In the 2008 interview with HKCinemagic, To states that he sees the Paris retrospective as the end of one phrase of his career and the beginning of another. He likewise describes 1995 as another equally important turning point in his career. It marked the end of To’s work as a totally commercial filmmaker of movies that were star vehicles and more often controlled by their stars than by their director. After a very bad experience working with Stephen Chow on Mad Monk, To considered quitting the movie business altogether. For an entire year he did not make a movie, which, for a prolific director like To, must have felt like an eternity. But in 1996 he reentered the film business with a renewed commitment to making only the kinds of films he wanted to make. To achieve this end, To and Wai Ka-fai create Milkyway Image, Ltd. and set out not only to revitalize To’s career but also the entire Hong Kong film industry, which at that time was approaching its nadir.
One has to ask, however, if this tidy characterization of To’s career post-1996 is entirely accurate? If we look at his filmography and remember the interviews that To gave from 2000 to the release of PTU in 2003, we are confronted with nine commercial, star-driven vehicles showcasing such popular artists as Cecilia Cheung, Anita Mui, Sammi Cheng and, most spectacularly, Andy Lau, who starred in five of these films. To clearly states in more than a few interviews that these were overtly commercial films designed to bring spectators back to Hong Kong movie theaters to watch Hong Kong-produced films. They were also designed as commercial vehicles to fund the new film venture 100 Years of Cinema that got off the ground in 2000 after Milkyway Image nearly went bankrupt in 1999. To, even as late as 2008, acknowledges that he makes films for local Hong Kong Chinese audiences that are topical and not readily understood by outsiders. It is just these films, however, that seem to be the biggest money makers. In earlier interviews To openly acknowledges his dual strategy. The overtly commercial films with big stars are designed to be popular commercial hits that, in turn, fund more personal projects that will not have the box office draw, but will satisfy To’s need to also make personal, not necessarily commercial films. When To stopped making these commercial money-making films and is known exclusively in the West for more personal, noir-tinged police and gangster films, he now downplays the commercial movies in Western interviews, though one feels he isn’t ashamed of these films (some of which were quite commercially and critically successful in Hong Kong). He tellingly says in the HKCinemagic interview that sometimes you have to do something you don’t like doing, as if the compromise represented by this type of film does not sit too well with To now that he is acknowledged as an “auteur” by many Western critics. (But it should be noted that To currently has two blatantly commercial films in production, aimed squarely at the mainland Chinese market, with a third commercial picture in pre-production that would re-team Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau, To’s superstar rom-com team from the 2000s.)
It is interesting to examine To’s stories about how he got into filmmaking, his first exposure to cinema as a child and the directors that have influenced him over the years. In the 2008 interview for HKCinemagic, To describes getting into film as an “accident.” As he stated in earlier interviews, he was considering four different jobs as a young man: police officer, soccer player, phone company employee or courier at TVB (one of the major Hong Kong television stations). He went to work for TVB because they were the first ones to call him back and offer him a job.
Contrast this with the 2010 interview with CNN. He mentions the same four career choices, and also that TVB called him first. But rather than an “accident,” To now describes the incident as an act of “fate” or “destiny.” He plainly states that it was destiny that his career would be in the film industry and, given the choice to do it all over again, he would choose to be a filmmaker.
To’s description of his early contact with cinema and the films and directors that were influential on him has also varied from interview to interview. It is clear from what he says in a number of interviews that To was exposed to cinema at a young age. What is less clear, however, are the exact circumstances of that exposure. In the HKCinemagic interview To says his father worked in a store or warehouse (the French term “entrepôt” is not specific) behind (or at the back of?) a movie theater and that he watched movies from behind the screen. In To’s 2004 interview with Stephen Teo, To says his father worked as a janitor at the Prince’s (Tung Lok) Cinema in Mongkok, and that the young To watched films from backstage, and that he did so until his father left the company and the family moved to another part of the city (3). In the 2010 interview with Talk Asia, To describes his father as working as an inventory clerk in a cinema. It is hard to account for the fluidity of the elder Mr. To’s profession, from janitor to working in a warehouse or store behind the cinema to being an inventory clerk in the cinema itself, except to say that Johnnie To was more aware of his rising international prominence by 2008, and perhaps wanted to downplay the fact that his father was employed as a janitor. One can hardly doubt Stephen Teo’s account as linguistic misunderstanding since he conducted the interview with To in Cantonese and translated it himself into English.
Something similar happens when we look at To’s description of his cinematic influences from childhood. In earlier interviews when To talks about films and directors, he mentions mostly American genres such as Westerns and crime dramas, and American directors like Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, as well as unnamed local Hong Kong movies and directors. He also mentions his debt to Akira Kurosawa from his earliest interviews. In the 2008 HKCinemagic interview To says he became an ardent movie-goer at some point after the experience of watching films behind the screen as a young child. Now his list of films has been expanded and, while still including local films and Hollywood films, there is now the addition of European movies and an expanded catalog of genre pictures, such as film noir, Italian sword and spear epics and French policier movies starring Alan Delon. Joining the ranks of Kurosawa and Peckinpah, there are now Sergio Leone and Jean-Pierre Melville. (In this interview, To admits that he must have seen many Melville pictures because they starred his favorite actor, Alain Delon, before he knew the name of the director.) As To’s star has risen in the West, he is careful to mention more and more Western, especially European filmmakers in his catalog of influences, names that were almost totally absent from his interviews before 2007. This was also the period of time when To was attempting to put together the production deal that would result in the creation of Vengeance, a joint venture between Hong Kong, U.S. and European partners, and he was actively courting Alain Delon to be the star of this feature. In the 2010 Talk Asia interview, there is no discussion of cinematic influences on To. In that interview, he has begun to downplay his stature as an international filmmaker by stating that he doesn’t want to be a superstar director or a big name. He is just a man who has a passion for movies and enjoys making them more than anything else. This is, importantly, the interview where To introduces the idea of the hand of destiny and the inevitability of his career as a filmmaker.
In the CNN interview when To is asked about why people tend to view The Mission as To’s masterpiece, he responds in a surprising way: “I haven’t thought of that before. I didn’t expect it to have that effect.” Then he stresses the material constraints on the creation of this film: little money, little time, and even little film stock (so no possibility of retakes). What he describes is a film that is a work of reflexive filmmaking, something created at such breakneck speed that there wasn’t time to sit down and consider each element of the film calmly and reflectively. Instead, decisions have to be made on the fly without thinking them through, relying on instinct and past experience alone. Perhaps this is To’s way of implying that only a highly talented filmmaker could work this way and produce a masterpiece. This mitigates, somewhat, the extreme modesty that To displays at the beginning of the interview when he states that he doesn’t want to be a big name director or be seen as a superstar. He back-handedly acknowledges the critics’ view of The Mission as a tour-de-force of filmmaking by describing how the film was actually made, implying that only a master of filmmaking could have produced an acknowledged masterpiece under such conditions.
To is asked in the 2010 CNN interview about the possibility of making Hollywood movies. His reply shows a marked change over earlier interviews. Whereas before To stressed that he was a Hong Kong filmmaker, took Hong Kong as his subject and really only understood Hong Kong and its people, he now admits in the CNN interview that Hollywood is his dream, that he’ll get there eventually, it is just a matter of time. He has also mapped out the potential benefit of making a Johnnie To film in Hollywood. As a filmmaker, he wants to really get something out of the experience of working in Hollywood. He wants to make something that couldn’t be made anywhere else but Hollywood. Clearly, the offers from Hollywood must be getting more attractive with his increasing international prominence post-2005. Perhaps Vengeance functioned as a gateway to more serious and attractive offers from Hollywood, closer to the filmmaker’s terms and conditions, and he therefore has changed his ideas on working in that Mecca of international commercial filmmaking.
But it is interesting to note that as 2010 has progressed, To has begun production on two new films shooting in Hong Kong and Beijing, not Hollywood. One, a comedy slated for release around Chinese New Year and starring popular box office champs Louis Koo and Daniel Wu, seems intended for local Hong Kong and Mainland audiences, and it appears similar to To’s earlier commercial money-making ventures such as Needing You and Love on a Diet. Another film, starring Lau Ching Wan, is also currently in production and this seems to fall into the “personal” film category, such as Throw Down, Election, Mad Detective, etc. Curiously, little seems to have changed after To’s international adventures in the period from 2000-2010, except that he seems to be focusing his filmmaker’s attention on the Mainland market in a way he has never done before. Only time will tell if Hollywood will come calling with an offer that To finds attractive enough to entice him to Tinseltown, or if his focus on the Mainland Chinese market will compromise his artistic expression in a manner akin to that of virtually every other Hong Kong filmmaker who was enticed by the commercial potential of the Mainland market.
These recent extended interviews illustrate variations of the Johnnie To Story as it is told by the filmmaker in interviews over the past 10 years. The basic elements of the origins of Johnnie To, filmmaker, have been consistent since the earliest interviews. But in the 2010 CNN interview, To introduces the inevitability of his artistic métier by attributing it to fate.
To adroitly uses the interview to communicate with a variety of audiences about what matters to him as a filmmaker at any given moment in time. Certain basic elements remain consistent from interview to interview, whatever the intended audience or point in his professional career. But he is also a master storyteller who is quite capable of customizing the specific details and particular emphasis of his responses to serve a larger professional purpose. In interviews aimed primarily at the North American market, the types of movie genres and directors are overwhelmingly from Hollywood. As To’s star rose at the European film festivals and as different European centers mounted major retrospective of To’s films, more European genres and directors get special mention. When To was courting Alain Delon for a possible remake of Le Cercle Rouge, both Alain Delon and Jean-Pierre Melville are mentioned by name in several interviews. But, with Delon bowing out of the project and Le Cercle Rouge replaced by Vengeance, there is no discussion of cinematic influences on To in the 2010 interview. Likewise, what To says about Hollywood and his interest in making films in Hollywood has changed significantly over time. In the earlier interviews, Hollywood is not some place that To has a desire to work. He stresses, instead, his origins in Hong Kong, his understanding of Hong Kong and its people, and the impossibility of making the kind of films he wants to make in Hollywood. After the Le Cercle Rouge debacle and the making of Vengeance, however, Hollywood appears an alluring destination, one that the filmmaker intends to visit at some unnamed future date.
In a certain sense, To tries to tell the intended audience for each interview what it wants to know about him. He carries the script of his own story in his head, much like that of whatever film he is currently shooting. To is infamous in Hong Kong for shooting without a written script, yet he says that he carries everything in his head, like some internal storyboard, even down to the placement of lights and cameras, sequence of shots and blocking of the actors. He is able to adapt this internal script as needed to the exigencies of shooting, as he is totally in control at every given moment of what is being shot and how.
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