Hong Kong helmer's gangster pic makes surprise bow at gathering

ROME

Hong Kong helmer Johnnie To’s China-set gangster movie “Drug War” will world premiere as a surprise movie at the Rome Film Festival where another high-profile Chinese title, Feng Xiaogang’s blockbuster epic “Back to 1942,” preemed on Sunday.

To’s “Drug War” depicts local trafficking in a way Chinese audiences have never seen before, a sensitive issue for local censors. Pic marks the cult helmer’s return to crimers and stars some of the biggest talent in China and Hong Kong, including Louis Koo (To’s “Romancing in Thin Air”) and Sun Honglei (“Seven Swords”).

“Drug War” will unspool in competition on Thursday.

Both “Drug War” and “Back to 1942″ attest to the strong Rome presence of Chinese titles with international commercial prospects. On Sunday Adrien Brody walked the red carpet to tubthump “1942” with co-stars Zhang Guoli and Xu Fan.

Feng’s historical drama about a tragic famine in the Henan province also stars Tim Robbins as a Catholic priest stationed in China.

Rome’s seventh edition — the first headed by former Venice topper Marco Mueller — kicked off on Friday in arthouse mode with big-budget Russian epic “Waiting for the Sea” unspooling out-of-competition amid Italo media laments that Mueller was turning the fest into an elitist event incompatible with big city audiences.

But Mueller’s lineup, as always, features a diverse mix.

The U.S contingent headed for the event includes Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone, helmer and star of actioner “Bullet to the Head,” which unspools Wednesday, and Bill Murray for Roman Coppola’s “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan.”

Fest wraps Saturday.

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