Aug. 15--Thank goodness for Johnnie To.
Most Hong Kong directors now ply their trade in China, where the motion-picture attendance has exploded in the past decade or so. Can't blame them for following the money, but many of them have subverted the freewheeling style that is a trademark of Hong Kong action and comedy, and subverted them to the plodding, self-important epics that Chinese audiences seem to demand.
Compare the Andrew Lau of "Infernal Affairs" with the man who made "The Guillotines," the dreadful epic from earlier this year.
But in "Drug War," To (pronounced "Dough") has demonstrated that kinetic Hong Kong direction can fit very well into the mainland zeitgeist.
"The Chinese audiences like to watch police and gangsters, like in the North American and European style," To said by phone through a translator. "But I wanted 'Drug War' to be a specifically Chinese story. And of course, I wanted the action sequences to be at a high level."
To, 58, has been at it for three decades -- and he's still making a couple of movies a year, typically action films and romantic comedies.
At the center of "Drug War" is a terrific performance by Louis Koo as a drug lord who turns police informant after his arrest to avoid the death penalty. He leads two cops (Son Honglei and Huang Yi) through the underground of a methamphetamine ring -- but is he really helping the cops, or is he leading them into an ambush?
To is a native of Hong Kong and worked his way up from production assistant with TVB, a Hong Kong television-production house. He worked mostly in television in the 1970s and '80s before achieving success with features both as producer (1990's "A Moment of Romance") and director ("The Heroic Trio," the 1993 superheroine movie starring Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui).
However, To thought that though his movies were commercially successful, he was, well, a hack. After directing a spate of movies in 1993, he took a year off to re-evaluate.
"The major change began in 1994, after I had completed 'Mad Monk' with Stephen Chow. It wasn't a very happy shooting experience. I really thought about what kind of a filmmaker I wanted to be.
"Should I be the kind who caters to the audience and actor, or should I be making movies for the sake of making good movies? So I stopped making movies for one year, and then I made 'Loving You' (an action drama about a corrupt cop going straight). This is where I started making movies for myself, and being the kind of director I wanted to be."
The next year, 1996, To and partner Wai Ka-Fai formed Milkyway Productions and began creating a series of solid films that have a distinct visual style and strong characters. His breakout year was 1999, with "Where a Good Man Goes," "Running Out of Time" and "The Mission" -- his masterpiece.
He is again in a fertile period. Recent hits include "Mad Detective," about a cop with multiple personalities; "Life Without Principle," a rumination on the financial meltdown; and "Blind Detective," yet to be released in the United States.
"Drug War" is a good introduction -- or reintroduction -- to this visually creative master. It has the look and feel of a Hong Kong movie -- especially with Koo's presence.
"He's probably one of the few actual stars left in the Hong Kong cinema," To said.
Drug War: Starts Friday at Bay Area theaters.
G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BRfilmsAllen
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