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Contemporary Chinese Cinema: Herman Yau follows the Drug War to its Dead End in “The White Storm 2”

The Andy Lau and Louis Koo-starring film by the prolific but under-recognized Hong Kong director exemplifies his subversive genre cinema.
Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
The White Storm 2: Drug Lords
Twenty minutes into The White Storm 2, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Andy Lau, is shown a detention facility for drug addicts in Manila. Looking strikingly like the horrifying conditions under which the United States is housing refugees at its borders, Lau nods approvingly as a Filipino police officer describes the anti-drug war led by his nation’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. It’s a striking bit of propaganda, or at least it would be in the hands of a director other than Herman Yau, among the most out-spoken and consistent opponents of authoritarianism in mainstream Chinese language cinema, albeit one who has maintained his position in the mainstream by temporizing his activism within certain generic smokescreens. In this case, he’s taken an ostensibly conservative scenario, a call for extreme, extra-legal force in dealing with the drug trade, and cranked its paranoid delusions past the breaking point. Lau, our hero, begins a quixotic quest to solve the drug problem by killing every drug dealer in the city, only to destroy everything around him. When the People’s Republic cancelled the release of the World War II epic The Eight-Hundred a couple of weeks ago (rumor has it because the film, in hewing to historical reality, showed Kuomintang soldiers in too heroic a light), they pushed The White Storm 2 into its place, where it has proven to be a big hit on Chinese screens. But it would seem to me extremely unlikely for a director who just recently earned a PhD with a dissertation on the history of film censorship in Hong Kong and China to have simply made a piece of authoritarian propaganda. Instead, Yau knows exactly how to get his subversive films approved by what should be a hostile government.
Herman Yau first rose to prominence in the mid-1990s with a series of gruesome and horrific films about serial killers and cannibals. Films so grotesquely violent they earned Hong Kong’s Category III rating, roughly equivalent to an American NC-17. In films like Taxi Hunter, The Untold Story, and The Ebola Syndrome, Yau and his even more outspoken lead actor, Anthony Wong, explored the darkest reaches of Hong Kong society, from the need for better regulation of cab companies, to abuses by the police and the criminal justice system, to the blackest soul of the capitalist (cannibalist) male psyche. One of the most prolific filmmakers in the world (72 directorial credits since his 1987 debut, along with 26 as cinematographer), Yau has always worked in a variety of genres, with comedies and straight dramas mixed in with gory horror and crime films. After the 1997 Handover, he was one of the directors who stuck around Hong Kong rather than trying his luck in Hollywood. Along with veteran filmmakers like Johnnie To, Ann Hui, and Andrew Lau and emerging talents like Fruit Chan, Soi Cheang, and Pang Ho-cheung, he helped keep the Hong Kong industry afloat until the opening of the Chinese market pumped huge amounts of cash and audience potential into the system. He’s kept up his frenetic pace into the present: White Storm 2 is his eighth film to be released since 2017, an outstanding assortment of cinema which includes a pair of horror films (The Sleep Curse and Always Be with You), three star-driven action films (White Storm 2, Shock Wave, and The Leakers), a very good romantic comedy (77 Heartbreaks), a comedy co-directed with Stephen Chow (New King of Comedy), and a darkly funny satire of Hong Kong real estate and family life that is one of the best films of 2019 so far (A Home with a View). Shock Wave also starred Andy Lau, and was a throwback to an earlier era of Hong Kong policier, focused on process and spectacle more than the plot twists and actorly brooding that has become the norm in the wake of the outsized success of the Infernal Affairs series, films of which the first White Storm (2013) is a solid, if unexceptional recent example. That film, though, is totally unrelated to this new film in any way except in its title and the presence of Louis Koo. It was directed by Benny Chan, a hit and miss journeyman who has helmed everything from the Johnnie To produced/Andy Lau starring classic A Moment of Romance to the Louis Koo + Giant Space Cat family comedy Meow. Yau’s The Leakers was an anti-capitalist conspiracy thriller set amidst the pharmaceutical industry whose primary highlight was a series of car chases. The White Storm 2 is something else entirely, almost a parody of the self-seriousness of the modern Hong Kong crime film, with Lau playing one of his least likable characters, supported by Louis Koo as his old friend, rival, and number one target. 
The film begins fifteen years ago, when Lau and Koo are both members of a Triad (no digital de-aging for Hong Kong: Yau makes the 58-year-old Lau look reasonably youthful with nothing more than a cheap wig and a bulky leather jacket). Koo is caught selling drugs in contravention of Triad policy and so Lau is commanded to chop a few of his fingers off, which he does (off-screen, no Category III rating for this blockbuster). Thus the cinematic mutilation of Louis Koo’s body continues apace, one of the more entertaining actor-as-auteur trends of 21st century cinema (see also: the Overheard series, Paradox, just about every Koo-starring Johnnie To rom-com). Afterwards, Lau petitions his boss to leave the Triad, to try to make a living as a normal person, which he then does with remarkable success thanks to the whims of the financial industry, help from a pretty guru who becomes his wife (Karena Lam), and a time-collapsing montage. Now in the present, Lau learns he has a son in the Philippines. But before he can reconnect with the boy, the 15-year-old addict dies of complications of drugs (in this world, drugs cause people to inevitably fall off of buildings). Newly recommitted to his anti-drug crusade (both his father and grandfather were addicts), Lau rounds up his old Triad buddies and begins covertly murdering every drug dealer they can find, with the now powerful and goateed seven-fingered Koo at the top of the heap. 
Weaving through all this is the story of a cop (played by Michael Miu) whose wife is killed in a shootout on the night Koo’s fingers got chopped. His daughter is now a prize-winning anti-drug activist (she shoots a video and is given an award by her hero Andy Lau’s anti-drug charity), while he works to solve the case of the dying drug dealers. A good guy who is unfortunately always a step behind the nimble capitalist vigilantism of Lau, he is what passes for a moral center in the film, and is wholly ineffectual. Lau’s argument is simply that he’s doing the police’s job for them, so why should they bother him? It’s basically The Dark Knight, except Lau’s costume is an exquisitely tailored pinstriped suit. But while this kind of vigilantism has a long history of acceptability in mainstream cinema, and its moral argument is no doubt fervently believed by reactionaries around the globe, rarely has it been shown to be so resolutely self-destructive while staying within the confines of pop entertainment. Lau’s quest ruins him and his life, along with killing almost every woman in the movie. But it’s painfully obvious that murdering drug lords doesn’t solve the drug problem, and that systemic solutions are needed for systemic problems, a truth everyone seems to understand but the two people who most believe in the anti-drug crusade, namely a wildly successful businessman and an emotionally traumatized 15-year-old girl.  
It culminates, as it must, in a car chase and shootout, and this climax of the film is by far its best sequence. Honestly, the film could simply be straight propaganda and it’d still be worth sitting through its 100 minutes simply for the final chase, two maniacal stunt drivers careening through a subway platform. It’s the one true bit of joyousness in the film and it’s that gleeful destruction that is so sorely missing from most 21st century Hong Kong cop dramas. In a lot of ways, this moment reminds me of the last years of the Shaws wuxia era, when in the early 80s directors like Chang Cheh began making increasingly bleak and moody thrillers devoid of all meaning beyond blood and sacrifice (his “Aesthetic of Violence” per New King of Comedy), while new directors like Patrick Tam (with The Sword), Johnnie To (The Enigmatic Case), and Ching Siu-tung (Duel to the Death) found new inspirations in Chang’s tired nihilism. The world of The White Storm 2 and its genre-mates in the contemporary Hong Kong crime film is just as bleak and unfixable, as dominated by forces (economic, governmental, chemical) seemingly beyond our control as any Chang Cheh nightmare. But we still have filmmakers committed enough to drive cars down escalators.

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