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

Between 1970 and 1997, something remarkable was happening in Hong Kong cinemas. On-screen we see the birth of martial arts, pulp fantasies played out in slow-motion, supernatural battles, studio epics, melodrama and social commentary. And with each new wave of filmmakers, there is a new innovation to be watered down and imitated in other national cinemas.

The early glories of this industry are a small miracle; a moment of endless experimentation and creative endeavor, with cinemas full of people and full of imaginative films that remain as inventive now. This phenomenal creative excess was built on waves of emigration following Japan’s invasion of China, and later the rise of the Communist Party of China, and powered by a confluence of social, historical and artistic factors that cannot be replicated. Those émigrés founded a distribution and production system (and fixation with the bottom-line) that could compete with Hollywood’s. That a group so concerned with investments and returns could produce films so over the top, and so abundantly overfilled with ideas and action, says much about the filmmakers and audiences fuelling the industry. At its peak, the industry was a powerhouse of imagination, driven by competition and sustained by the darker impulses that follow a goldrush, including organised crime and questionable business and labour practices.

From the generation of Cantonese-language filmmakers who fought for a place in the 1980s system, Tsui Hark brought spectacle and cynicism, Ringo Lam gave us chaotic street culture, Ann Hui delved into social issues, Patrick Tam explored Chinese history and John Woo became a superstar. Then, labouring in the recesses of the industry, was Johnnie To. Although he was contributing to Hong Kong film culture at the same time as these names, and with many of the same creative drives, his career is much harder to condense and his filmography more restless and unwieldy. It has taken western audiences a long time to fully comprehend the incredible flowering of Hong Kong’s cinematic culture, and we still haven’t quite worked out where to put To. His filmography resists easy classification, whilst his incredible work rate and the diversity of his output means critics tend to pick one of the many modes To has worked in and define him through that.

Yet, To is the last man standing after so much conflict and fake blood. A veteran of a merciless industry, he has survived the fickle waves of Hollywood interest, the corruption, the social and historical shifts and the ever-increasing weight that mainland China exerts on Hong Kong and its cultural output. To’s work continues to develop and, after a consistent forty years in the industry, has just completed a run of commercially-successful and artistically-ambitious films that are perfect in their elegance and innovation.

By battling his way through the hierarchical system that the new wave filmmakers sought to overturn, To is much more a product of that system and part of a lineage from the Shaw Brothers in 1958, through Wong Kar Wai and the ‘second wave’, to the contemporary co-production blockbuster. For the wider western public To is most well-known for a cycle of triad films depicting with fastidious detail the closed societies, secret rituals and strict order of Hong Kong organised crime, as well as connecting those stories with the wider colonial history of HK. In cinephile circles, he is praised for his elegant action films and lean and stoic policiers indebted to French and Italian genre cinema but distinctively forged in HK. In China, his reputation is built as much on romance and localised genres, such as the Lunar New Year or Mahjong comedy, as well as his work with recognisable canto-pop stars and bankable heartthrobs. Outside the Chinese diaspora To has skipped household status to become an auteurist icon, beloved by the European art-house crowd, where his films tour festival circuits rather than being widely distributed. This has skewed western perceptions of To, making him simultaneously the most and least well-known of the generation of HK filmmakers who emerged in the 1980s. He is considered both an auteur, imposing his singular vision on any production, and a reliable, if indistinct, craftsman, working in market-driven local, and perceived low-rent, genres.

It is not possible to reconcile the complex strands and approaches of his filmmaking, but instead we can embrace the diversity and trace the connections between all of his work, whether crime, romance, action or any of the hybrid experiments in between. By focusing on one area of To’s work you miss what makes it most exciting. But, in an attempt to chart the major currents in his career, I have also neglected many great films and personal favourites. It’s proof of To’s skills (and his work rate) that I wasn’t able to include a film as joyful and energetic as the all-female martial arts film The Heroic Trio (1993).

Johnnie To Kei-fung was born in 1955 within the legendary Kowloon Walled City, the symbol of old Hong Kong’s criminality and disorder. Controlled by organised crime, and demolished in 1993, it is hard not to see the seeds of his filmmaking within this lawless, unofficial settlement, with its moral complexities and closed communities packed together in the most densely populated space on the planet. Starting as a messenger for TVB, HK’s first free-to-air television station, in 1972, To quickly worked his way to producer and director for television. This period was a peak in the first explosion of HK filmmaking. Bruce Lee’s popularity was at its zenith, Golden Harvest had recently split from the Shaw Brothers production company and TV was beginning to compete for the population’s attention.

Across 1972, a 17-year-old To would have been able to choose from Lee’s Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, eight films directed by legendary martial arts filmmaker Chang Cheh, The 14 Amazons from Cheh’s action coordinator and protégé Lau Kar-leung and superstar Jimmy Wang Yu in Furious Slaughter (just to pick the well-known titles). This frankly astonishing collection of martial arts, wuxia, comedy and kung-fu, created by craftsmen working at the limit of their skills, represents a dizzying combination of history, folklore, physical skill and violence. Such an intense mixture of creativity and business gave To a vision of filmmaking which would empower him for many years with its combination of artistry, business-sense and independence. These stories, and the industry which created them, supported To’s first work in film and their influence is profound.

To’s first feature film The Enigmatic Case (1980), directed aged 25, was something of a false start, its poor box office sending him back to television work until 1988, when he directed both crime drama The Big Heat and comedy The Eighth Happiness. These three early films capture elements that To would return to frequently: crime stories as a framework for wider narratives, absurdist comedy and the world of jianghu, or the countercultural brotherhood of outsiders and criminals often glimpsed in martial arts.

Both The Enigmatic Case and The Big Heat are no-frills exercises in popular genres. The former follows a lone swordsman clearing his reputation, while the latter is about a cop holding off retirement for a final — personal — case. They remain interesting because of their harsh realism and anti-poetic sensibility. Both are set in worlds of decay and desperation, where sword fights and gunfights are scrappy, and innocent lives are meaningless. Both also contain glimpses of the heavily-stylised violence which would fascinate To later, including a striking candlelight duel which slips in and out of the darkness and an elaborate shootout which cuts between blue and red neon light. Using colour to mark space in complex set-pieces would become a device relied on by To throughout his career and is crucial to the clarity of his action direction.

Working with Chow Yun-fat on The Eighth Happiness led to the production of All About Ah Long (1989), a warm and humane melodrama that proved To’s range early on. With To now established as a reliable director with a rapid work-rate, the early 1990s are defined by industry work, sequels and collaborations with stars in established genres, including wuxia and melodrama. With films such as Casino Raisers II (1991) the shadow of industry luminary, and fearsome businessman, Wong Jing can be detected. Jing remains a polarising figure in the industry, known as a director for his crowd-pleasing showmanship (including the original Casino Raiders) as much as his sharp-eye for deal-making and profits. His commercial-savvy supported an entire industry, but his well-documented disinterest in film art made him a much-loathed cultural gatekeeper (Jing is also the son of Tian-Lin Wang, prolific HK director and future To acting regular).

In the 1990s To’s commercial and creative impulses were matched with the wider HK industry, and directors such as Jing, more than emerging filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai. The developments there are in To’s style are tempered by the expectations of his employer (mostly the Shaw Brothers) and their estimate of HK audiences.

Worth mentioning in this frequently undervalued period of To’s career are the two comedies produced with Stephen Chow, Hong Kong’s most commercially successful export of the ’90s and gifted connoisseur of the pratfall and rubber-grinned expression. The films combine slapstick wirework and crude jokes with sophisticated wordplay to create a distinctive comedy referred to as moi le tau, literally translated as, “nonsensical”. Although mainly showcases of this frenetic comedy, in both Justice, My Foot (1992) and The Mad Monk (1993), the staging of elaborate comic stunts and set-pieces is a clear foundation for To’s later action sequences. The inventive use of space and movement, as well as non-verbal visual sequences, capture the love of the Hollywood screwball comedy and musical frequently mentioned by To. The fatalist absurdism of moi le tau can also be seen across his work and is frequently used to undercut sequences in his more well-regarded action films. Both films are about order and rules, with officials and gods meddling in human lives and Chow beating them at their own game by asking questions of politics and power and poking fun at sources of authority.

What remains particularly rewarding in this early period is the idea of filmmaking as labour and craft rather than art; cinema as hard-graft produced in a variety of genres to address specific market gaps and needs. As is so often the case, work produced without the lofty aspirations of high art creates something far more rewarding — deliriously entertaining films, situated in the cultural specifics of HK and peppered with moments of incredible skill and innovation. This apprenticeship in the HK studio model instils in To flexibility with genre; a wide-ranging skill-set; an understanding of how to harness an actor’s star power; and a willingness to bend to audience and market whims, without abandoning style and skill.

At the close of this period working with Chow, To’s approach to collaboration also begins to take hold. Long discussed as a lone auteur, To actually meaningfully collaborates with a large group of artists who offer a thread of consistency within his genre experimentation. Very few directors have worked so consistently with the same group of people, both behind and in front of the camera, and To’s frequent collaborators are crucial to the history of his work. From the mid-1990s, this group of collaborators began to solidify into various configurations To would experiment with across the next two decades.

Cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung and writer Yau Nai-hoi joined To with Loving You (1995) and Cheng has now served as To’s regular Director of Photography for over a decade. Yau would write over 30 films with To. With a similar background directing at TVB, Cheng’s flair for capturing colour and light, matched with To’s exploration of space and action, has been particularly crucial to the To mythology. Loving You, frequently considered the first distinctively Johnnie To film, is a melancholy crime drama in which a bullet to the head triggers an existential crisis for a cold-hearted detective. Cheng’s gloomy overcast images are essential to the ideas of familial responsibility and love, as well as the absurdity of the detective’s never-ending quests for justice and revenge.

Although its style is distinct from later films, with chaotic framing and fast-moving editing, the absurdist toilet humour and distinctive visualisation of action and violence would become crucial to To’s later aesthetic. The originality of the opening sequence is particularly striking, with cops and criminals exchanging gunfire as the roof tiles supporting them slip from a derelict building. But, overall, the film’s violence is misdirection from a narrative of forgiveness and reconciliation. With Loving You, To would also begin collaborating with a number of actors who would form a loose pool of regulars, including Lau Ching-wan, Ruby Wong Cheuk-ling, Bun Yuen, Lam Suet and Wah-Wo Wong.

Undoubtedly To’s most important behind the camera relationship is with producer, writer and occasional co-director Wai Ka-fai, who in 1996 joined To form the production company Milkyway Image Ltd. The pair have worked together on more than twenty feature films and the creation of Milkyway Image is frequently used as a marker for a new era in To’s work and a response to the impending handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The first film directed explicitly by To under the Milkyway label, A Hero Never Dies (1998) is the first production following Hong Kong’s handover, as well as the Asian financial crisis, which decimated Hong Kong in 1997. The handover had long been on To’s mind and Milkyway Image is clearly an attempt to retain control as the industry changes. The handover triggered a decline in the power of the HK film industry, but also offered To an opportunity for greater freedom and independence.

A Hero Never Dies is an experiment with the ‘heroic bloodshed’ themes that through John Woo came to define the first wave of HK filmmakers. For utter excess, it easily rivals better-known films from the era. The film explores a relationship between two hitmen whose professional admiration complicates their business rivalries, marking To’s preoccupation with group dynamics and the limits of loyalty and friendship. This unrestrained pulp fantasia of bright colours, bizarre set pieces and stylised bloodshed, is structured with every action sequence as a climax, with maximum violence and the highest possible stakes. For the first time To also uses the shot that has become most associated with his work; a deep-focus wide-angle shot, which uses the large depth of field to carefully block a group of actors in the frame.

With this shot comes the opportunity to showcase To’s ensemble and the film also sees the return of Lau Ching-wan and several other To regulars. Exploring the world of To you might start to believe that Hong Kong is populated by the same rotating cast of striking character actors and stars, each mimicking one another as they cycle through similar roles. Some of this group are industry regulars with long careers, whereas others work exclusively with To, but no other director relies so heavily on the same group of actors. For To obsessives it’s always a delight spotting an actor that has been out of circulation; Bun Yuen in the background of a crowd scene or Wah-Wo Wong returning repeatedly as the non-speaking driver of a car, making quizzical faces to his passenger.

To frequently works with two tiers of actors; Chinese star performers who began their careers as models (Louis Koo in ten films) or Canto-pop stars (including Aaron Kwok in two films and Sammy Cheng in eight films) or relatively unknown supporting players (who are sometimes elevated to main roles). The recognisable actors reflect the Hong Kong star system, as well as To’s business sense (these marquee names help To finance his films) but they also show his willingness to work with unusual actors and invest in the HK industry. To has referred to his use of the same actors as artistic laziness, yet working with this group represents a commitment from To and a celebration of the lost art of the character actor. Those grizzled industry staples with a willingness to slog it out, who endlessly labour in semi-obscurity, are crucial to To’s belief in ensemble filmmaking.

With this group To produced some of his most well-received films, making effective use of his distinctive compositional approach and his character actors chemistry in Where a Good Man Goes (1999), The Mission (1999) and Running Out of Time (1999). These films are taut thrillers set in self-contained worlds of HK triads and police and each compares the ritualistic and performative nature of both those worlds. The Mission is perhaps the film which most embodies To’s style as he approached the millennium; an ensemble cast of triads and assassins, a minimalist plot and a series of gracious, experimental and visually dazzling action sequences. The film is a simple and sublime balance of character actors, choreographed movement, violence and humour and a touchstone for later action films, as well as comedies.

Despite the skill and innovation of these films, as he approached the millennium, To was leading an industry that was in decline. As he gained momentum with his own work, the wider industry was floundering. Unable to stabilise the wild successes of the early years, the industry struggled with reduced sources for film financing, a significant downturn in audience numbers, and censorship and demographic shifts following the return to Chinese sovereignty. The delicate balance of investment and creativity, individual artistry and industrial production, was disturbed. It seemed perhaps the golden age was beginning to dim. Hong Kong was no longer a new frontier of wild and inventive cinema.

Yet, rather than heading for Hollywood, To saw this an opportunity to develop his filmmaking and reposition himself as an industry leader. In 2000 he began an unparalleled series of critically and commercially successful films that careened between genres, consistently made money and embodied the principles and craft that he had spent twenty years developing. With these films, To and his collaborators proved that the spirit of Hong Kong’s film industry was far from extinguished, and that style, charm and innovation were still central to its national cinema.

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