Mini Review: Drug War

Original title Du Zhan

Director – Johnnie To

Cast – Sun Honglei; Louis Koo; Huang Yi


I am such a nanna these days. I have become used to getting to bed early recently. I must be getting old. When I took my seat for a 9pm screening of Drug War after a very long day at work I had visions of myself resisting the urge to nod off during the film. I need not have worried. From its opening scenes to its startling finale, Drug War banished all thoughts of sleep.


In the writing of this blog about this movie, I have set myself the challenge of not mentioning anything about the plot. You see, I went into this movie expecting (indeed hoping) that it would be good. I knew Johnnie To was a great director, and I had seen the leading actors (Sun Honglei and Louis Koo) in other movies and had enjoyed their work. But I only had the vaguest idea what the movie was about (the title is pretty well self explanatory) and what would happen in it. I had not even watched the trailers.


It was great. The performances were excellent – Sun Honglei used his commanding screen presence, resonant voice and subtle acting technique to anchor the film and make his character utterly believable. Louis Koo turned in an emotionally nuanced performance that kept us guessing about his enigmatic character right until the end of the movie. The rest of the cast turned in good solid performances.


The plot was riveting and I found myself hanging out to see what would happen next in this psychological crime thriller. The pace of the film was tight and compelling. I kept assuming that I knew what the characters would do – what their story arc would be, who would be redeemed and who would be betrayed, who would have the narrow escape and who would die the tragic hero’s death. I was always quite wrong and this made me wonder if To was subtly playing with (even against) a modern day audience’s expectations formed by over exposure to Hollywood cliché. I enjoyed having my expectations disappointed.


I was impressed with To’s depiction of the drug world. He managed to convey its grimness and sordidness. If you know of anyone who is contemplating becoming a drug mule just have them watch the opening scenes of this movie to dissuade them. Johnnie To doesn’t veer away from the harsh realities of this underworld, but there is absolutely nothing gratuitous, prurient or voyeuristic in this movie. I am actually a fairly squeamish viewer and while there was plenty that I found sobering there was nothing I had to look away from. This is a disciplined movie with its focus firmly on providing entertainment that is tough but sophisticated. A thinking person’s cops and robbers.

Image from

Drug War is currently showing in Australia at Hoyts Cinemas and Palace Cinemas.

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This is a test (and an excuse to post a picture of Toshiro Mifune)

I borrowed Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Leone’s Fist Full of Dollars trilogy out of my local DVD rental shop. It’s owner was very endorsing of my choice, so I suppose that’s a nice bonus. How are you planning on spending your weekend?


(image from

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This is a test…


(From Hanzo the Razor. Third film, I think…)

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Great Quote No. 13

” ‘New Wave’ wirework shows us things we know to be untrue… But wires also feature in Jackie Chan’s more ‘realistic’ fights, enhancing moves which at least seem possible… One might argue that this is much more of a ‘Wicked Lie’ than Jet Li’s gravity-defying shadow kick, but, significantly, that is not an argument that is ever offered.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 45

What did you do today? I spent the afternoon in the State Library of Victoria reading Hong Kong Cinema – The Extra Dimension by Stephen Teo and The Asian Influence on Hollywood Action Films by Barna William Donovan. Good times!

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Disciples of Shaolin – Opening Sequence

A common aesthetic device used in kung fu movies of the 70s and 80s was to show the opening credits of the film against footage of the main stars performing displays of martial arts in front of a plain (often boldly coloured) backdrop.* This was often used in films that had, as part of their narrative themes, an especial focus on the history, development or efficacy of a certain school or style of martial arts: it was a useful way of cluing the audience into the visual signature and movement dynamics of a particular style of martial arts that could well be an important signifier of character or plot development during the movie that followed.

Over the course of many films this device, although often used and recognisable, was nevertheless treated to many variations on its theme. Sometimes the martial arts displays were flashy and dynamic, sometimes earnest and technical, and sometimes played for laughs. The Disciples of Shaolin features a solo Alexander Fu Sheng performing a Hung Gar form. The mood of this opening sequence is striking for its stark intensity, and makes this display a particularly eye catching one within the pantheon of kung fu films.

This 4 minute opening sequence begins with Fu Sheng performing a Hung Gar form called Taming the Tiger in front of a yellow backdrop, before moving onto showing him training with wooden poles in front of a white backdrop and then finishing with him training with more equipment in front of a red backdrop. There is no music during the ‘yellow section’ which lasts for 3 minutes; but the shorter ‘white’ and ‘red’ sections are accompanied by a swelling soundtrack.

I am particularly taken with the ‘yellow’ section and it is on this that the comments in this blog are centred. The martial arts choreographer / director for Disciples of Shaolin was Liu Chia Liang (a.k.a Lau Kar Leung), who comes from a long line of, and was trained in, Hung Gar. Liu apparently found Fu Sheng to be something of a muse, and I can only assume that he took care in coaching and directing one of his favourite performers in the execution of his family’s hereditary style of martial arts. Liu and director Chang Cheh have made an apposite choice of using a display of Hung Gar to open a movie called Disciples of Shaolin as Hung Gar is known to have originated as a southern Shaolin Temple style.

But the appeal of this opening sequence goes beyond the historical appropriateness of establishing Hung Gar as Fu Sheng’s character’s signature style of martial arts. Fu executes his movements with a measured slowness, taught muscle control and intensely focused breath control that gives this sequence an intensity and drama that foreshadows the morality tale in which his character is about to participate.

As mentioned above, this sequence is accompanied by no music, and this helps to create a sense of austerity despite the bold yellow of the backdrop. The sounds that accompany the movement – the jangle of the heavy metal rings on Fu’s forearms, his breathing and moaned and sighed exhalations – are sounds that are caused by or are a response to the initiation of movement by the performer. Thus the performer’s body creates its own percussive soundtrack that marries our visual sense of the dynamic of the Hung Gar form with aural evidence as to the energetic focus of performing that form.

As well as the lack of music, another thing that strikes me about this sequence is the pace of the performance. Many of these opening sequences in the old kung fu films were performed at a brisk and breezy pace, setting up the viewer for a rollicking adventure. Fu Sheng’s execution of this form here is markedly slow in comparison. This gives the viewer time to focus on each separate shape that makes up the form, as well as the intense concentration of energy that Fu is investing in each movement.

Fu gives an uncompromising performance, letting us see and hear each grimace, each greedy inhalation and laboured exhalation of air, each deliberate placement of his body without self consciousness and with complete focus. This makes the viewing of his performance feel somehow very personal and intimate. We can feel that we know the quality of Fu’s energy as he executed the form and this takes us right into his performance. As a couch potato of long standing I will not ever know what it feels like to perform Taming the Tiger myself, so any performance that gives me an inkling as to what it feels like is an important strategy to get me as a viewer feeling more invested in the movie.

And it is important for the viewer to feel involved with Fu Sheng’s performance in this movie. In Disciples of Shaolin his character struggles with conflicting values and temptations that are thrown up by his coming into renown as a martial artist. Many of the kung fu movies from this era, especially those of Chang Cheh, examined the responsibilities and values that are inherent for anyone functioning as a hero. It is important that at the outset of Disicples of Shaolin we connect with Fu Sheng’s performance as the particular martial artist in this narrative so that we feel the full impact of his character’s story arc.

But its use as a strategy for developing character and engaging the viewer aside, this opening sequence also stands out for pure aesthetic appeal. If it were possible to lift Fu Sheng out of a Shaw Brothers studio in the 70s, swap his plait and traditional clothes for a more modern hairstyle and pair of pants, plonk him onstage at the Melbourne Arts Centre and tell its audience they were watching a modern dance performance I doubt that they would be any the wiser (unless they were Hung Gar students, that is). As an ex-hoofer, I have long felt that the choreography and physical performance techniques on show in kung fu movies equal those in the world of contemporary dance or classical ballet for sophistication of craft. Sequences like this one are proof of that. The integrity of Fu’s performance and the pure beauty of the form stand clear and true. I can’t believe that a movement director and designer who is as inspired as Liu and, as his body of work shows, so attuned to the dramatic and aesthetic capacity of martial arts has not seized an opportunity, in his direction of this sequence, to revel in the lines of the form, the flow of its dynamics and the eliciting of such a performance from his protégé Fu. In opening Disicples of Shaolin with this display, Liu, Chang Cheh and Fu Sheng invite us to rejoice in the joy and drama of human movement.

*Tsui Hark effectively referenced this tradition in the credit sequence of his seminal 1991 film Once Upon A Time In China. Typically of Tsui, his use of this device was on an epic scale. I love it and blogged about it, as well as the other choreography in this film, here.

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Naked Lady Yakuza Fighting

As discussed in a previous blog I find that some of the Japanese action movies from the 60s and 70s offer a fascinating if distasteful viewing experience. A bizarre mixture of martial arts and exploitation, they are able to cover the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. I guess I am thinking of films like the Lone Wolf and Cub series* (which I actually love even though I have to forgive them for rape scenes aplenty) or the more hard core Hanzo the Razor series (which I don’t and can’t).

I have only seen a couple of pinku eiga films which, for the unitiated, are soft porn martial arts films, and I am not sure that this is the genre for me. I find all of the repeated boob shots and soft core fondling to be a bit of a bore, although, to be fair, I am not sure that I, as a middle aged woman, am representative of this genre’s intended fan demographic. The feminist in me is fairly disgusted by the exploitative use of women in these movies. But the film fan in me does, at the same time, appreciate the flair and skill with which the films are made.

There is a fight scene in Sex and Fury which encapsulates the qualities that lead to this divided stance in me as a viewer. In this particular scene, the protagonist (played by the excellent Ike Reiko) is attacked by a gang of yakuza while she is in her bath. Naked, she leaps out and grabs a sword and then proceeds to slash her way through the entire gang, first in a tatami matted room and then in a snow filled garden. The whole scene is shot in slow motion and shows copious amounts of gore.

This is a great action scene, beautifully shot and lit, with lovely art direction and nice choreography. Ike bounds about in abandon and swings her sword with the kind of athletic motion that brings to mind an A grade baseballer. Despite the brutal effect of the fountains of blood the scene looks beautiful. Actually, the spatter adds to the aesthetic effect, as the scarlet of the blood contrasts strikingly with the white of the snow (I know how pathetic that sounds – I’m cringing as I write it – but it’s true). This is an instance where these movies repel and attract at the same time.

Is the scene exploitative? Hell yeah! Ike’s naked little body is the main focus of attention in this scene and I’m quite sure that this does things to the average hot blooded male. But, perversely, the sleaziest, nastiest and psychologically murkiest aspect of this scene – naked sexy woman enacting unspeakable violence – contributes to some of the greatest beauty. It’s all in the skill of the filming and performances. The scene is shot in slow motion, surely all the better for us to inspect Ike’s naked body from every possible angle. Plenty of time to take in every slow mo flop of her boobs or every quiver of her taut little buttocks as she leaps about. And leap about she does – there is nothing coy or affected about Ike’s physical performance. It is athletic, energetic, businesslike, ferocious screen fighting. This makes the fact that we do not so much as glimpse a single millimetre of muff as amazing, and is a signifier as to just how carefully this fight was choreographed and staged (and then edited – what ended up on the cutting room floor I wonder?), and just how precisely in control of her spontaneous looking movement Ike was. The slow motion may have been employed to allow the blokes in the audience time to drool, but it also allows us time to enjoy the genuine grace of Ike’s performance. As a female, I found myself approving of how fit she looked and of how unaffected and dynamic and vigorous her movements were. Even as her nudity invites a lecherous gaze, she looks anything but helpless and vulnerable. Exploitation or not, Ike’s screen fighting makes her look like a force to be reckoned with and I liked that as much as I disliked the prurience of the scene.

As much as Ike’s naked body is the main point of focus of this scene, and as much as I suspect that this is an exercise in sexploitation, the filmmakers have not used this as an excuse to skimp on actual content and craft; and this is what makes films like this still watchable for me. As this is an action scene the content is mainly visual and kinetic; and the craft in question pertains to film making techniques such as effectively designed mise en scene, cinematography and editing.

It is the presence of this well-crafted content that sustains the viewer’s interest after the shock value of the sight of a naked woman racing about with a sword wears off. Whoever choreographed or directed this scene mixed in a variety of different stances and movements for Ike to perform, including some nice floor work in the tatami matted room as well more free ranging movement once the fight spills out into the garden. The fight has been staged so that the space afforded by the sets is gracefully used. A notable chunk of screen time is given over to footage showing just Ike’s lower legs and feet prancing through the snow as she ploughs her way through the villains. The deft placing of Ike’s little feet in this section of the scene, and the fact that the director has chosen to focus our attention on them, is another signifier that, whatever else the motives of the scene’s creators were, they still gave priority to showing precision in movement and staging and also to serving up a variety of nicely edited shots to the viewer.

This particular section of the choreography ends with an image showing Ike’s feet on either side of a man’s face as she plunges a sword through his body, causing him to spasm as he dies. Soon after this image, the fight ends with Ike jumping astride another man in a knee and elbow pumping action that leaves no room for feminine delicacy as she dispatches him. We see her buttocks and thighs lower towards his tense and spasming torso as she drives her sword down and then we see his warm and viscous bodily fluid (in this case blood) spray across her face. These 2 images, in particular, offer a moment of extreme physical intimacy between combatants in which sex and violence conjunct. It is a squirm inducing moment, and as to whether the squirming is a manifestation of horniness, squeamishness or both is best left to the viewer to decide in the privacy of their own heads.

Accompanied by a snappy lounge music soundtrack, and performed with that straight down the barrel, un-self-conscious and non-ironic performance style that is peculiar to Asian martial arts movies of this era (and which the Kill Bill films tried to ape so clumsily and self-consciously in my opinion), this fight scene epitomises the unembarrassed mixture of exploitative material chosen for its shock value with a considered, deliberate and sophisticated approach to the craft of creating great action cinema.

*I have written a blog about one of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies here

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The Bridge Duel in Hanzo the Razor – The Snare

I find the Hanzo the Razor films to be fairly objectionable. A grouchy jowly dude with a big dick tortures people and we are expected to find this amusing and horny.

Katsu Shintaro as Hanzo

I can’t. Women are shown being tortured and raped, initially screaming with pain as they are penetrated by Hanzo’s huge hard penis but then melting into moaning and melting ecstasy because they have been penetrated by Hanzo’s huge hard penis. Porn disguised as rape. I hate it. Women are only able to achieve orgasm through a passive capitulation, and then only after being broken by pain and psychological domination. Utter crap and extremely misogynistic.

I have grit my teeth through 2 Hanzo films (I just can’t bear the idea of watching the third) in the interests of research. As with all Japanese jidaigeki I have seen made in this era, there is actually some good (if not great) film making craft to be found. These films can boast lyrical cinematography, art direction, gripping performances and tight direction. I love the Lone Wolf and Cub series but I will admit that the treatment of women in some of the scenes bothers me. But the films are so beautifully made and the stories are so much fun that I am willing to forgive this. I have only seen a couple of pinku eiga and they are not my cup of tea. But I have enjoyed the performances from actors such as Ike Reiko and other aspects of the film making such as the art direction and camera work are superb.

So I am quite happy to give even the sleazier Japanese action and sexploitation films from the 60s and 70s (and especially those with a historic setting) a viewing. It is a unique experience to be watching a film and feeling yourself to be consumed with righteous wrath on behalf of the sisterhood and then to be distracted from this by the sheer beauty of the way a shot has been composed and lit. Or to be hating a character for being such a male chauvinist pig while, at the same time, be admiring the actor who is playing him for carrying off such offensive guff with such focus and élan.

Thus, it was at the end of Hanzo the Razor: The Snare, while I was berating myself for having given away a couple of hours of my life to view such toxic nonsense, that I found my jaw dropping over the beauty of the very final fight scene. In this scene Hanzo is unwillingly forced to fight a ronin, whom he then kills. The choreography of this scene features the familiar rhythmic device found in samurai movie sword fights of slow drawn out preparatory stances followed by a swift blur of movement. This is then followed by more held positions as the defeated fighter slowly dies while watched by the victor. This rhythmic device allows a build-up of tension during the preparatory stances. This is necessary in a film like Hanzo, as pondering on the outcome of the fight cannot bring any feelings of tension or excitement to a viewer who has just watched a whole film dedicated to building up the image of Hanzo as an unbeatable tough guy whom we know will win. The director needs another strategy for giving his viewers a shot of adrenaline at this late stage of the movie. The long held preparatory stances give us the tension of wondering when the fighting will begin and what the actual attack will look like as opposed to what the outcome will be. The rapid fire thrusts release the tension, and the release of life of the defeated fighter mirrors a slow release of tension in the viewer.

This kind of rhythmic trope also allows us to focus on the performances of the actors playing the fighters. Good screen fighting requires performative as well as physical skill. The actor must use their faces, eyes and bodies to manifest a certain focus and intent. They need to embody a life and death moment that will make the audience hold their breath for a minute. In this scene the actors are able to communicate plenty in the few lines of dialogue and minimally elegant stances of choregraphy given to them. Hanzo is unwilling, even disgusted, at being cornered into having to fight for his honour and be the cause of the death of a man against whom he has no personal grudge. The ronin’s repetition in the lines ”Draw. Just draw. Just draw” makes for a moment of exquisite tension. The choreography of the fight and the performances of the actors have to be captured by great cinematography and served by appropriate editing. The shots in the fight scene at the end of Hanzo 2 are beautifully framed and composed, and call to mind the composition of the manga images on which the films from the Lone Wolf and Cub and Hanzo the Razor series are based*.

Most of all, I love the art direction in this fight scene. It is set on a wooden bridge being traversed by people dressed in traditional historic Japanese clothing as worn by the peasant and mercantile class. Shades of blue and light browns predominate. It is like looking at an ukiyo-e come to life.

At the beginning of the fight scene the bridge is deserted except for Hanzo, the ronin, and Hanzo’s 2 cringing cronies in the background. This gives the fight scene a quiet drama and sense of intimacy between the characters. At the end of the fight the crowds rush onto the bridge to stare at the ronin’s corpse and perhaps, I feel, to just get on with their day now that the dangerous men have finished their business with their swords. This sense of the world and life just going on, as anonymous people bustle past the ronin’s lifeless body, somehow gives a sense of poignancy to his death. The authoritative handling of this scene by cast and crew provides an unexpectedly dignified and even poetic end to a relentlessly prurient film.

*”The story is based on the manga Goyōkiba (御用牙) by Kazuo Koike, whose Lone Wolf and Cub manga was also adapted as a film series by Katsu, this time starring his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama. “ Taken from

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