The White Storm
Hong Kong/China, 2013, colour, 2.35:1, 137 mins.
Director: Chen Musheng 陈木胜 [Benny Chan].
Enjoyable but basically standard, Hong Kong-style drug-busting spectacle.
Hong Kong, 2007. Chief Inspector Ma Haotian (Liu Qingyun), Zhang Ziwei (Zhang Jiahui) and Su Jianqiu (Gu Tianle) have been friends since childhood and have all ended up in the police force, where they work in the Narcotics Bureau. Ma Haotian is devoted to his job, to the exclusion of everything else; Su Jianqiu, who has been working undercover in the gang of drug trafficker Chai Guoyong, aka Black Chai (Lin Guobin), is desperate to return to normal policing, as he now has a wife, Yuan Ke’er (Yuan Quan), whom he hardly sees and is eight months pregnant. Ma Haotian has been trying to nail Black Chai for six years and finally gets his chance when he hears Black Chai is to meet an Indonesian dealer in Youmadi [Yau Ma Tei] district, Kowloon. At the last moment the police operation is called off by Ma Haotian’s superiors, but Ma Haotian goes ahead anyway, ordering Su Jianqiu to stay close to Black Chai, who manages to escape. Ma Haotian is told by his boss that the bureau has a chance to catch Wei Xingguang, aka Eight-Face Buddha (Lu Haipeng), Asia’s biggest drug lord in the Golden Triangle since the mid-1990s, who operates near the Thai-Cambodian border. Black Chai is to do a deal with Eight-Face Buddha via middleman Bobby (Lu Huiguang). Ma Haotian and Zhang Ziwei barely manage to persuade Su Jianqiu to stay undercover for one more operation, though Su Jianqiu’s wife has had enough and kicks him out. In Bangkok the Hong Kongers find themselves in a subsidiary role to Interpol and the Thai police, and Si Jianqiu is almost exposed as a mole. The eventual meeting up-country with Eight-Face Buddha’s gang ends in chaos, with the Hong Kongers fleeing for their lives, and in a gunpoint trade-off of Buddha’s daughter Mina (Treechada “Poy” Malayaporn) for his two comrades, Ma Haotian has to make a difficult life-or-death decision. Five years later, Ma Haotian, now shifted to a dull desk job, is still obsessed with nailing Eight-Face Buddha and sees a chance when Duan Kun (Ma Yuke), an uppity young gangster from Jianshazui [Tsim Sha Tsui] district, Kowloon, double-crosses Buddha’s men in a drugs deal.
Three childhood pals-turned-narcotics cops find their friendship tested under gunfire in The White Storm 扫毒, an enjoyable but totally generic chunk of popcorn entertainment in the Hong Kong “heroic blood brothers” mould. Big, butch and bullet-laden, with a storyline that swings from Hong Kong to Thailand and back again, with a finale in Macau, it’s a standard Chen Musheng 陈木胜 [Benny Chan] spectacle – which means he and his regular team of d.p. Pan Yaoming 潘耀明 [Anthony Pun], editor Qiu Zhiwei 邱志伟 [Yau Chi-wai] and action director Li Zhongzhi 李忠志 [Nicky Li] do a thoroughly professional job but basically don’t stray from formulas that Hong Kong action cinema has been recycling for almost 30 years.
As a contender for Hong Kong’s best action movie of 2013, it’s a notch down on Firestorm 风暴 (directed, ironically by Chen’s regular scriptwriter Yuan Jinlin 袁锦麟 [Alan Yuen]), which has way better dialogue, some real action showstoppers and a deeper emotional resonance. Simply said, Firestorm pushes the genre envelope while White Storm is happy to stay inside it.
Despite all that, and a predictable script that took six people to write, Chan draws good playing from his starry cast. Gu Tianle 古天乐 [Louis Koo], Zhang Jiahui 张家辉 [Nick Cheung] and Liu Qingyun 刘青云 [Lau Ching-wan] aren’t especially convincing as three childhood buddies but, after slow starts, Zhang and Liu come into their own later on and Gu manages at least to stay up with them without fully engaging at an acting level. The film’s emotional meat is in the second half as the plotline returns from a botched operation in Thailand to Hong Kong five years later, where a major twist reshuffles the pack. Liu is especially good here, with his weathered features showing real pain as he tries to come to terms with a past decision and goes on an initially single-handed rampage against the super-villain. Unfortunately, the bullets-and-blood-soaked finale, set in a Macau hotel, doesn’t measure up to the preceding character drama, and comes over as borderline silly, hand-me-down Wu Yusen 吴宇森 [John Woo]. Even the music, by French composer Nicolas Errèra (who scored Chen’s Connected 保持通话, 2008, and Shaolin 新少林寺, 2011), drops the ball at this key moment.
Supporting performances by the largely male cast are solid down the line. Mainland actress Yuan Quan 袁泉 (A Love of Blueness 蓝色爱情, 2000; Like a Dream 如梦, 2009) can’t do very much with the token role of the wife of Koo’s undercover cop, though she has more to do later than Treechada “Poy” Malayaporn, 27, a Thai transgender beauty queen, who vamps around as the villain’s daughter. Hong Kong veteran Luo Lan 罗兰, 79, pops up to little point as the mother of Zhang’s character. Like Chen’s Shaolin, the film shows signs of the non-action material being cut back, and may have played better at 2½ hours or so. (Jiang Ruolin 江若琳, whose role as the girlfriend of Zhang’s character was cut, gets a “special thanks” in the end credits.)
The Chinese title could be roughly translated as “Drug Busting”. The “white” in the English title refers to narcotics, not snow.
Presented by Sil-Metropole Organisation (HK), Bona Film Group (CN), Universe Entertainment (HK), Sun Entertainment Culture (HK), Golala Investment (HK). Produced by Sirius Pictures International (HK).
Script: Chen Musheng [Benny Chan], Wen Jun [Manfred Wong], Ling Zhimin, Huang Jin, Tan Huizhen. Photography: Pan Yaoming [Anthony Pun]. Editing: Qiu Zhiwei [Yau Chi-wai]. Music: Nicolas Errèra. Title song: RubberBand, Lv Tian. Art direction: Zhuang Guorong. Costume design: Chen Jiayi. Sound: Zeng Jingxiang [Kinson Tsang], Yao Junxuan, Zou Yulin. Action: Li Zhongzhi [Nicky Li]. Visual effects: Wu Xuanhui (Fate Face Production).
Cast: Gu Tianle [Louis Koo] (Su Jianqiu), Zhang Jiahui [Nick Cheung] (Zhang Ziwei), Liu Qingyun [Lau Ching-wan] (Ma Haotian), Yuan Quan (Yuan Ke’er/Chloe, Su Jianqiu’s wife), Lu Haipeng (Wei Xingguang/Ba Mian Fo/Eight-Face Buddha), Wu Tingye (Wang Shunyi), Lin Guobin (Chai Guoyong/Black Chai), Lu Huiguang [Ken Lo] (Bobby), Wu Dairong (Huang Wende, police chief – operations), Treechada “Poy” Malayaporn (Mina, Eight-Face Buddha’s daughter), Ma Yuke (Duan Kun, white-haired gangster), Shi Yanneng (wanted criminal), Luo Lan (Zhang Ziwei’s mother), Vithaya Pansringarm (Choowit, Thai police chief), Luo Junman (David, Hong Kong anti-narcotics policeman), Chen Sihan (Thai anti-narcotics policeman), Chen Jingyi (Chai Guoyong’s girlfriend), Wang Wenjun (drug dealer), Li Zhaoji (Ma Haotian’s informer).
Premiere: Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (Opening Film), 25 Oct 2013.
Release: China, 29 Nov 2013; Hong Kong, 5 Dec 2013.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 28 Jan 2014.)