A prominent commercial filmmaker in Hong Kong since the mid-80s, the career path and status of Johnnie To is distinctive from contemporaries such as John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Wong Kar-wai. Solely committed to his national cinema, he made a point of never venturing to Hollywood and even formed his own production company, Milkyway Image, in 1996. Only in the mid-2000s when films like Breaking News (2005) and Election (2006) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival was Johnnie To given auteur consideration by Western critics and audiences. Even then, it was only his crime and action genre work, characterized by their elegant style and directorial control, that found critical success and was seen as commercially viable for international markets. With over 50 features under his belt, Johnnie To has a massive oeuvre not bound to any single mode and while he is one of contemporary cinema’s greatest formalist filmmakers, his fluency in visual storytelling transcends genre.
Programmer and scholar of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema Shelly Kraicer has curated a series, "Johnnie To: Expect the Unexpected," playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto between October 26th and December 28th. A mix of work from 1992 to 2016 with an even sampling of his action films, romantic comedies, and outliers, the retrospective seeks to introduce viewers to the many sides of Johnnie To and complicate how audiences define this wholly unique master filmmaker.
With films old and new ripe for discovery, I sat down with Shelly Kraicer to discuss the series and our mutual appreciation for Johnnie To.
NOTEBOOK: What kind of filmmaker is Johnnie To?
SHELLY KRAICER: He’s a commercial filmmaker; an entertainment filmmaker; a genre filmmaker; and his filmmaking transcends all those things in ways that people who study Hollywood studio filmmaking are familiar, working under a strict set of formal and commercial restraints. There are geniuses—I don’t use the word lightly—who can turn those constraints into inspiration for artistry.
Speaking from a Bordwellian perspective—David Bordwell is the key English language analyst of To—the craft obligations that Hong Kong commercial filmmaking imposes are precisely what Johnnie To seizes as a means to make art. It gives him the structure he needs to be an artist.
NOTEBOOK: He also sits atop his own company, Milkyway Image, so to what extent are these restrictions externally or internally imposed?
KRAICER: His multiplicity is key so I wouldn’t want to over-emphasize generalizations. To wants to make films that broad audiences will see although since his international film festival success he also has an eye for cinema that can work in that world where he has forged paths. Primarily he focuses on films that engage and entertain Hong Kong audiences that also speak to them.
NOTEBOOK: He has earned an auteur status in the West but a problematic and reductive one.
KRAICER: To the extent To is known to Western viewers as an action genre filmmaker, and fans of his celebrate him for his “men with guns” movies. That’s not Johnnie To, that’s To designed by Western consumers, only a small facet of his creativity. In Hong Kong he is beloved for his romantic comedies. In the 80s and 90s his biggest hits were melodramas and family New Year comedies. That’s how he engages his local audience whereas the crime films are seen as more personal, small-scale projects with more limited audiences in Hong Kong. Hopefully this series starts to broaden how he is understood by recognizing the different genres he embraces. He has edged towards making a musical for years and finally released Office in 2015. Before that was Sparrow (2008) which felt like a Jacques Demy musical. He has a semi-musical, Wu Yen (2001), an “inserted song film.” That’s just an example of his engagement with a non-action genre.
NOTEBOOK: Once at a festival while on a way to a press screening for Blind Detective (2013) I was encountered by a film critic who scoffed at me going to the movie, remarking, “don’t you realize it’s one of his comedies?”
KRAICER: My whole curatorial inspiration is to address that. It has to do with the marketing and branding in the West. One narrow channel through which Hong Kong cinema is allowed to penetrate Western culture is action cinema, they are “action clowns” who can entertain us with their violence as permitted by the mechanisms which determine what’s commercially releasable here. To have one’s horizons restricted to Johnnie To as an action director is an unfortunate echo of a systemically prejudiced and blinkered perception.
NOTEBOOK: My first encounter with him was with Breaking News (2004) and Election and when I finally saw a romantic comedy and dove deeper into his work I first reacted as most do, with a little discomfort. The action films fit into a tradition we’re familiar with but the rhythm and style of his comedies is outside of what we’re used to.
KRAICER: It’s in his minimalist action films that his originality is most easily visible. I think of Johnnie To as a structuralist filmmaker—not a Michael Snow or James Benning—his films are about spatial structure. It’s one way to look at and open up his work beyond the content to find what’s embedded in his filmmaking experimentation and creativity. His films take spatial structure utterly seriously and investigate how bodies in space are subject to tensions and forces and how they negotiate relationships of power in space and how under great tension these objects are forced to work or change and how new structures emerge. That’s the classic Johnnie To film. I’m oversimplifying.
Male bodies in action stillness, such as in The Mission (1999), a group of bodyguards set up to protect the gangster, tension builds, an outside element / enemy disrupts the structure, you watch it crack, that’s the fantastic cinema, how he cuts and shows you the space reconfigure into temporarily stable spatial structure, a set of relationships between between our heroes, it happens a second time and a third time.
Let’s go to a romantic comedy. In Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011), the key relationships in the movie are between the two lovers in adjacent office buildings but it’s the way they’re pinned in their spaces and the opportunities their spatial relationships present that charge their romance and make it possible. He’s working through this fascination with bodies in space. In the action films violence breaks out but he’s not a poet of violence like Sam Peckinpah or John Woo, he’s a poet of spatiality and structure, the violence happens when space breaks and reforms. He hates the violence but recognizes it as a way to solve certain tensions.
NOTEBOOK: And he finds many different solutions for that within different genres.
KRAICER: In A Hero Never Dies (1998) there’s a famous sequence in a bar where nearly nothing happens, where rival killers, who eventually become aligned, work out their relationships to each other through a series of exchanges along the bar involving objects that connect the space in a sort of game. You could go through many To films and find examples of this preoccupation. How he analyzes space is technically fascinating, there’s a lucid clarity, you know where everyone is and what the dynamics are. He needs to show you exactly what’s happening.
NOTEBOOK: To what extent does he reflect Hong Kong and social reality and is there something revealing or subversive in his work?
KRAICER: Johnnie To is completely immersed in the current political climate and turmoil and is thinking about it all the time, but not publicly. I learned a lot from the Hong Kong school of criticism exemplified by people like Li Cheuk-to, who says Hong Kong cinema needs to be read between two dates, the 1989 Tianmen Square Incident and 1997 the retrocession, the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. Johnnie To’s cinema fits within this mapping but he doesn’t talk about this.
NOTEBOOK: Like an old school auteur, he keeps his cards close to his chest.
KRAICER: For a number of reasons. He has a lot of relationships in the film industry and alliances within the industry are widely dispersed. There are pro-China Mainland directors, there are neutral directors, there are fiercely pro Hong Kong identity enforcing directors/actors/producers… If you’re on the wrong side of these divides you can be blacklisted. A savvy producer/director needs to keep his or her options open. Especially someone like To who divides his productions between Mainland China and Hong Kong in Cantonese and Mandarin in order to be successful.
The meanings of Johnnie To’s films are rich and elusive and cannot be reduced to a specific set of concerns but it doesn’t seem to be entirely coincidence that Hong Kong’s dilemma is precisely a spatial one—how a small, powerless former colony which enjoyed a brief time of autonomous self-rule is negotiating a new set of relationships with an immensely powerful neighbour, China. How those pressures are changing and warping the two entities and what sort of possible outcomes there are to this struggle.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about selecting the 19 films in your programme? It represents about one third of his filmography.
KRAICER: 18 films by To and one Carte Blanche film [a TIFF Cinematheque tradition where a visiting director presents a film by another director] which is King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967). I tried to balance it between films people would expect as well as the other genres and earlier works. They’ve maybe all played in Toronto over the years at local Cantonese cinemas! There used to be three theatres downtown and one in Markham playing Hong Kong new releases.
NOTEBOOK: Outside of the better known films what are some titles you’d like to give a special emphasis?
KRAICER: Help!!! (2000) needs the help. It’s one of my favourites, it’s a tiny, bizarre one-off, a frenzied black-absurdist-comedy. It’s about three young heroic, idealistic doctors fighting against a system of corrupt, older doctors. It’s Johnnie To and co-director Wai Ka-fai imagining how Hong Kong may heal itself through professionalism. It’s a zany and hilarious film about messy operations and cars that talk and the whole film builds to a terrible cataclysm, one of these Hong Kong-disaster-on-the-horizon films and how Hong Kong should think about them. It was made in 27 days from conception to release and it’s a bit sloppy but that sloppiness shows urgency and a burning concern.
Another outlier is Wu Yen, it comes from the name of an ancient dynasty heroine who vies with the emperor for a lover and has a series of critical wars—what the film plays with is the plasticity of gender. All three main characters, played by Hong Kong’s most fabulous comediennes: singer and perennial Johnnie To lead Sammi Cheng, chanteuse-actor famous from the 80s and 90s Anita Mui, and Cecilia Cheung, who emerged in the 2000s. It’s a costume film with mad-cap switching between identities and genders with love affairs that transcend these swaps. It’s an odd film for To but is reminiscent of Tsui Hark and in particular his masterpiece, Swordsman II (1992).
The inspiration for Wu Yen is Cantonese opera where men play women and women play men and audience attachment to characters freely flows from men to women. There are songs and puppet show interludes. The three actors are as entertaining charming as I’ve seen in Hong Kong cinema. I hope the series opens audiences up to a more playful Johnnie To. The Heroic Trio (1993) is a sort of predecessor starring three female heroes.
NOTEBOOK: We’d be remiss to not speak further about the recurring actors in To’s cinema. The inimitable Lam Suet, for instance, who makes me think of the character actors in, say, John Ford’s films where they’re so immediately endearing as soon as they appear on screen.
KRAICER: Since To and Wai Ka-fai formed Milkyway Image in 1996 there’s a set of actors that keep coming back, a repertory ensemble of character actors. One of the most celebrated is Lam Suet who actually started as a props man in earlier To films. He’s pudgy and cute with a mole that has hair coming out of it (that he can’t cut because it’s bad luck!). He has an incredible physical presence and To knows how to use him. He doesn’t really pick actors for their ability to embody character.
Johnnie To’s cinema is not primarily about storytelling nor character psychology. A lot of his dialogue is made up on the set as he shoots. He has a screenwriting team, sometimes credited as “Milkyway Image Screenwriting Team,” who is with him during the shooting and make up lines on the spot to work with the shots that Johnnie To has come up with. It’s very secondary to visuals. It’s not so unusual for Hong Kong cinema: Tsui Hark and Wong Kar-wai are known to do this to an extent but even so To is more extreme. He doesn’t storyboard and constructs these meticulously designed and choreographed sequences on the spot, shot by shot out of his head. The narrative situation is predetermined but then To works through it on set. It’s like how Michelangelo sits and stares at marble and works at it until a thing emerges.
Back to actors: His romantic leading man is Louis Koo, who is ridiculously handsome and can’t really act but it doesn’t matter because he has such a charismatic and compelling screen presence. He sits just under Andy Lau as a box office guarantee.
Sammi Cheng is a really interesting actor who can combine daffy with heartrending and flip between them instantly. She’s completely untrained and is first and foremost a pop singer.
The heart and soul of To’s cinema is Lau Ching-wan. He doesn’t look like a leading man. He has sad, beagle-like eyes and has an aura of dignity and authority. He’s not a trained action actor by any means but can create indelible characters and stands for a Hong Kong everyman put under impossible stress that can overcome adversity with his unshakable moral core.
NOTEBOOK: Wai Ka-fai has played a large role in the creative vision of the films.
KRAICER: Many of the films in the series are collaborations between Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai. He came from TV and brings a couple of things to Johnnie To’s cinema: a fantastic sensibility and specifically a Buddhist inspired fantasy, such as in their joint masterpiece Running on Karma (2003), and a subversive playful humor which is present in Johnnie To’s work, but Wai-Ka fai brings it right on top. There’s a lively and antic quality he infuses into the films. He’s more conceptual with plotting and intricate in his narrative design.
When they describe their working methods, Wai Ka-fai is the pre-production director and Johnnie To is the on set director, more focused on actors and camera placement. They both have a pessimism and are willing to make their audiences peer into a bleak abyss of no future, which most entertainment-based artists aren’t willing to do. Though the Hollywood ending is not a big a part in Hong Kong cinema.
NOTEBOOK: It strikes me as being a very rare type of relationship between a commercial studio and a mass audience.
KRAICER: All of Chinese popular and traditional arts stem from a Confucian didactic tradition. The role of an artist is to teach people how to be good. That’s an overstatement, but that moral imperative is alive and active today and Johnnie To’s cinema asks questions about what’s wrong in contemporary life and asks what tools do we have out our disposal to cope or triumph—but usually just cope, because the films have a pessimistic, bleak side—and how can those resources be activated and energized. All this happens, remarkably, in an entertainment cinema, which Johnnie To crafts to thrill and entertain. The impossible thing to me is how do you balance those imperatives of giving audiences what they want along with what they need, and I think Johnnie To has an immensely impressive and awesome ability to strike that balance.