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The Rise of Johnnie To
Critical darling 2/4 - Page 9
Info
Author(s) : Marie Jost
Date : 28/2/2011
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
Information
 
 Intext Links  
People :
Johnnie To Kei Fung
Movies :
Breaking News
The Election
Exiled
Mad Detective
The Mission
PTU
Running On Karma
The Sparrow
Throw Down
Triangle
 
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Page 8 : Johnnie To and the Critics
 
Next >
Page 10 : To On-line: Critics and Professors, Fanboys and Bloggers


Curiously, though, opinions 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. Some cite The Mission as To’s finest, while others feel it is an uninteresting film in which little to nothing transpires. Some will characterize PTU as To’s masterpiece, while others reject it as a mostly stillborn effort. Once venturing outside the crime/noir/heroic bloodshed genre films, the breadth of opinions on individual films only widens. Films like Running on Karma, Throw Down and Mad Detective have bewildered many critics, charmed a few and infuriated still others. In many ways, these are polarizing films and force reviewers to squarely face their expectations of film. When these aforementioned films do not closely approximate what critics look to films to provide, they are faced with a dilemma: they can examine with a critical eye their own expectations and the assumptions they are based on, or they can reject these troubling films out of hand. The reviews of these three films in particular are littered with the debris of film theories dashed on the jagged rocks of movies that refuse to adhere to genre definitions or sometimes even accepted standards of narrative consistency or coherence.
 

PTU, © Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., Mei Ah Films Production Co. Ltd.

 

It is instructive to look at two separate international critics’ polls that identified noteworthy films from 2000-2009. The first poll appeared in http://dgeneratefilms.com (1). Forty-six film professionals were asked to pick the 10 best Chinese language films of the decade. Twenty-four of those polled were Chinese and 22 were non-Chinese, representing a variety of professional affiliations: 12 were university professors, 11 were critics, 11 were filmmakers/directors, five were scholars, five were film series/film festival programmers, one was an editor, while one critic’s professional affiliation was not listed. Six of these 46 participants included a Johnnie To film in their 10 best of the decade.

Triangle—Aurelia Dubouloz, film scholar
Sparrow--Brian Hu, PhD candidate
Breaking News—Huang Weikai, director
PTU—Shelly Kraicer, critic and film festival programmer
PTU—Edwin Mak, critic
Exiled—Michael Sicinski, university professor

This amounts to five different Johnnie To films selected by six participants. If the Honorable Mentions are also factored in, the results are as follows:

Election 1 and 2—Michael Berry, university professor
Election 1 and 2—Edwin Mak, critic
Election—William Phuan, programmer
PTU—William Phuan, programmer
The Mission—Bérénice Reynaud, academic (Technically, The Mission was released in Hong Kong in 1999, but it wasn’t shown in the West until 2000.)

PTU turns out to be the film with the highest profile among the critics, academics, directors and programmers surveyed by http://dgenerate.com. With the possible exception of PTU, it is apparent how little consensus there is among the film critics and professionals about what constitutes Johnnie To’s best films.

 

PTU, © Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., Mei Ah Films Production Co. Ltd.

 

A similar “ten best” poll was conducted by Cahiers du Cinéma and appeared in the January 2010 issue of the journal. Critics were charged with identifying the ten best films from anywhere in the world in that time frame and were not restricted to Chinese language films. Critics and directors submitted 48 Ten Best lists to the journal (2). Only one participant, Joachim Lepastier, chose a film by Johnnie To, selecting Election 1 and 2. It seems that Johnnie To’s work is still primarily known and admired by a niche audience for Asian film generally and Hong Kong film in particular. Even a critic of Asian film as prominent as Tony Rayns has only disdain for To’s films.

It’s hard not to see the concerted push to promote To’s films—originated by the festival and the critics’ association in Hong Kong and picked up by a few critics and festival programmers in the west—as a product of nostalgia for the glory days of the Hong Kong film industry: To is valued as the only figure capable of bringing back the good times when the industry dominated the regional market and had a global reach…the attempts to boost him into the pantheon seems doomed….Exiled, certainly one of his better films, is not a gangster movie but a pastiche, second-hand in everything from its “stylish” lighting and camera moves to its view of hitmen alienation and redemption. If it didn’t star such beautiful men…it wouldn’t be in UK distribution at all. (3)

 

The Sparrow, © Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., Universe Entertainment

We can witness in the past decade the growing interest in Johnnie To’s films from a small group of critics and academics, many of whom specialize in Asian or Hong Kong cinema. Although Johnnie To is now a fixture on the international film festival circuit, including the most prestigious festivals, he still has a long way to go to be universally lauded by important international critics. One place, however, where he has gained widespread and oftentimes enthusiastic acceptance has been among enthusiasts of Asian and Hong Kong film on the Internet.

notes

(1) http://dgeneratefilms.com/uncategorized/best-chinese-language-films-of-the-2000s-ballot/.
(2) Les années 2000”, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 652 (janvier 2010), 6-53.
(3) Tony Rayns, “Review of Exiled,” Sight and Sound, vol. 17, issue 7, 48-49.

 
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Page 8 : Johnnie To and the Critics
Next :
Page 10 : To On-line: Critics and Professors, Fanboys and Bloggers

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