Vessels and Cargos: Spaces of Inclusion and Exclusion in Johnnie To’s Drug War and Lee Hae-young’s Korean Remake Believer

As several scholars have pointed out, Johnnie To’s The Mission (Qianghuo, 1999) was a turning point in the Hong Kong filmmaker’s directorial career, one in which he began to prioritise group ethics – of triads, of gangsters, of police squads – over acts of individual heroism. David Bordwell observes that another shift is discernible in the 2012 release of To’s Drug War (Du zhan) – his production company Milkyway Image’s first film shot entirely in Mainland China – in terms of its aesthetics and the denial of its protagonists’ moral values. In this nihilistic film, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a member of a drug cartel from Hong Kong, would risk anything, including trust and brotherhood, to save his own life. The group ethics endorsed by To in such films as The Mission and PTU: Police Tactical Unit (Jidong budui, 2003) are not to be found in Drug War, only the political and legal system that punishes characters whose actions deviate from it. As Sun Yi points out, survival is not only the primary concern for Timmy, but also an apt metaphor for the Hong Kong film industry as a whole (2018: 228). The shifting moral, political purview manifest in Drug War provides a useful starting point for a comparison with its Korean-language remake, director Lee Hae-young’s Believer (Dokjeon, 2018), which initially appears to be anchored in the individual rivalry between Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong), a detective, and Mr Lee (Ryu Jun-yeol), the secret mastermind behind a sprawling cocaine production network in South Korea. In this presentation, Jinhee Choi focuses on how the remake’s restructuring of the earlier film’s plot restricts characters’ mobility. Despite the two films’ diverging moral compasses and the spaces that are used, there remains an underlying similarity that allows us to uncover their respective sociopolitical systems, which deprive individuals of agency.

Jinhee Choi is Reader of Film Studies at King’s College of London.