NYAFF Review: The White Storm


Before the screening of As the Light Goes Out, NYAFF co-founder/the world’s greatest salesman Grady Hendrix made a pitch for people to stay for The White Storm, the film that was playing immediately afterward. He described it thusly: “It’s like if you’ve spent your entire life drinking light beer and then someone hits you with a rail of cocaine.”

It’s an evocative image, to be sure, and set my expectations high.

Too high, unfortunately. Despite how big and bombastic The White Storm can be, it falls well short of that promise.

[For the next month, we will be covering the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan-centric Japan Cuts. Click here for more information, and check back here and here for all of the Asian film coverage you can shake a stick at.]

The White Storm Official Trailer (2013)

The White Storm (掃毒)
Director: Benny Chan
Rating: NR
Country: Hong Kong 

The White Storm fits snugly in the canon of undercover cop films that Hong Kong has built up over the past few decades. It’s a subgenre I’d like to know better, and this is not a bad place to start. Starring familiar faces like Louis Koo and Ching Wan Lau, the film follows three men as they try to take down Eight-Faced Buddha, the only real drug warlord left in Asia. So Kin-chow (Koo) is undercover with a high-ranking Hong Kong drug dealer, and on the eve of their big bust, plans change. And by eve, I mean literally seconds before things go down. And they go down anyway, setting off a pretty cool gunfight nice and early.

And then it slows down, because The White Storm is a film of peaks and valleys, and though the peaks are pretty high, the valleys are really long. During the slow periods, lots of interesting, dramatic things happen, but I wasn’t looking for interesting drama, and that gets to the problem of expectation. If others hadn’t told me to expect insanity, I think I would have liked The White Storm a lot more. It wasn’t just Grady who hyped me up; everything I had heard promised a wild and crazy ride. So I immediately set my expectations up to something like The Raid, or at least Hard Boiled. I was expecting a switch to go off, at which point all hell would break loose and blood would rain down from the heavens. That doesn’t happen until the very end.

The White Storm

Instead, you get increasingly complicated interpersonal drama. People die (or not), betray their comrades (or not), and do all the kinds of things people to do in an undercover cop film(or not lolololololollo). Keeping track of who’s who, and did what to whom is difficult, and though I’m pretty sure I understood it, a second viewing might be a bit more enjoyable. I couldn’t just let the experience wash over me, because I was too busy wondering what everything meant. Even so, it’s an enjoyable narrative, and a couple of the plot twists caught me off guard (in a good way). It’s also oddly funny, with jokes that punctuate serious scenes in unexpected ways. It adds some levity to scenes where it doesn’t seem entirely appropriate, but I laughed anyway.

The personal drama is punctuated by some intense action, albeit less than I expected. The final fight is all kinds of amazing, and it’s basically what I hoped the entire second half of the film would be like. And I don’t really have a lot of complaints about the other scenes other than to say that I wanted more. I mean, that first gunfight is badass, a major sequence has enough helicopter minigun fire to satiate anybody, and the rest are still enjoyable to watch, but they just didn’t feel unique or bombastic enough.

The White Storm

Even the helicopter minigun isn’t as cool as you might think, because that’s such an impersonal sort of action. It’s basically an instant massacre. Rather than some long, badass firefight between two armies, bullets rain down from above and destroy pretty much everything in their path. In minutes, it’s all over. It’s a nice effect, but it doesn’t have the visceral intensity of two guys shooting each other 50 times until one of them finally falls to the ground. And because it’s out in the open, it doesn’t have the sheer brutality of something like Dredd’s minigun scene.

Perhaps that’s why two of the best moments in The White Storm involve intimate violence, one in the service of getting information from a traitor and the other tying up some loose ends. I didn’t cheer like some people, but I laughed pretty freaking hard. Afterwards, I heard some people say that it’s their favorite film of the festival so far.

Maybe they were expecting something different.