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The Rise of Johnnie To
Addendum: The HK perspective 1/6 - Page 15
Info
Author(s) : Marie Jost
Date : 28/2/2011
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
Information
 
 Intext Links  
People :
Andy Lau Tak Wah
Johnnie To Kei Fung
Wai Ka Fai
Movies :
Don't Go Breaking My Heart
The Election
Fat Choi Spirit
Mad Detective
The Mission
Running On Karma
 
< Previous
Page 14 : Books on Johnnie To
 
Next >
Page 16 : Vivian P.Y. Lee, the scholar


Marie Jost's essay gives an historical account of the rise of Johnnie To's fame in the western world and analyzes how he is perceived and understood. In order to balance the perceptions of Western critics, academics and film buffs shown In Ms. Jost's essay, we have tried to gather the views of people based in Hong Kong. They are able to understand Johnnie To's films from a local perspective, and some have been kind enough to share it with us.

 

A Hong Kong film critic

“ Johnnie To is a big man with a kid's heart, influenced by the Wu Xia spirit ”

The first Hong Kong-based person we interviewed is Thomas Shin. Shin is a member of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society and an editor for the Hong Kong Economic Times.

(Special thanks to Freddie Wong)

Q&A conducted by Thomas Podvin (by email), 09/03/2011

 
HKCinemagic : In the West, Johnnie To is appreciated for his gangster movies (Election , The Mission). He is sometimes called an “auteur”. In France we have this romantic notion that an auteur, or an artist works for his art and not to make a living. A director will do a film for the love of art. To barely talks with Western journalists about the business model of his company and how he hopes his films might be financially successful at the local box office. Foreign journalists are not exposed to To's economic considerations when he makes a film. But To doesn't shy away from these issues with Hong Kong-based media. In addition, Western journalists tend to forget To has also made many commercially viable films, such as comedies. I believe people in Hong Kong don't use this concept of “auteur.” Johnnie To himself has denied his auteur status up until very recently. In what terms has Johnnie To been considered by Hong Kong film critics? And do they analyze his artistic merits as much as his financial successes?
Thomas Shin : Hong Kong critics perceive Johnnie To as a stylist with a strong visual flair but they also note that he is very competent with commercial films or blockbusters.

When I first knew of him fifteen years ago, he treated his films as “a kind of creative art with commercial value”. It must come from his survival instinct on the mass market. However, To obtained a worldwide reputation and has been able to go beyond the local market. He perceives films as “a kind of creative art with commercial value” a little bit different or maybe as a way to cope with the European market.

For me, and for lots of local audiences, To's and Wai Ka Fai's TV period is always our common memory. Their blockbusters or comedies are much, much better accepted than The Mission or Election. So I think you can imagine that a cultural gap has played an important part between western critics, HK critics and the audience.

 

Johnnie To by Laurent Koffel.
© Laurent Koffel from http://www.laurentkoffel.com, used with permission.

 
HKCinemagic : In her essay, Marie Jost wrote: “ Curiously, though, opinions [in the West] on Johnnie To's films and filmmaking are literally all over the map. Each critic identifies certain favorite films as To's finest, relegating the rest to minor efforts or even unsuccessful exercises. Even a cursory look at critical opinions on To's films finds no particular pattern among critics .” Do you consider that the situation is the same for HK film critics? Is there a consensus among the film critics about what constitutes Johnnie To's best films?
Thomas Shin : From my opinion and observation, the golden period of Johnnie To was between 1996 and 1999. The Mission is believed to be To's most appreciated classic.
 
HKCinemagic : By the way, is Johnnie To a much talked-about filmmaker in the Hong Kong film critics' circle? Is he considered a director of interest? Is he relevant? In the West, he represents of course the face of Asian cinema in general and he represents contemporary Hong Kong films in particular…
Thomas Shin : Johnnie To must be the most representative director in these past ten years in HK, both in terms of quality and quantity. Both also fuelled the industry's interest, the masses' interest and the critic's interest.
 
HKCinemagic : Western critics will tend to analyze and criticize To from their own perspective, sometimes forgetting about Chinese cultural elements present in To films. As much as a Western-centric analysis can be valid, it can also overlook some elements and lead to a misunderstanding of the filmmaker's intentions. I am thinking for instance about fate and karma, which seem to be always of interest to To and his colleague Wai Ka Fai. For instance Running on Karma, whose script seems to be based on Buddhist beliefs, has puzzled many Western critics, journalists and moviegoers. Mad Detective also contains some very specific ideas non-Chinese viewers might not be familiar with. As a HK film critic, can you give us a few pointers so as to appreciate or understand his films better?
Thomas Shin : Oh, I just want to say a little bit about Wai Ka Fai. Don't be confused by Wai Ka Fai's scripts. He is very strong (and experimental) with narrative structures and always wants to subvert the genre. I have written an article on Wai Ka Fai for the Hong Kong International Film Festival Filmmaker in Focus Catalogue [Ed.: which is dedicated to Wai Ka Fai this year; a detail of the event can be found here] that will be published at the end of March [2011]. He is a structuralist and not a humanist. So please don't use the wrong methodology to treat his work. Actually, he is very conventional in the narrative structure. Just think about his style in using opening episodes and closing episodes. He is obsessed with the life cycles of the characters and their choices under the high hand of the scriptwriter. If you see his films in this way, your mind will be clear. Running on Karma [shows] two ways of living due to Big's two different decisions after killing a bird! Mad Detective actually is “Method Detective”, using a method acting technique to find the clues. Don't think too much, just feel it. Don't Go Breaking My Heart [Ed.: To's and Wai's 2011 comedy which opened the 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival] is an updated variation on Wai Ka Fai's The Shopaholics which deals with the difficulties in making choices.

As for Johnnie To, he is a big man with a kid's heart. Sometimes, he treats his characters with a samurai spirit. He is deeply influenced by the term Wu Xia, which means a righteous samurai or swordsman, wandering in Jiang Hu. These two personas form the entire world of Johnnie To. It does not only apply to his “art films” but mostly to his commercial ones. Remember Fat Choi Spirit. Andy Lau is a modern martial arts master or hero (武俠 or 俠士), using mahjong as a weapon.

 

The Hong Kong Film Critics Society, http://www.filmcritics.org.hk/

 
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Page 16 : Vivian P.Y. Lee, the scholar

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