NYAFF 2019: Action and Melodrama Combine in THE WHITE STORM 2: DRUG LORDS

The New York Asian Film Festival took place from June 28 to July 14. For more information click here.

Though by its very nature a Film Festival is going to be a hit-or-miss affair, the movies they choose to open and close out the proceedings are, by their very nature, a message to their audiences.

This year’s festival started out with the highly entertaining Samurai Marathon, directed by British filmmaker Bernard Rose of Candyman fame. It’s inspired by true events (and just plain inspired), recounting of the origins of the Japanese marathon, which apparently involved way more beheadings than I realized.

It was a fantastically entertaining opening gambit, and set a very high bar for the films that had to follow it.

If the opening night movie is the shot across the bough, then the NYAFF closing night movie is the victory lap, one last opportunity for the festival programmers to have attendees leaving the theater on a high. What makes White Storm 2: The Drug Lords unusual as a choice is that it feels somewhat more serious minded than previous years. Which is not to say that it’s not an entertaining, propulsive bit of mainline adrenaline, but it’s also a surprisingly somber end note, an action pic extremely invested in delivering the goods but equally invested in driving its message home with all the subtlety of a bullet to the brainpan.

Then again, in a certain sense it’s difficult to know what the exact messaging on a movie like The White Storm 2 is, other than it’s very, very, very, very clear stance that drugs are bad. It would be easy enough to decipher if the story were a simple one of cops and robbers, but the cops aren’t actually the heroes here. The hero, or at least the protagonist is an ex-gangster turned billionaire.

So, yeah… just your typical tale of robber barons vs. robbers.

Then again, maybe wondering about the message is missing the point, as I’m pretty sure the point was to hit as many stuntmen as possible with as many different types of car as possible; so in that sense… mission accomplished!

Everybody’s favorite Andy (sorry, Griffith, take a seat in the back), Andy Lau, plays Tin, an alcoholic low level gangster whose loyalty to his Uncle, mob boss Yu Nan, trumps all his other relationships. Within the first ten minutes he has been left by his wife for being a drunken loser and betrayed his friend of twenty years, Dizang (Louis Koo, perfectly slimy in that Louis Koo type of way), an act which costs Dizang three of his fingers.

To be sure, Tin tries to make it up to him, saving his severed fingers in a bag of ice and driving him to the hospital. But the way he angrily dumps his fingers in the trash indicate that forgiveness is probably going to be a lot to ask for.

Years pass, and Tin (who earned his way out of the criminal life soon after the Dizang incident) refashions his entire life, entering into the finance game and emerging as a billionaire philanthropist with a smart, beautiful financial adviser wife (Karena Lam, working with what the script gave her) who is wholly unaware of his past.

A letter from his ex brings Tin back into the world of crime and drugs and sends him spinning inexorably towards a final confrontation with his onetime friend, who is now working his way towards becoming one of the biggest drug lords in the whole of Asia. It’s a very personal war that will have gruesome consequences for everyone and everything that gets caught in its wake.

Having not seen the 2013 original past a pretty decent looking trailer, it’s difficult to say how this belated sequel plays in comparison. Despite their shared proficiency at delivering the action goods, director of the original Benny Chan and sequel director Herman Yau approach their projects rather differently. Seeing as how the only thing the two films seem to have in common is Louis Koo (playing what seems like a very different role) and heroin (perhaps the true star of the franchise), and given how fully self-contained this movie is in itself, we can only judge by what made it to screen.

And while the action is generally pleasingly brutal and well-choreographed, the biggest surprise is just how much it favors the melodrama over the action. A wide swath of our protagonists are characters of questionable morality and their interpersonal relationships are capital F fraught. And the parsing of these issues seems to take up a significant amount of screen time, exceeding even the usual boundaries of the Heroic Bloodshed genre to which the movie is so clearly indebted.

Granted, that’s hardly a barrier to enjoyment by any stretch of the imagination; watching Andy Lau and Louis Koo go at it, whether it be in words or with bullets, would most likely be worth the cost of admission regardless. But the focus on the drama, and the borderline hectoring anti-drug tone, make it all feel slightly less satisfying as a festival loser than one might hope.

But when the action starts up, all is right with the world. Bullets fly and cars crash with wicked aplomb, and karma sorts it all out one way or another. Whatever my (mild) reservations, they unarguably nailed the part that matters; the raucous action satisfies, as does a twist that lends a delirious unpredictability to the third act.

Overall, White Storm 2: Drug Lords is a solid but not game changing way to close of this years festival. Personally, from a sheer ‘stand up and cheer at the awesomeness onscreen’ standpoint, I may have picked The Fable (which, to be fair, was this year’s Centerpiece presentation) or Furie to go out on. Still, it’s hard to complain too much when there’s this much Andy Lau and this much overall entertainment value to be had.

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