A Hero Never Dies: In Praise of Johnnie To (Part Two)

Read part one of our Johnnie To retrospective.

As the new century began Johnnie To had spent 20 assembling the actors, craftspeople, and financial networks he needed to continue directing films in Hong Kong. Supported through his production company Milkyway Image, To created his own system within the HK industry, modelled on the 1970s framework which gave him his first work. As the rest of Hong Kong’s filmmaking infrastructure appeared in decline, he rejected requests to work in the US and used the formula he had developed since 1980 for an unprecedented run of successes. With David Richardson (a veteran of Hollywood’s 1980s action film boom) joining as a regular editor, To delivered an astonishing range of mid-budget films that confirmed his reputation in HK and abroad (although in very different ways).

Taken together, this run of filmmaking and convergence of talent is unparalleled and indicative of the working relationships and processes To had created. This sequence of films is also where the stratification of To’s cinema becomes more pronounced; the crime dramas receive critical attention at festivals and the romantic comedies make money but receive little attention outside Chinese-speaking regions. As the financial crisis resolved, the need to self-finance, produce independently and crucially, turn a profit, remained strong. And with Milkyway Image, To stated that he would alternate between personal films and those intended for local markets to satisfy investors. Thinking about the films through To’s divisions, as action-focused personal films and romantic audience ones, is a necessarily reductive approach, but one which also neglects a handful of more ambiguous films. The films that slip between the two modes that To has established for himself are the most fascinating and represent some of his most exciting and idiosyncratic work. These are To’s problem plays; ambiguous, complex and knotty films where violence or comedy are not the primary focus of the narrative.

Perhaps the strangest of these is Running on Karma (2003), which combines To’s interest in criminality and Wai Ka-fai’s with spiritual and supernatural experience, all with style, elegance and bleak humour. Big (Andy Lau, doing excellent work in a ridiculous muscle suit) is a monk given the ability to see people’s past lives following a tragedy. Overwhelmed by the weight of this karmic vision, Big abandons his ascetic solitude to pursue a life as a bodybuilder and male stripper, before becoming involved in a series of strange crimes. The film manages to balance both poignant observations on the lived experiences inherent in Buddhist principles, and an affectionate portrayal of male bonding amongst both bodybuilders and monks. With abrupt tonal shifts and morbid black humour, this is the type of oddity that could define a filmography, if To had not immediately followed it with another series of difficult to categorise films.

Even more unconventional, Throw Down (2004) and Sparrow (2008) are both genre hybrids that joyfully misdirect the audience with strange pacing and unusual structure. Reflecting on To’s work, Throw Down in particular also contains some of his most humanist imagery. It is an earnest and heartfelt celebration of mastery and movement centred around an ex-judo champion struggling without the empowerment and meaning created by the sport. For this melancholy martial arts film, Judo is not necessarily the point of the film, but it allows for psychological insight and its rapid movements and throws lend the film its distinctive pace and editing. Alongside Sparrow’s upbeat pickpocketing saga, both films present a completely absurd vision of life, but rather than creating an ironic distance both deeply engage with character and situation. To is often regarded as a technical filmmaker, but these are both primarily exercises in character supported by strong performances from Louis Khoo, Simon Yam and Cherrie Ying.

This is also clear in Life Without Principle (2011), which returns to a parallel criminal world. But rather than contrasting this with the police, it explores the structure and rules of high finance. Like the previous films, the tone is light but the themes are serious-minded and presented visually rather than by hectoring the audience. The film discusses the demands of class betrayal and individual competition inherent in capitalism and is the most explicit of To’s films in its observations of moral compromise and hypocrisy, as well as the ways in which this is normalised in a market-driven society. The shadowy world of high finance (compared with that of triads and private money lenders) is administered by bureaucrats, who are themselves forced into untenable professional situations and who convince desperate people to gamble on the stock market. To borrows the structure and limitations of an established local genre, here the Hong Kong gambling comedy, and creates something completely unique.

Further exploring this approach to genre, with The Office (2015) To fully embraces a longstanding influence: the Hollywood musical, complete with extended song and dance sequences. Continuing to probe into the murky world of high finance and the demands capitalism places on the individual, The Office is an ambitious musical which adapts the Design for Living stage play and reunites previous To collaborators Chow Yun Fat and Sylvia Chang for the first time since 1990’s The Fun, The Luck and the Tycoon.

With The Office, we can see all other To films with more clarity – the visual set-pieces, the taut, mechanistic plotting, the clockwork rhythms and occasional emotional excesses – all show the influence of the musical. A vast artificial office set frees the camera from the limits of location shooting and allows To, alongside Cheng as cinematographer and Richardson editing, to capture recurring visual motifs, such as the intermingling of identical suits, and the ridiculous routines of 9-5 office life. The bright lights and reflective surfaces of the set, and the representation of the absurdity of modern life, are reminiscent of the great Jacque Tati’s Playtime (1967).

Both filmmakers designed specific spaces to help them achieve their goals and play to their visual strengths. Rather than representing an individual pitched against the force of the modern world, like the main character of Playtime, for To this is a showcase of an ensemble and an exploration of group dynamics in a confined space. The film wittily captures the complex logic of capital and office politics. Rivalries, ambition and gossip are invested with a potency similar to his treatment of triad groups and the joy of his swooping, panning and dollying camera is apparent in every scene.

Interspersed with these difficult to categorise films are those that fall more readily into a recognisable genre and To’s own distinctions. Although widely available on DVD, few of the comedies have received distribution outside of China and Hong Kong, despite being frequently innovative and defined by strong roles for women and female-focused stories. These romantic comedies each have energy, vibrancy and pace, but are frequently disregarded as “audience” films or simply market-driven necessities (an idea that To has himself contributed to). Where they are even acknowledged, there is a tendency to relegate these films to second-tier positions. Or, much like the earlier films, products of the HK industry that do not translate effectively to western audiences. Yet, these films are an important extension of To’s earlier work and as crucial to any understanding of his work as those considered more personal.

With these films To’s role becomes even more intertwined with his collaborators, particularly Wai Ka-fai, with the pair often sharing directorial and production duties. The highlights of this series are the films which To has developed with HK singer and superstar Sammy Cheng; a series of deceptively simple romantic comedies which benefit from Cheng’s charisma and Wai subtle plotting, misdirection and playfulness.

Needing You (2000) establishes the formula for the Andy Lau and Sammy Cheng comedy romance that To would refine across the next decade. These films update his New Year comedies of the ’90s by combining recognisable Chinese stars with sly, detached observations on the absurdity of modern life and love, and presenting an idea of romance as a strange, supernatural force, bound by chance and chaos. The films prioritise women’s perspectives and roles and are driven by a pace and chemistry that To has honed to perfection. Like the great 1940s U.S. screwball comedy directors, such as Howard Hawks, To’s control and formal rigour keeps the exuberant energy of the films under control, as well as juggling a vein of pitch-black comedy that complicates the narrative. Needing You is a meaningfully romantic film that acutely captures the feelings developing between two people. It creates a small and powerful world of heightened reality that recalls the work of Ryūsuke Hamaguchi or Nobuhiko Obayashi, as well as the tradition of HK romance films such as the To-produced and Benny Chan directed A Moment of Romance (1990). With gorgeous camera movement, subtle perspective shifts in the last act and tight plotting that reconfigures formulaic elements, the film is essential to understanding To.

Cheng’s manic energy is also crucial to Needing You’s charm. In Wu Yen (2001) she joins previous ’90s To actor Anita Mui for a gender-bending period comedy that affectionately parodies HK period fantasies, as well as Peking Opera traditions. With three female leads playing a range of male roles, the women in the film are funny, crude, naive and empowered. They mock the codes and traditions of the overwhelmingly male court in an elaborate supernatural love triangle. In the highly enjoyable Love on a Diet (2001), she wears a ridiculous fatsuit to play an obese woman who attempts suicide at the start of the film. Cheng’s commitment and subtlety allow To to wring drama and pathos out of these over the top concepts and bizarre situations.

For My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002) Andy Lau’s is swapped for Lau Ching-wan in an absurd black comedy which remains one of the most effective and emotionally-rich from this period. Filled with amoral characters and caricatures, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts’ charm is in how it gracefully shifts between fantasy and reality and balances the supernatural with the banalities of normal life. To’s storytelling skills excel here, connecting the various narrative threads and vast, predominantly female, cast. Sombre material discussing death, suicide and loss is presented with a pervasive weirdness that gently probes how we live with spiritual concepts, grief and change. Like the most successful To films, exterior experiences are dramatised, not just stated to the audience but developed through the action. The romantic ideas happen subtly and mostly off-screen, capturing the sleight-of-hand misdirection that is the best quality of these comedies. My Left Eye Sees Ghosts has no showy, technical filmmaking, but instead is controlled and effective, graceful and impeccably constructed.

To and Wai repeated this trick in 2013 with Blind Detective, which reunites Cheng and Lau to reuse the format of the more procedural Mad Detective (2007), which in turn owes its structure to Running out of Time and Running on Karma. Each of these films explores how an individual gifted with a skill, that is also a burden, attempts to share that skill with a partner and the wider world. A film which contains a deep empathy for the lives of others, Blind Detective also benefits from the beautiful blocking and the Hawksian sense of timing and pace which To’s best work provides.

These films, more than any other area of To’s, work are a testament to the fluidity required by a director and the pact of filmmaking collaboration. They are a challenge to ideas of the auteur or lone genius, as well as the boundaries and enforced rules of genre. They celebrate what the system, for all its flaws, can achieve. Picking out how these films are so effective is harder than it is with more explicitly complex material. They show a willingness to create space for collaborators and performers and to work with the cycles and expectations of local markets, but they are all distinctively Johnnie To films.

Much has been written about the crime and action-focused films that To’s reputation in the west is mainly built on. Each of these has its own pleasures, so I’m not going to go through in detail. As the decade progressed To moved away from the pulpy and high-energy violence associated with filmmakers such as John Woo and instead became more detail-oriented, and more focused on the procedure and process of these groups. The films share a moral complexity and an astonishing technical virtuosity; each film contains (at the very least) one taut, crystal-clear set-piece which will be seared into the brain of anyone who watches it.

These include the shootout in a fireworks factory presented from multiple perspectives in Fulltime Killer (2001); the explosion of violence the closes the more restrained and meditative PTU (2003); a hugely demanding unbroken 7-minute crane and tracking shot which opens Breaking News (2004); Election (2005) and Election 2’s (2006) numerous wide-angle confrontations; graceful firefights and wuxia-inspired set-pieces in Exiled (2006); Mad Detective’s hall of mirrors homage; Vengeance’s (2009) western-inspired forest showdown and the absurdly complex siege in the middle of Drug War (2012). These are action sequences defined as experiments in space and movement; visually inventive, tightly choreographed and proof of To’s never-ending drive to find the most unusual ways to film groups of men shooting at each other. There is a competitiveness in To’s crafting of these sequences which surely originates in the heightened creative atmosphere of the early HK industry – a drive to make each set-piece more memorable, without relying on budget.

But the stakes of these sequences only work because the characters, and the empathy seen clearly in the comedies, is also present. These films are as anarchic and comic as the comedies, just as those comedies deal in ideas just as serious. The ways in which we divide To’s films only restrict our enjoyment of them.

Any single one of these threads over the last two decades would comprise a filmography of immense skill. Together the body of work is overwhelming and indicative of a huge range of talents and 40 years spent supporting and developing it within the Hong Kong filmmaking system. To has committed the later stages of his career to strengthening that system. As a filmmaker, he is invested in Hong Kong and his films offer the most about HK and its shifting fortunes. His career reflects both the HK film industry and the history of the island state itself played out on film; the wild-west lawlessness, colonial power struggles and various financial and cultural crises. From working within the system, To now is the system and he continues to probe, challenge and rework the ideas and approaches that have sustained him far beyond many of his contemporaries.

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