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The Rise of Johnnie To
Johnnie To Story, To by To 1/2 - Page 12
Info
Author(s) : Marie Jost
Date : 28/2/2011
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
Information
 
 Intext Links  
People :
Johnnie To Kei Fung
Wai Ka Fai
John Woo
Movies :
Breaking News
Fulltime Killer
Help !!!
The Heroic Trio
The Longest Nite
Love On A Diet
The Mission
Needing You
Running On Karma
Running Out Of Time
Throw Down
Wu Yen
Companies :
Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd.
One Hundred Years of Film
 
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Page 11 : The Academics
 
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Page 13 : The Extended Interviews


Johnnie To, through the medium of the interview, is an active partner in the creation of the “Johnnie To Story.” Over the years To has given a number of substantial interviews that function less as promotion for specific films than as promotion for the filmmaker himself. He has consciously crafted the general outlines of his own story much like he creates a film script. Although he has been interviewed again and again, To always gives a coherent and consistent picture of his career: from his first contact with cinema as a child to his years of apprenticeship at TVB, from the professional crisis in 1995 that led to the creation of Milkyway Image to the importance of Milkyway Image pictures in establishing To as an artistic filmmaker, and finally his modest acknowledgement of the professional accolades he has received in recent years on the international film festival circuit. The image he shares of his professional life and accomplishments reads like a film script, and one to which the director has remained surprisingly faithful.

Before launching into a detailed analysis of Johnnie To and the Western interview, it is instructive to look at two interviews translated into English and published in Hong Kong on the cusp of his breakthrough in the West. By 2000 Johnnie To was already a critically acclaimed filmmaker in Hong Kong. He was interviewed for two successive editions of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and these interviews were published in the festival catalog for the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 editions under the title Hong Kong Panorama (1). To was interviewed in 2000, just after he had won critical acclaim in Hong Kong for his two most recent films: Running Out of Time and The Mission. But this was also the critical year when Johnnie To took on heavy administrative responsibilities at a new film company, 100 Years of Film. The year 2000 was a time of crisis for the Hong Kong film industry. To’s stated aim in joining 100 Years of Film was to restructure and reorganize aspects of this industry and put it on a firm financial footing once more. To fully acknowledges the tension between art and commerce in this 2000 interview. But he also admits that, if he had to choose between being a producer, administrator and director, he would choose to be a director.

 

On the set of Election 2

 

The Mission assumes a pivotal role in To’s oeuvre in this interview. He claims he only knew what filmmaking was about once he made The Mission. He describes a new working method developed for this film that he will use again in many of his most personal films in the future. First, To establishes the visuals of the film, and only then does he refer to the script. If the primacy of visuals over plot is established in the director’s mind, so, too, is his debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the concept of “stillness in action.”

In 2001 To and his co-producer/director Wai Ka-Fai were interviewed for that year’s edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. It is significant to note that the men are interviewed together, each contributing as he sees appropriate, functioning as equals in the interview. As in the films that they collaborated on, each man has his own point-of-view and brings different elements to the project, yet it is also evident that their views are complimentary and they work smoothly together.

In this 2001 interview, the two filmmakers are in a position to assess the first year of 100 Years of Film. Wai states that Hong Kong cinema functions on a star system, and that it is not directors who draw audiences to the theaters, but stars. Both men agree that the first year was driven by the necessity of getting 100 Years of Film on a solid financial footing and that this dictated the movies that were made that year--Needing You, Help !!! and Wu Yen--films very different from the gritty crime dramas that Milkyway Image was previously known for. The target for 2001 was good box office and, with the success of these films, in particular Needing You, that goal was achieved. The mission of Milkyway Image in the new reality of Hong Kong film is to promote entertainment film.

The first interview Johnnie To gave in the West appears to be the one he did in 2001 with Shelly Kraicer at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his latest film, Fulltime Killer, was screening as part of the Midnight Madness series. This interview was published in the on-line film journal Senses of Cinema (2). As with the 2001 interview for the Hong Kong International Film Festival, it was another joint interview with Wai Ka-Fai. Kraicer sets the stage for the interview by giving a brief history of Johnnie To’s reception in the West (talking about Heroic Trio and The Mission), together with a professional bio of his work in Hong Kong that situates those two films in a broader context. Kraicer notes that his encounter with To is subsequent to the initial exposure of To’s works in the West, specifically at the 2000 Subway Cinema Milkyway Image festival and the 2001 Go Johnnie To seven-film retrospective at the UCLA film archive in conjunction with the Asian Film Foundation.

To opens the interview by citing the driving force of financial concerns on Hong Kong filmmaking at that time. Wai Ka-Fai adds that he and To make a very clear distinction between the commercial genre movies and the personal movies that they direct.

From these three interviews, it is clear that Johnnie To is very aware of the economic aspects of filmmaking and that he is committed to making financially successful films, especially at this critical juncture in the history of the Hong Kong film industry. He is willing to make purely commercial films to bolster the new venture, 100 Years of Film, created to revitalize that industry. But he also acknowledges that his favorite films are not these commercial films, but more personal films like The Mission or The Longest Nite. Two of these three interviews are given with his co-producer/director Wai Ka-Fai and display a collegial attitude towards filmmaking that is at odds with the auteur-driven image of the filmmaker prevalent in the West. Interestingly enough, Wai distinguishes between Hong Kong genre films and the more personal films of Milkyway Image. This is a distinction that is not perhaps shared by Western critics and academics, who have chosen to discuss To as a genre filmmaker.

2003 marked Johnnie To’s penetration into the commercial U.S. market. He was interviewed by Henry Sheehan in Los Angeles at the office of Palm Pictures, the U. S. distributor of Fulltime Killer, which was the first Johnnie To film to be released in the U.S. Sheehan prefaces his interview with To with a concise artistic biography. He especially focuses on the Milkyway Image “gangster” movies. He and To discuss at length the shopping mall shootout in The Mission and To offers some clarification on his working methods, which partially contradicts what he had said on this issue in his 2000 interview. (One has to wonder about the role of translators in all of the interviews that are not conducted by bilingual interviewers and how that might alter how we understand To’s statements.) To says that when he designs a scene, it is not really about the visual look, but about expression. He also states a theme that he will come back to over and over again in interviews from here on out: as a filmmaker, To is always searching for something new and he doesn’t want to repeat himself from picture to picture.

 

Fulltime Killer, © Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., Team Work Motion Pictures Ltd.

 

Another important interview with Johnnie To was conducted by Sean Axmaker in 2004 for Greencine (3). Johnnie To was interviewed at the Seattle International Film Festival, where PTU was having its North American premier. The Greencine interview was one of many To gave during the two days he was in Seattle. Axmaker sets the stage for the interview by putting Johnnie To’s works in the context of the history of Hong Kong film, including Johnnie To’s early career, which was virtually unknown in the West at this time. It is clear that Axmaker knows a lot about Johnnie To’s career and Hong Kong film, generally. Axmaker characterizes Johnnie To’s gangster pictures as “the strongest evocation of the romantic criminal code since John Woo left for Hollywood.” The interview with Axmaker focuses on three of To’s most recent films treating police and gangster subject matter: Running Out of Time, The Mission and Fulltime Killer. To says the heroes in these films can all be described as romanticized heroes, but with PTU, his latest film, he has wanted to focus on characters who are more realistic and flawed and so he has left behind the romanticism of the earlier films.

It is evident with these interviews from 2003-04 that To is refocusing his image in the West. No longer is he interviewed jointly with his co-producer/director Wai Ka-Fai. There is little to no discussion of the business of filmmaking in Hong Kong, 100 Years of Film or the economic and artistic crisis in Hong Kong filmmaking. Gone is a discussion of the comedies that were the big box office draws To and Wai co-directed in 2000-01. With Fulltime Killer, and then PTU, To finally has new films to promote that hark back to the Milkyway Image films like Running Out of Time, The Longest Nite and The Mission that garnered To critical acclaim in Hong Kong and brought him to the attention of audiences in the West around 2000. The films that he wants to present at the film festivals in the West are in the police and gangster genre. To barely mentions Needing You, Help!!!, Wu Yen or the later box office savvy comedies that Milkyway continued to produce until 2004. From here on out, as much as possible To wants to discuss the films that he believes are his most personal expression as a filmmaker, films that resonate with Western international audiences in a way that the culturally more specific Cantonese comedies cannot.

 

Fulltime Killer, © Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., Team Work Motion Pictures Ltd.

 

A watershed moment for To is the interview with Charles Leary published in 2004 in Off Screen (4). Leary interviewed To in Hong Kong. This is a lengthy interview and includes not only a complete filmography but also a brief bibliography of articles in English about Johnnie To and his cinema. After presenting a brief professional biography, Leary begins the interview. Once again discussion is focused on To’s most recent films, in this case Fulltime Killer and Love on a Diet. Maybe because of the Hong Kong context of the interview, there is the discussion of this comedy, which, otherwise gets no mention in interviews around this time that appear in Western media sources. Perhaps most significant in terms of future discussion of Johnnie To, Leary describes To as an “auteur,” and bolsters this assessment by including a To filmography and bibliography. This is not a term that To or anyone in the Hong Kong milieu had ever applied to To, and one that was absent in discussions of To up until this time (Andrew Grossman, in “The Belated Auteurism of Johnnie To,” appears to conclude that it is not really appropriate to apply the term “auteur” (at least in its established usage) to the output of Johnnie To, at least through 2001--the date the article was published.(5)) Leary, with his academic background, was reframing the discussion of To and placing him within a cinephile discourse that views filmmakers in a very specific way and judges them according to different criteria than strictly commercial filmmakers.

The next major interview with Johnnie To published in a Western language was the interview that Stephen Teo conducted in Hong Kong in December 2004 with Johnnie To, concurrent with the shooting of Election. This interview did not appear in print, however, until the 2007 publication of Teo’s Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action film. In the interval between Leary’s interview and Teo’s, Johnnie To has seen the release of three important films that were of interest to Western audiences: Running on Karma (co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai), Throw Down and Breaking News. All of these films received premiers at important international film festivals and clearly To’s star was on the rise in the West. Unlike Western interviewers, Teo interviewed To in Cantonese without the intermediary of a translator, so one has the impression that the interview flowed in a spontaneous and free-flowing manner, unlike the rigidity of so many of the Western interviews. To also must have known Teo from his years in Hong Kong writing about Hong Kong cinema and his association with the Hong Kong International Film Festival. To rewards Teo with one of his longest interviews (29 pages in print), and one that is quite interesting from many perspectives. Anyone who is interested in Johnnie To and his films would profit from a close reading of this interview.

The interview ranges widely over not only To’s professional career, but even over his formative years before he joined TVB and got involved first in television production, then directing and producing films. Every period of To’s career is examined. Several key concepts central to Teo’s arguments in the attached monograph are broached in this interview. When Teo asks To about genre, To rejects the notion of genre saying that genre is not important, that he doesn’t like to categorize himself in terms of genre, nor does he demarcate his films according to genre. Likewise, when Teo asks To if he is an “uneven auteur,” To does not have a ready answer and seems disinclined to continue that line of inquiry. What To does want to talk about, however, is the concept of the group and his interest in the group as the microcosm of humanity (in retrospect quite a propos as To was in the middle of shooting Election at the time of the interview). To also discusses the creation of Milkyway as a way for him to exert greater creative control over his work.

In discussing his career as a filmmaker, To admits that he doesn’t have an overview of where he is heading as a director. “I have no way as yet to determine what the method and the direction of my thinking is. I need to make more films, and see more films, including the classics…what kind of director will I be? That’s the aim I’ve given myself a time limit. In three years at least, I will have the solution.” (6) Finally, when Teo interviewed To in Melbourne about Election in August 6, 2005 and he asked To what, in his opinion, was the most outstanding scene in Election, To simply responded, “I don’t know.” Then he confesses, somewhat sadly, that his own favorite movie is Throw Down, but nobody is talking about it. (7)

When Michael Ingham interviewed To in 2007, he gave the filmmaker an opportunity to respond to some of the things Stephen Teo had said about him in Director in Action. The interview is an appendix to a short monograph on the film PTU published in the New Hong Kong Cinema Series (8). Like Teo, Ingham interviews To at his Milkyway Image offices in Hong Kong, though he requires the agency of a translator to conduct the interview and transcribe the transcripts.

 

Michael Ingham’s PTU

 

In addition to a lot of questions that pertain directly to the film PTU, Ingham also asks To a number of more general questions. He asks To directly about Teo’s characterization of him as an “uneven auteur.” To responds not to the question of whether or not he is an auteur, but if he is an uneven auteur with this rather neutral remark, “…what he said might be right.” (9) Then Ingham asks To if he is a director of action pictures. To replies quite definitively: PTU is not an action picture, “PTU is quite…a dark cult movie.”(10) When asked whether he agrees with certain reviewers who have found the characterization and plot in PTU to be a bit underdeveloped, and also whether or not Hong Kong and overseas audiences understand the film in the same way, To gives this interesting answer:

…if they are not satisfied with my film, or they may think its shallow at a certain level, they may be right, but that’s not what I want to talk about. It’s not my main focus, I think…. When I work on a movie, I like to think that it’s not about whether the character is good-looking or not. It’s about the combination of images and characters, the overall picture, the way of story-telling. (11)

Finally, when Ingham asks To about the allure of making films in the West and whether he is planning to make films in Hollywood or Europe, the director offers a response that shows he has thought long and hard on the issue:

What I feel is that movies are a symbolic projection of one’s culture…. It goes without saying that any film you make overseas must be different from what you can make in your own cultural context. I don’t believe that such a film would either touch or be felt so clearly by audiences. Even if I have the chance to make such a movie today, necessarily it would have to be a commercial undertaking rather than the type of film that I really want to make…. In very commercial enterprises you have to consider what the movie company people are thinking about, instead of what you are thinking about. (12)

 

Johnnie To at the Cannes Film Festival, in 2006. Photo © Frédéric Ambroisine, used with persmission.

 

Since attaining the position of a prominent international filmmaker with the premier of Election in competition at Cannes in 2005, To appears to have been interviewed more and more, and often by those who were less familiar with the history of Hong Kong cinema and, by extension, To’s earlier work. More and more specialized cinephile and mass market publications have featured interviews with To when he is promoting his latest film at an international festival. There were also increasingly frequent retrospectives of Johnnie To’s films around the world, with their attendant interviews. A large percentage of these interviews were the result of To’s promotion of individual films on the international circuit. For this reason, they usually have a circumscribed focus on a specific film that is being introduced to foreign audiences who see To and his cinematic work in a particular way. Furthermore, many of these interviews are limited to a fairly superficial set of questions that betray the interviewer’s paucity of knowledge of To’s oeuvre and its context. The most common topics in these often short interviews are discussions of genre and genre filmmaking and the issue of To as an auteur filmmaker, a label that the director generally accepts after the 2005 premier of Election at Cannes. This is in marked contrast to To skirting the term in earlier interviews, especially in a Hong Kong context. Nick Dawson in an interview with To that appeared in the May 2008 issue of Filmmaker Magazine asks To point blank: “Do you see yourself as an auteur?”

In typical Hong Kong fashion, To responds to the question, without, however, directly answering it. “‘Auteur’ is such a big word. But I think nothing matters more than making a film that reflects who you are as a person.” (13)

Then Dawson broaches the question of genre.

Dawson: “Do you see genre as a help or a hindrance to filmmakers?”

To: “Hong Kong film is based on genre films…. In a way it helps audiences to be more receptive to our films. We believe a good commercial film is 70% formula and 30% fresh ideas. Audiences enjoy familiarity because they want to be entertained. But at the same time they want to be surprised. As a filmmaker, I think it is very difficult to find the balance.”

By 2008, the Western characterization of Johnnie To as an auteur seems to have been embraced by the local Hong Kong media. Edmund Lee titles his interview with To for Time Out Hong Kong, “Johnnie To: The Auteur.”(14) It appears that To is considered a bona-fide auteur now even on his home turf, something that might have been inconceivable only a few years earlier. It might be instructive to consider the rising prominence of To in the West and the fact that he was a regular fixture on the international film festival circuit since 2000 as contributing to his newly elevated local status. Even on his home turf, To now fully embraces the designation “auteur.” Talking about the differences between the enthusiastic reception of his films abroad versus in Hong Kong, To says, “You get standing ovations that last several minutes in those film festivals.” In Hong Kong he says audiences are running for the exit as soon as the credits roll and he complains that Hong Kong viewers only want easy and instant gratification, as if a movie was a video game. Finally, To acknowledges that at this point in his career he is interested in film as art and not the release of box office champions. “As my experience with cinema increases, I realize that I’m getting further away from box office success. But then I think, even though you can’t get the biggest reward in the box office, at least you can attract a certain audience and I’m more attracted by the auteur theory.” It is hard to say if To’s self-identification as an auteur filmmaker is the result of changing perceptions of his work over time, the evolution of his filmmaking to more closely approximate auteur filmmaking, or increased exposure to the type of distinctive filmmaking that characterizes auteurs in other countries. Or perhaps To is simply bowing to the chorus of voices that want to bestow on him the title of auteur, or again some combination of all of the above. But I think it is safe to say that To is now considered by many critics, academics and filmgoers around the world as an important international filmmaker, and by some as an auteur. The seriousness with which To now regards his filmmaking, his appreciation of his international standing, the possibilities this opens up for his work and his reflections on where he wants to take his career in the future are explored in depth in two key interviews.

notes

(1) “Beyond Running Out of Time & The Mission: Johnnie To Ponders One Hundred Years of Film,” Interviewed by Li Cheuk-to and Bono Lee, Collated by Bono Lee, Hong Kong Panorama 1999-2000: The 24th Hong International Film Festival (Lesiure and Cultural Services Department, 2000), 46-50; Shin, “The Driving Force Behind Milkyway Image,” Hong Kong Panorama 2000-2001, 49-53.
(2) Shelly Kraicer, “Interview: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai,” Senses of Cinema
(3) Sean Axmaker, “Karma Chameleon: A Talk with Johnnie To,” Green Cine, February 19, 2004,
(4) Charles Leary, “Fulltime Killer—Full Time Cinema: An Interview with Johnnie To,” Off Screen, June 30, 2004,
(5) Andrew Grossman, “The Belated Auteurism of Johnnie To,” Senses of Cinema no. 12, February-March 2001.
(6) Teo, Director in Action, 242.
(7) Teo, Director in Action, 248.
(8) Michael Ingham, PTU
(9) Ingham, PTU, 130.
(10) Ingham, PTU, 140.
(11) Ingham, PTU, 140.
(12) Ingham, PTU, 141-142.
(13) Nick Dawson, “Johnnie To, Mad Detective, The Director Interviews, Filmmaker Magazine, Friday, July 18, 2008,
(14) Edmund Lee, “Johnnie To: The Auteur,” Time Out Hong Kong, posted: 14 July 2008,

 
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