David Bordwell tells us about the Hollywood rule of three, which is to “tell the audience every major point three times. He also tells us about the traditional narrative framework of the Hollywood action picture here, where he mentions goal orientation as one of the five principles of storytelling. He also speaks about the discrete part-structure of the narrative, and the Mission Impossible films, with “goal” embedded within their very title, probably present themselves as the easiest examples here.
Considering our goal here is to lay out a practical example of the comparison between the traditional Hollywood action-picture narrative and the way Milkyway pictures do it, as David Bordwell stresses here, we pick one of the goals that’s laid out in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and which provides for a rather straight comparison with the way Johnnie To handles it in Drug War.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, clearly establishing a goal is quite necessary for an action picture, especially one dealing with espionage and stuff, to keep its audience from feeling lost and disinterested. The ideal way is to establish quite early what the overarching objective is (whether to subvert it is a different matter, but the audience should be aware), and the narrative should lay out small interim goals that feel steps, or in literary terms chapters/sections, towards the main one. Mr. Bird and his writing team do a neat job as far as pulling the expository strings to keep the audience completely engaged, and here is how they choose to guide us with one of the film short term goals that leads us to its action centerpiece.
At this point in the film, the US president has invoked “Ghost Protocol” after it is learnt that IMF might have been behind the bomb blast that destroys Kremlin. All that is left of the agency is Ethan Hunt and his team and they have to save the world from a nuclear war (overarching goal). The short term though is expertly established by this interaction –
Jane Carter: “So, what's the play?”
Ethan Hunt: “Wistrom will take delivery from Moreau in 36 hours. Now we cannot let the launch codes leave the hotel, but we need "Wistrom to lead us to Hendricks.
William Brandt: He'll only do that if he has the codes.”
Jane Carter: Or if he thinks he has them.
Ethan Hunt: Our objective is to intercept the sale, replace the authentic codes with counterfeits and follow Wistrom to Hendricks.
As we see, the idea behind the scene is to have the entire team be a part of the mission and understand the stakes, and the dialogues are carefully spread out so that the exposition feels like a conversation. More importantly, the short term goal is established – to not merely locate the authentic launch codes and replace them with counterfeits but to find Hendricks. Please note, no details of the plan or process is established apart from Benji cooking up some trashy solution only to find loopholes in it. The audience needs to first understand the problem and start anticipating the solution. And while we’re at it, the screenplay force-feeds the odds that are stacked against the team.
Now, this conversation happens around the 50-minute mark. After a minute of this, the screenplay deftly switches to the personal battles so as to create a sense of time lapse in our minds, and not feel overstuffed with exposition. This is a variation of the double-plotline that David Bordwell mentions in his essay on Anatomy, or rather a smaller version of it and it is interesting how they don’t merely perform the function in diegetic terms but are extremely important tools in the hands of the screenwriter to guide the narrative. That is where we get to see a few second of montage of the team getting ready, some pretty loud music filling in the gaps and a cut to the camels in the deserts of Dubai.
It’s not been even two minutes since we’ve heard of the problem, and here we are, on the road leading to Dubai, with the screenplay and team having a crack at it for a second time. Please notice how the conversation is about details that do not detail anything but merely provide the faintest of outlines of a plan. But, you see, there is a plan.
William Brandt: So even if we can double Wistrom and Moreau, how do we keep them in separate rooms, while having them think that they're in the same room?
Ethan Hunt: We give the hotel a facelift. Wistrom will think he's arriving at Moreau's suite, but, really, he'll be walking into our decoy room.
Jane Carter: Where I'll double Moreau.
Ethan Hunt: Downstairs, Benji will double Wistrom.
Benji Dunn: Masks!
Ethan Hunt: And meet with the real Moreau.
William Brandt: What am I doing?
Benji Dunn: You? You're the helper!
William Brandt: Helper. That's great.
This is the theoretical solution that shall be followed by the practical version. The what has been conveyed leaving us wondering about the how. And notice how cleverly the screenplay uses the comic character Benji to divert our attention from exposition towards humor. Again a “gap” has been created, before Brandt can quickly summarize the operation for us, as we see below.
William Brandt: Okay, so to the extent I understand what you're talking about here...The Burj Khalifa, it's the tallest building in the world, and you want to alter its infrastructure with the hopes of convincing two people that they've had a meeting, which actually really never happened. Right?
(Followed by the big wide smug smile of Ethan Hunt)
Clear and precise summarization of the essential variables in the equation. As we speak of designs and patterns in the software world, The Hollywood rule-of-three is a pretty useful narrative pattern.
But how would Johnnie To do this? As David Bordwell mentions –
“Milkyway films tend to refuse the redundancy that crime movies usually demand………………. If the Hollywood rule is –Tell the audience every major point three times – To and Wai often assume that one mention is enough, and even that can come before we’re in a position to appreciate it.”
Which means there is no prep talk about the what. Until that point in the film, the point being Choi being interrogated by anti-drug cop Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), To has successfully narrated two parallel lines of action – the story of a drug manufacturer called Choi (played by Hong Kong superstar Louis Koo) who has severe lesions on his body and is caught by the cops after crashing his car into a restaurant, and that of a truck loaded with raw materials for drugs believed to have been supplied by Bill Li, who kind of heads the Hong King drug cartel. The only piece of analytics we have performed until this point in the narrative with all the data is that the truck drivers know Choi because there are 33 missed calls from them on his mobile. The interrogation begins. The geometrical formation here is usual To.
Since the evidence is mounting all Captain Zhang needs is to invoke the threat –
And the phone rings for the 34th time
And Choi is his…..
It is amazing how Choi’s escape attempt earlier from the hospital embeds a kind expectation within us, of a cold calculated criminal and how we’re sort of surprised when he starts blurting out information (his breathless decryption of a coded message is one of the moments of the year) -
è Choi: “The truck carries raw material for me.”
è Choi: “I’ve got to deliver them to Haha.” (Note: Who’s Haha? Unlike many other narrators To and Wai do not bother about laying down backgrounds. This is just a scrap of information, a name, we have to remember.
è Zhang: “Who’s the supplier?” Choi: “Bill Li.”
è Choi: “Brother Chang to meet Haha.” (the meaning of the last coded message.)
è Zhang: “Who’s Chang?” Choi: “Li Shuchang, Bill Li’s nephew.”
è Zhang: “Chang knows Haha?” Choi: “No. I’m to introduce them to each other tonight.”
Almost all the questions are asked by Zhang, will the lady only providing information and not directly interacting with Choi. This way To not only sets up his male-to-male dynamic but the hierarchy within the police unit.
The phone rings for the 35th time. And Choi…
Johnnie To is not merely providing information, he is clearly depicting character traits and dynamics which shall drive the plot further down, and which I shall leave you to discover for yourself.
The bottom-line though is that To has given us the complete set up without giving us the barest indication of the what before moving to the how. What it results in is the what and the how becoming the same for us. After guiding the trucks towards another location, the narrative curiously cuts to shots of shoes and ties and jackets.
And of pills being crushed.
The crushed powder is then filled into a small container.
We see Choi help Zhang select a couple of pair of shoes, and we get the vaguest of ideas about the folks here about to get onto a mission that involves them dressing up. As someone probably.
To doesn’t waste time. He immediately cuts to a convoy of cars, with Zhang and Choi in one of them, reaffirming their dynamic, a dynamic which shall remain intact until the very end and provide for one hell of an ending to the climactic shoot-out.And once you think of it in the context of a little moment in the opening foot-chase, you might begin to appreciate the poetry which Johnnie To brings to action cinema.
And once that is done, Zhang calls up his lady team-mate, and off breakaway two cars from the convoy. The economy and simplicity of the narration is, as I have repeatedly insisted, one of the great pleasures of cinema.
And we follow those two cars enter the premises of a large hotel. This is going to be our location.
The team goes in and does their set-up before we see Zhang’s sedan drive into the premises.
While getting out of it, Zhang sniffs. He’s playing a man on drugs.
While all of this happens, To gives us precious little by way of dialog, and as has been his manner all along, all the narration is reduced to the sum total of simple and cleanly staged action. Zhang we learn is playing Chang, and is here to meet Haha. The conversation is filled with little details, which shall not merely be used by Zhang in the set-up’s second act switch, but later on in the plot as well. But here, in the middle of the conversation, while we still have little idea about what the “goal” is, To throws in another last detail. A cut to a figure sitting on a couch in the lounge of the same hotel, who, well, seems to be high too.
And once Zhang is done with Haha, and he and Choi come back to the team, the lady confirms our suspicions.
Here is when we have the final aha moment, of the identities being switched, of Zhang being Chang in front of Haha, and being Haha in front of Chang. That is how Milkyway pictures reveal their plot points – by framing the narrative around goals that are derived out of set-pieces.
A Johnnie To picture is a drug of humanity, and Drug War is filled with one memorable set-piece after another that are rivaled only by the curious blend of characters that are thrown into the mix, each bringing with them in typical To style, their own set of emotions and personalities. An epic thriller that, again in keeping in norms with the Milkyway pictures, doesn’t feel “epic” but lean and mean. A crime movie that contains such little moments of warmth and camaraderie, like when two outside cops following the same drug trail are relieved by Chang’s men and they immediately stop to pee, or when everybody in the team pull out their wallets and chip in for some cash to the two outside cops. And that ending is an absolute killer. An ending, if we’re to go by this interview here, we would never have got. Sometimes, you see, even for an artist as great as Johnnie To, censorship is good.