinema.

In Election, To uses anonymity to disorientate the viewer. The film follows a crime syndicate – a triad society – attempting to fill the role of chairman, first through “legitimate” means of an election, and then through the chaos of buy-offs, smuggled power totems, sword fights, and phone-calls. (The latter, with its implications of interconnected communication and a rapidity associated with the modern, is also a key object in many of Lang’s films, especially 1928’s Spies.) 

It is also a very strange film. Here is a movie that is propelled forward through transfers of information, loyalty, and, as a result of these, power, a film which spends much of its first act very precisely delineating the fissures within the triad, yet nonetheless hinges on a centrepiece action sequence in which the exact identities and affiliations of the participants, who are all chasing after a MacGuffin anyway, are completely unclear. The fulcrum of the film’s events, the civil discussions that provisionally solve the dispute, all happen offscreen, while onscreen, the fight sequences and motorbike chases would suggest thuggery, instability, and winner-takes-all disorder. 

This ultimate restoration of order through chaos, which is in any case stained with the black spot of murder in the film’s closing moments, indicates the dark symbolism of To’s film. In the film, systems of democracy are ultimately only there to be subverted by the highest bidder. The title Election is thus an ironic one, a metaphor for the purely symbolic importance of even holding a ballot for triad chairman in the first place. Compare this with 1931’s M, and its horrifying zero-sum game kangaroo court denouement, and it’s clear how much Fritz Lang would have appreciated To’s cynicism on this front! 

In To’s world, it is not always doom and gloom. In Sparrow, Hong Kong is To’s playground, and indeed that of the pickpockets who are the protagonists of the story. Grappling with a malevolent gangster who has a veritable femme fatale in his clutches, the four sparrows (slang for pickpockets) at the film’s centre traverse horizontal and vertical mazes of corridors, lifts, rooftops, streets, alleys, small and large businesses, etc. Like a funhouse version of the crooked city Kenport in The Big Heat (1953) or the interconnected network of Dr Mabuse’s Berlin in The Gambler (1922), the city is mapped out laterally. Geographic and hierarchical straight lines intersect left and right, up and down, with individuals speeding through the maze of Hong Kong like mice in a lab. 

Its tone is light and self-aware, with the film often bathed in a soft-focus sheen reminiscent of Hollywood’s Technicolor glory days. The score is just as shameless, evoking even that most sweet of movie confections: the Disney sound. It’s all in good jest, and though To certainly displays another quality that Andrew Sarris once attributed to Lang – that he was “obsessed with the structure of the trap” – it is purely for the purposes of fun and spectacle. 

Not so for Drug War, one of To’s bleakest works. “You betrayed me!” a criminal splutters at Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), before Zhang headbutts him. “I’m a cop; you’re a drug dealer,” Zhang replies. “I didn’t betray you. I busted you.” For Zhang, positions within the social structure are determinate of one’s actions, markers of an unbreakable code that one must follow to the bitter end. It is this very philosophy that proves to be his undoing, as To upends Zhang’s binary compartmentalisation and ends the film staring agape at the cruelty and inflexibility of the societal structure itself. 

But, before one even reaches that point, Zhang’s philosophy is immediately challenged. As he forces drug producer Timmy Choi into becoming a police informant to capture Choi’s supplier, Uncle Bill, Zhang must also perform different social roles as he impersonates both sides of a financial transaction between Uncle Bill and drug distributor, Haha. Already, Zhang’s unambiguous delineation between his own social role and that of the criminal’s begins to crumble, a process abetted by Johnnie To’s stone-faced direction. There is not an ounce of heroism in Zhang’s pursuit, nor is there honourable mischief on the side of the thieves. Both are treated as organisations that operate through deception and cruelty, all performed by the various actors that call themselves “cop” or “criminal”. 

The comparisons to Fritz Lang’s suspicion of infrastructure are infinite, especially when we consider that Lang’s ultimate affinity was to the people who fell victim to his determinist vision of society at large (he never laid blame at the door of one particular organisation, but the idea of organisation itself). Henry Fonda’s Eddie Taylor in You Only Live Once (1937) is brought to his knees by his own distrust of the system, drilled into him by years of being ground down in courtrooms and prisons. Two Lang films within a year of each other – Rancho Notorious (1952) and The Big Heat – feature murdered wives as catalysts for the male protagonists’ revenge stories. Spies, despite its rightful recognition as the inspiration for hundreds of globe-trotting espionage movies, centres on a surprisingly touching romance. 

But where Lang displays compassion for his doomed protagonists, Johnnie To cuts those protagonists out of the picture entirely and makes Drug War a question of the organisations themselves facing death. That Captain Zhang, for example, begins the movie with that badass one-liner without ever developing into someone sympathetic is indicative of To’s desire that we see the characters in Drug War as emblems in his thesis on the horrors of law enforcement. 

Andrew Sarris indeed described Fritz Lang’s cinema as that ‘of the philosophical dissertation’. If there is one Johnnie To film that best fulfils that Lang comparison, it is Drug War, which ends in a manner where narrative is not nearly as important as geography. The various collected members of Uncle Bill’s drug ring (all of whom are, in fact, different facets of an invented “Uncle Bill” persona) are ambushed by Zhang’s team on the road outside a school, only to fight back and scupper the sting operation. But as an immaculate shootout begins, as in Lang’s Dr Mabuse The Gambler, To weaponises the anonymity that was so essential, yet sparingly deployed, in Election and pushes it to extraordinary heights of symbolism. The cars belonging to the cops and the criminals pull into each other, run off and back onto the road, and block the street entirely. More than once, we are forced to question exactly who is shooting at whom, until there is nobody left to shoot or to be shot at. 

To’s final statement becomes depressingly clear as each character – and it is nearly all of them – gets picked off: conflict between cops and criminals is a ten-car traffic jam on a straight road with no way out. Everybody loses. “The world,” Sarris again writes of Lang, but might as well have written about Drug War, “must be destroyed before it can be purified.”