The Festival del film Locarno will present a Lifetime Achievement Pardo to Chinese producer-director Johnnie To at its 65th edition, which will take place 1- 11 August 2012.
On the occasion of the award presentation, the Festival del film Locarno will screen Johnnie To’s latest production, Soi Cheang’s Motorway (Che sau, 2012), as an international première on the Piazza Grande. The film will be released in Hong Kong on June 21.)
Born in Hong Kong on April 22, 1955, since 1980 Johnnie To has sixty films to his credit as a producer and fifty as a director. He initially worked in television before directing several feature films that were commercial hits in Hong Kong in the 1980s. In 1993 he had his first major international success with The Heroic Trio, an action film starring Anita Hui, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung.
In 1996 Johnnie To created his own production company, Milkyway Image, along with the director and producer Wai Ka-fai. This new independence enabled Johnnie To to alternate personal and artistic projects (the stylised thrillers that were to earn him worldwide recognition) and much more commercial films for the Hong Kong domestic market (romantic comedies and crime films featuring the hottest local stars) which he turned out at regular intervals or which he simply produced. Milkyway Image soon achieved a factory rate of production that infused a new energy into the Hong Kong crime thriller, which had its golden age in the 80s, with typical films by John Woo and Ringo Lam.
Going beyond pyrotechnics, the most interesting 90s crime thrillers made in Hong Kong were tortured, interiorised films. Johnnie To became the director/producer of some of Hong Kong’s most important thrillers and action movies since John Woo’s departure for Hollywood, including Expect the Unexpected, The Longest Nite, Lifeline, featuring his favourite actor Lau Ching-wan. These films exhibited a concern for realism and psychological focus that distinguished them from Woo’s more abstract choreography. Patrick Yau’s The Longest Nite (Am faa, 1998), produced by Johnnie To, is a downbeat thriller of exceptional violence. Despite a rather hackneyed narrative structure, this nocturnal confrontation between a sadistic cop and a solitary killer, (which becomes a kind of dark engulfment) manages to constantly surprise the viewer.
Expect the Unexpected (Fai seung dat yin made the same year by the same director and crew) combines fast and forceful violence (the aestheticism of action is superceded) with a sense of disenchantment that turns this cop romance with its multiple plots (the romantic rivalry of the two cops during their intersecting investigations) into a masterpiece of the genre. The unexpected and cockeyed denouement allows for the irruption of the unpredictable in what is an almost overly calculated narrative.
After John Woo’s move to Hollywood, and in the 1990s and early years of the new century, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark’s dangerous flirtations with American financing that seemed to leave them stranded, out of touch with their Chinese creative roots, before they returned to the studios in mainland China, with Milkyway Image Johnnie To took on sole responsibility for continuing an appealing and innovative commercial Hong Kong cinema, every year producing and directing (or co-directing with Wai Ka-fai) well-made action movies, romantic comedies quirky oddities, such as the delirious Running on Karma, (2003), standard entertainments and more personal projects.
Made in 1999, The Mission (Cheung fo) stands out in both Johnnie To’s filmography, and more generally in the context of Hong Kong cinema. Five retired Triad professionals are employed to protect a local godfather, who has become the target for assassination by a mysterious rival. The team, who initially appear a pretty pathetic bunch, hardly up to the task, turn out to be extraordinarily efficient and on several occasions save the life of the elderly Triad boss. Once the traitor has been unmasked, their mission seems to be accomplished. But on the fringes of the whole affair, one of the team has made a mistake…
The Mission thus plays with the conventions of the gangster thriller and the buddy film. The introduction offers a series of presentations of each member of the future team. Bogged down in professional problems, unhappy with their lives, or completely devoid of biographic info, these are colourful characters, played by actors more or less familiar to the cinephile and Sinophile viewer, who can immediately supply their previous cinematic careers or enjoy the little modifications To brings to their pre-existing personas: such as Anthony Wong, who often plays the psychopath in commercial Hong Kong movies, here somewhat incongruous as a hairdresser. He had drawn attention for his performance as the bad guy in John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) but for the most part was confined to “category III”films (low to lower budget movies that delivered the most provocative of sex’n’violence confections) before becoming a regular actor for Milkyway Image: it is a pleasure to see him again in Motorway. The rest of the team is composed of renegades from Triad films and TV series, most of them part of the Milkyway Image stable. Filmed as an ensemble almost throughout, they find a way to transcend the limitations of their usual roles and confirm their sense of ease with comedy, verbal sparring, and scenes of physical action. The five are brilliantly matched.
Although it takes the viewer over familiar ground, The Mission stands out from most Hong Kong action movies, whose visual grammar has now been plundered by Hollywood, and further adulterated by low quality local productions. In contrast, The Mission positions itself to the frenetic, and deconstructed films of Tsui Hark. Johnnie To also abandons the tone of disillusioned noir, a genre in which he has excelled above all others. The Mission offers nothing less than a new form of stylisation that owes a great deal to Japanese cinema generally, and to Takeshi Kitano in particular, while going far beyond such models. The film takes an ironic look at the Triad world, with gangsters who behave like caricatures of themselves. The opening abounds in unobtrusive but biting comments on the attitudes and dress codes of Triad members, stuck in iconic poses that recall the clichés of film noir. Living in ostentatious luxury, in an enormous and hyper security-conscious villas, one gang boss, obsessed by dress codes, tears a strip off one of his henchmen: “Look at your tie. What on earth do you look like?”A little later, it is his turn to be castigated by his elder brother, enraged at such a profusion of conspicuous wealth: “You’ll scare the neighbours.”The gangsters in The Mission are no longer in “ wannabe », but “wanna look like”mode, which ends up reducing their credibility, and even their powers of intervention, to zero. Kept away from the shoot-em-up scenes, the “official », gangsters, the film’s weak underbelly, prefer to entrust our five bodyguards with the violent tasks. But the professionalism of the latter is also subject to a travesty of the dress code. They relinquish their usual dress as small time hoodlums or underworld merchants for working uniforms of flashy suits and silk shirts, as indispensable for their new jobs as their handguns. Since the script and the cast are already (over) familiar, Johnnie To’s mission is to create a new formal dynamic, dressing his film up in something new (the mise en scène is astonishingly original) and turning his actors into Armani models. The Mission is above all a story about visual surfaces: the look. The film ostentatiously owns up to its fetishistic aspects, obvious from the introductory scene in which one of the bodyguards obsesses over which tool to choose from his formidable arsenal of handguns. The director is here overtly referencing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when Eli Wallach assembles the perfect pistol from parts borrowed from several artillery parts. The Kurosawa-Leone-Melville-Woo-Kitano lineage is not ready to be broken.
Asian cinema, whatever the genre, has always been noted for its unusual treatment of time. Dilated, fragmented, frozen or speeded-up, for Chinese and Japanese filmmakers time is something that is endlessly refashioned, sculpted, whether playing on its elasticity or its marmoreal qualities.
There is no slo-mo, hysterical editing, or freeze-frame in The Mission, a work that is calm and collected to the point of cool. Johnnie To’s film is constructed entirely on the principle of waiting. However The Mission is in no way a realist as a result, careful to observe in real time the long stretches the bodyguards spend waiting together between shootings. To has the brilliant idea of diluting this waiting into the entirety of the film, and manages to make it playful rather than tedious, by turning each ‘time out’, every lull in the action, if not into a bravura set piece, at least in the moment in which something (unexpected or amusing) happens; on the contrary, he films the action scenes as interminable stretches of stillness (Leone, once again). A demonstration through example: keeping watch in an office corridor while the godfather is in a business meeting, our heroes wait, completely silent and still. But all it takes is a scrunched up ball of paper to initiate an improvised game of football, unseen by the secretaries, which stops as suddenly as it began when the godfather comes into view. This hilarious scene, one of the best in the film, is not there to underscore the killers’ immaturity, as it would be with Kitano, who depicts the yakuza as big kids who love their toys, be they fatal or innocent. Another later gag, joints disguised as cigarettes, pays tribute to “Beat” Takeshi. The football game is, rather, a solution found by the group to stay operational, i.e. to remain, discreetly, bound together in action. As we discover, this apparently anodyne scene was not purely recreational, but a preparation. In fact it finds an unexpected echo in the film’s great choreographic moment, the attack in the deserted shopping mall, in which To invents the – “motionless gunfight”. Tracking several assassins, each member of the team takes up their post behind a pillar, and waits, to wrong foot the enemy and bring him into their line of fire. The ‘waiting’ is no longer placed before the big action scene; it actually bleeds into the action itself. The bodyguards assume the position, but this is no mere decorative posturing, like that of their employers, but is strategic, and even experimental (two bodyguards lying in ambush almost kill one another by accident). Indeed, from this moment on, talk of posturing is no longer appropriate. This posturing is already a position. In the epilogue, the film shifts this notion of physical positioning to one of a moral position. Should a defective element be eliminated in order to remain faithful to one’s employer, or be used to make the group’s perfect cohesion operational one last time?
An exemplary neo-thriller, The Mission constitutes an ideal response to the aggressive, staccato and idiotic visuals that proliferate in action movies. It is not just a superficial eulogy to professionalism and male friendship. What is sought – and found – is harmony in work, elegance in even the smallest details, morality in violence (it is, after all, about killing). The filmmaker, having taken the now rarely seen decision to tell a story purely through the mise en scène, plays and wins every round.
In similar fashion to The Mission, PTU (2003) undoubtedly belongs to the free, independent, indeed almost experimental and avant-garde tendencies of Johnnie To, a filmmaker who continues to oscillate between being an auteur and being a maker. PTU feels like an intensification of his artist’s ego, and more so than the The Mission, delivers a lecture on film that is in itself a real piece of cinematic research and exploration, both playful and bordering on abstraction. Yet this is an urban thriller, a story about cops and robbers involved in an affair of stolen weapons and corruption, in line with his previous films and the genre movies churned out factory-style in the former British colony. But it is the formal approach, the script and the extreme stylisation of its mise en scène that raise it far above the run-of-the mill of Hong Kong production. The enigmatic title, PTU, designates the “Police Tactical Unit” that combats crime in Hong Kong’s port area. The action is concentrated into a single night, and follows the interweaving stories of several characters: Sergeant Lo, whose guns have been stolen by a bunch of hoodlums, and who tries every which way – including the illegal – to get them back; the zealous officer Mike; the crime squad’s Inspector Cheung, who is investigating the death of a gang boss … PTU could be described as a kind of night patrol, at times grotesque, at times anecdotal, that follows several different trajectories which seem incidental and yet lead to a violent and choreographic “climax”. The film’s almost hypnotic beauty lies in its perfect rendering of the city’s nocturnal poetry, in that mix of sophistication with the everyday detail that characterise the best films drawing on their urban settings. It is possible to compare, even to prefer To’s films to Wong Kar Wai’s early works, which are also nocturnal wanderings that focus on the interweaving stories of ambivalent and enigmatic characters (As Tears Goes By, Wong Kar Wai’s excellent first film). PTU decks itself out in the fading charms of the genre film, but, as with the The Mission, transcends crime thriller conventions to offer viewers a brilliant exposition about cinema crossed with a lyrical promenade through the streets of Hong Kong.
Following these two agenda-setting films, which established Johnnie To’s style, the filmmaker moved up a gear and became a regular at international festivals.
“In Hong Kong, the future belongs to Johnnie To” we wrote when The Mission was released in France in 2000. Sole master and commander of the city since its retrocession, Johnnie To is the only Chinese filmmaker to have never succumbed to the siren call of ‘abroad’. He recently directed a French co-production, the magnificent Vengeance (Fuk sau, 2009) but he retained his usual locations, his habitual artistic and technical team, with Johnny Halliday as a guest star (in a role initially planned for Alain Delon – To, a great fan of Jean-Pierre Melville, has long nurtured a plan for a Chinese remake of Cercle rouge.)
Election (2005 and 2006) was Johnnie To’s ambitious diptych about the Triads. This great panoramic drama deals with the former British colony’s politico-economic actuality from the perspective of organised crime. To strips down his mise en scène, abandoning the underlying irony of more superficial films such as the The Mission. Exiled (2006), another major film, conjugates the mythology of film noir (revenge, betrayal, male friendship) in a barrage of cinematic invention. To practices a playful form of cinema, in which the darkness of tone is counterbalanced by an obvious pleasure in filmmaking, with an elegant and resourceful stylisation of the slightest act, the slightest feeling.
Sparrow (Man jeuk, 2008) a sophisticated divertissement about a bunch of pickpockets faced with a seductive female con artist proves that To is not confined to choreographed violence and “hard boiled” thrillers and that he can conjugate his love of urban settings and feats of physical prowess in a more romantic register.
Life Without Principles (Dyut meng gam, 2011) is another panoramic story, but one that abandons the criminal world to focus on a gallery of characters whose lives are turned upside down by the stock exchange collapse. The result is masterly, a great and highly moral film about money.
In recent years, Johnnie To – always endowed with a sharp eye for talent – has also produced films directed by colleagues or filmmakers who are part of the Milkyway Image stable. Eye in the Sky (2007) was a first feature by Yau Nai Hoi, To’s regular scriptwriter. Making a successful move into directing, this thriller about a surveillance team takes us on a new journey into the byways of the city.
Soi Cheang’s Accident (Yi ngoi, 2009) is a riveting film, undeniably the most innovative Hong Kong crime thriller since Infernal Affairs of recent years, on a par with the best of Johnnie To (who was its producer).
A contract killer nicknamed “the Brain”, who heads up a team of professionals, fulfils his contracts by making the killings look like accidents, thanks to a fantastical concatenation of cause and effect. This idea, worthy of the great paranoid thrillers of 1970s American cinema, results in an exciting first half in which we observe all the meticulous planning that goes into a set-up. However, one of the Brain’s men dies in a traffic accident whilst on the job. Subsequently, the Brain becomes convinced that this accidental death is in fact a murder executed using his own modus operandum, and that he is the target of a conspiracy, while the memory of the tragic death of his wife also comes to haunt him with suspicion. Accident is a portrait of a psychopath who has no qualms about eliminating his targets for fear of being killed first. Yet the Brain is above all a solitary and obsessive man, determined to bend reality to his own desires and morbid fantasies, in a dizzying delirium of interpretation that infects the entire film. Accident, a subtle fiction about mental disturbance, is a major film about paranoia, and also about mise en scène. The filmmaker undertakes a eulogy to perfectionism and absolute control of reality and appearances that could pass for a profession of faith. It doesn’t take much to establish the parallel between a professional killer who stages violent death like a ballet, using all the resources of the city as fatal weapons, and the great Hong Kong action directors such as John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To and Ringo Lam, known for their choreographic approach to violence, their fetishism and tendency to urban lyricism.
Thus Accident is a film about cinema, as were Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation in the USA. These two modern classics of American cinema seem to have influenced the director just as much as the films of the other Hong Kong directors cited above.
Accident was the ninth feature film by Soi Cheang, formerly assistant to Johnnie To and Ringo Lam. This specialist in crime thrillers and horror movies in the category III (films rated forbidden to viewers over 18 in China, because of their excessive sex or violence) displays a new ambition with Accident, his most psychological and stylised film. It was also the first time that the young journeyman B-movie director was produced by his former mentor Johnnie To, the last great filmmaker of the former British colony still capable of making several films a year, drawing on Chinese society to create a slew of political and crime thriller films. Accident proves worthy of its producer in the way it glorifies the chaotic cityscape of Hong Kong, which becomes a playground for sadistic adults. While To’s latest films allow him a certain liberty in terms of narrative, adopting an ambulatory rhythm in order to capture the poetry of the streets of Macao or Hong Kong (Vengeance, Sparrow), Accident bombards the viewer with visual information and narrative clues. Soi Cheang thus intersperses his anti-hero’s quest with violent scenes that are as graphic as they are shocking, a legacy of the director’s experience making horror exploitation movies. A wonderful surprise.
Soi Cheang’s new film Motorway contains brilliantly directed action scenes and car chase sequences with a kinetic energy that will prove spectacular on the Piazza Grande’s giant screen at this summer’s forthcoming Festival del film Locarno.
All the films produced or directed by Johnnie To are love letters to his native city, urban poems that never tire of celebrating the nocturnal ambiance, artificial beauty and vital buzz of Hong Kong.