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. As an adaptation, Believer self-consciously alludes to its source material while carefully weaving through the intricate layers of cultural exchanges and creativity in the East Asian region. In this light, it is significant that To is the director of the original film. As an enthusiast of adaptations and a frequent ‘remaker’ of previous works himself, the Hong Kong filmmaker embodies the kind of cross-cultural flows that have become increasingly apparent as a distinguishing regional feature, and he makes for a good illustration of how the past informs present-day filmmaking practices. For instance, he has repeatedly cited Kurosawa Akira as his major aesthetic influence, dedicating his 2004 judo film Throw Down (Yau doh lung fu bong) to the legendary Japanese director (Teo 2007: 118). A close analysis of the two films, Drug War and Believer, will highlight how the unending cycle of intertextual allusions and border-crossing conversations that links To to Kurosawa and the latter to his own forerunners continues to shape the output of filmmakers in the region, including Korean director Lee Hae-young. 



Jinhee Choi is Reader of Film Studies at King’s College of London and the author of The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers and Global Provocateurs (Wesleyan University Press, 2010) and the editor of Reorienting Ozu: A Master and His Influence (Oxford University Press, 2018). She is currently completing her ‘girl’ book, tentatively titled Forever Girls: Necrocinematics and Contemporary Korean Girlhood (contracted with Oxford University Press).  Her research areas include contemporary Korean films, urban space and cinema and philosophy of film, and her articles and book chapters have appeared in numerous journals and edited volumes, including ‘On a Lonely Planet, Feeling-in-Depth: Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil’ appearing in Deep Mediations: Thinking Space in Cinema and Digital Cultures (University of Minnesota Press, 2021) and ‘Home is Where the Kitchen Is: Rinco’s Restaurant (2009) and Little Forest (2014, 2018)’ in Asian Cinema (2020).