PRINT May 2003


IN THE MID-’90S, AFTER A SPLENDID RUN IN regional markets and film festivals, Hong Kong cinema began to unravel. Major directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark, along with star Chow Yun-fat, tried their luck in Los Angeles. The handover to China, American studios’ growing domination of Asia, a regional recession, and video piracy triggered a crisis that has steadily deepened. In 2002, local films posted their worst earnings in decades, and producers begged for more government subsidy. Even the art-cinema wing has waned, though Wong Kar-wai remains a festival favorite.

There are a few bright spots. In 1995, before Tsui went to Hollywood, he made The Blade, a ferocious swordplay epic. At the same time, a new generation came forward, inspired by Wong’s lyrical impressionism and disjointed plots but still committed to popular genres like the policier. Ringo Lam’s Full Alert (1997), Patrick Leung’s Task Force (1997), Wilson Yip’s Bullets Over Summer (1999), Riley Ip’s Metade Fumaca (1999), and Dante Lam’s Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (2000) all inventively revise the crime movie. If they lack the raw energy (and big budgets) of the ’80s product, they often show more maturity and finesse.

Still, we would have to call the last ten years’ output disappointing if not for a body of work associated with one filmmaker. Johnnie To Kei-fung has established the strongest track record since John Woo and Tsui Hark. He has become the most successful local director, always notching one or two films in the year’s top releases. And, unlike Tsui and Woo, he has worked fast. Not yet fifty, he has directed over thirty films, most since 1990. The three to five titles he signs each year are star-filled romantic comedies, hyperkinetic action pictures, and taciturn crime thrillers. Every Hong Kong director needs to jump between genres, but To is clearly the most versatile talent now working there.

His comedies, like the hospital satire Help!!! (2000) and the mahjong-hustler farce Fat Choi Spirit (2002), are genuinely funny. Lifeline (1997) sustains suspense to a degree rare in local cinema, thanks chiefly to stunning firefighting scenes. The Heroic Trio (1992) still attracts cultists with its heady mix of aerobatic martial arts and superheroine fantasy. Nonetheless, his chief accomplishment has been to deepen and complicate the urban crime film. To, like any Hong Kong director worth his salt, can execute an all-out gun battle with élan, but neither Woo nor Tsui could have conceived the disturbingly offhand climax of Expect the Unexpected (1998), the ominous stasis of The Mission (1999), the virtuoso wineglass duel in A Hero Never Dies (1998), or the surreal menace of the prison interrogation in The Longest Nite (1998). Tsui Hark is always tempted to deflate tension through gags, non sequiturs, and comic-book outlandishness (think of Time and Tide [2000] or Black Mask II [2001]). Woo indulges in masculine sentimentality and a fussy elaboration of physical action. Johnnie To can tell a story crisply, sustain a mood, stage galvanizing displays of violence, and evoke a critical distance on his characters while still endowing them with heroic stature. Add to this a pictorial intelligence without peer in today’s popular filmmaking, and you have a director who could lead Hong Kong cinema to a new international esteem—if only the world noticed.

It is starting to. With Wai Ka-fai, To founded a production house, Milkyway Image, in 1996. Their teamwork has resulted in a creative dialogue rare in Hong Kong film. Wai directs the occasional film, usually offbeat entries like Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (1997), but his role is chiefly to pour out story ideas and supervise screenwriting. To directs from Wai’s scripts, fine-tuning throughout shooting, and Wai and To collaborate on editing. (Their duties are credited variously; Wai may be called codirector, production supervisor, or screenwriter, and sometimes films in which he participated don’t credit him at all.) Thanks to the partners’ track record and their powerful distribution allies, Milkyway recently achieved a listing on the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong (GEM). No To film found theatrical release in the United States until Fulltime Killer (2001), which opened in New York this spring and rolls out across the country through the summer. Late last fall, Warner Bros. agreed to finance and distribute a new Milkyway project. In January, Milkyway’s romantic comedy Love for All Seasons won the coveted Lunar New Year market slot. And in February the company’s most recent cop film, PTU (2003), was selected for the Berlin Film Festival, a rarity for a Hong Kong genre picture.

In grasping the new rules of Asian filmmaking, To has emerged as the mainstream counterpart to Wong Kar-wai. Wong finds financing abroad, thanks to his charismatic stars and authorial marque. Johnnie To understands that he must maintain a local base while also regaining Hong Kong’s Asian market, shredded a decade ago by Jurassic Park and Speed. Both directors also realize, as Woo and Tsui never did, the higher-end imperatives of global film culture. The shrewd filmmaker courts festival programmers as well as Hollywood suits. Wong Kar-wai addresses two audiences: the many fans of the beautiful pan-Asian stars who pine and languish their way through his scenes and the cultivated viewers around the world who, trained on art cinema, savor a mood-driven film. The Milkyway team have adopted a comparable double-voiced strategy, but they implement it by splitting their output—one movie for the crowds, one for the critics. Chinese New Year or the summer months will bring a vehicle for pop singers Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (a poor actress, as To pitilessly points out in interviews). In a fall or winter release, we are likely to get a grim, experimental crime thriller featuring the somber presence of Lau Ching-wan and the other unglamorous actors who fill out the Milkyway troupe.

Wong likes to dawdle for months over reshoots and reedits, but To directs, supervises, or executive-produces half a dozen projects each year. (Help!!! was conceived, shot, and edited in twenty-seven days.) Accordingly, he has a producer’s eye for the bottom line. Crew members serve as bit players, and he has filmed so many scenes in the Milkyway office suite that his landlord considered demanding more rent. His versatility and speed are strengthened by his sensitivity to twitches in the market. His time in the TV mill reconciled him to serving the audience, and his breakthrough feature was a routine New Year’s comedy, The Eighth Happiness, which became Hong Kong’s highest grosser of 1988.

Asked about a creative choice, he invokes business considerations. Why did The Heroic Trio star three divas (Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung)? The top male stars were too expensive. Why make a sequel to it, Executioners (1993)? The budget was still so high that it would take the income from two films to cover the costs, and with the female stars under contract, both films could be shot at the same time. “Once you take on a movie, you should know its income,” To bluntly observes. “If you don’t, you’re in trouble as a producer.” He predicted that Needing You . . . (2000) would have no trouble earning HK$10 million; it grossed over $35 million. When Milkyway’s quirky mood pieces of 1997 (Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, The Odd One Dies) fell flat at the box office, To and Wai coolly decided to balance personal projects with films aimed squarely at the mass market.

For all the financial calculations, To loves film as film. When he explains a camera angle or an actor’s gesture, his guarded smile broadens, and he excitedly recalls how the scene was shot. This sort of enjoyment was apparent in Tsui’s and Woo’s ’80s films, but they learned that Hollywood studio oversight and ironclad union rules kept them from working fast and intuitively. To is of their generation, even though his career caught fire later. He started work as an office assistant in television at the age of seventeen, and he worked his way up to producer-director. In 1980 he released his first theatrical feature, The Enigmatic Case; although it stands up well today, he was dissatisfied and returned to television “to learn more.” He shot dramas, comedies, and action series and pioneered the local TV movie. He used his television credentials to enhance his standing as a reliable director, but he had no illusions that he would bring a TV style to film. “Drama series have to be simple, with lots of dialogue, the opening and closing of doors,” he says. “But [film directors] can control [dramatic] time freely, jumping from one place to another.” The tension in nearly every To drama owes a good deal to TV’s attention-seizing gambits, but the films’ devious narrational tactics demand an alert viewer. Television may also have given To a useful distance from his contemporaries. Tsui and Woo are still hobbled by their ties to ’70s tastes; but once To hit his stride in the mid-’90s, he could easily compete with the sleek look of Japanese and Korean films. (Compare his smooth, cogent scene layout with those of Tsui, who can no longer be bothered with the mechanics of visual exposition.)

To claims to have found himself several times—with the father-son drama All About Ah-long (1989), which gave him his first taste of directorial freedom; with the psychological cop drama Loving You (1995); and with The Mission: “I feel I am only beginning.” Crucial as well was the partnering with Wai Ka-fai, another TV veteran. Influenced by Wong Kar-wai and Takeshi Kitano, Wai directed two exercises in poker-faced grotesquerie. Peace Hotel (1995) was Hong Kong’s nearest approach to a western, putting Chow Yun-fat in an Eastwood duster and floppy hat; and well before Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, Wai’s Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 traced out the branching destinies awaiting a triad smuggler. Wai brought a playful sophistication to the Milkyway product, while To’s straightforward professionalism diluted the occasional whimsy and preciousness of Wai’s scripts.

If Wai seems to suspect genre conventions, To trusts them, and the tension enriches the films. Take The Longest Nite, signed by Patrick Yau but taken over by To after the first few days of shooting. Macao is in the grip of a gang war, and the densely packed plot pits a bent cop (Tony Leung) against a glowering hit man (Lau Ching-wan). A headless body is found in the cop’s apartment; later he will be tricked into opening a ferry-terminal locker that contains the head. In between, the hit man strides through town carrying a duffel bag (is the head inside?), the cop tries to negotiate a cease-fire, and he interrogates the hit man through a blizzard of dust motes as a mysterious orange ball rolls at their feet. At the climax, the two shoot it out in a warehouse full of mirrors, and one man is decapitated. The spidery tattoo on the killer’s skull, the self-conscious plot rhymes, and citations from The Great Escape and Lady from Shanghai lend a faintly mocking quality to the enterprise. But To directs as if he believed every moment. When the cop bursts into a Macao café and proceeds to bash a thug’s hands with a ketchup bottle, the killer turns away to spoon up his borscht. The scene, bathed in a gorgeous yellow-green light, is at once hyperbolic and coldly matter-of-fact.

Wai and To are fascinated by the doubling of protagonists, a long-standing convention of the policier. While Woo’s The Killer (1989) exaggerated the formula whereby cop and crook discover deep affinities, the Milkyway films handle it in more roundabout ways. In The Longest Nite, the parallels pop up through reiterated motifs like the lost head; the likenesses are less psychological than pictorial. Expect the Unexpected (another film signed by Patrick Yau but reshot and finished by To and Wai) gives us two gangs on the loose—one bumbling, the other deadly in their efficiency. Guess which one provokes more trouble? Wai and To add a dose of gamesmanship: Parallel heroes in Milkyway movies indulge in masquerade, taunt one another, play hide-and-seek and follow-the-leader. In Running Out of Time (1999) a crook (who turns out to be a philanthropist) sprinkles clues across his trail, while the cop who pursues him comes to enjoy the game (and wins a happy ending). The 2001 sequel introduces a new player, whose tamed bald eagle may be an angel redeeming the world on Christmas Eve. More romantically desolate is A Hero Never Dies. Two hit men (Lau Ching-wan in a Stetson, Leon Lai in black) get double-crossed when their bosses agree to collaborate. Lau, now a paraplegic, plots revenge, but when he is killed, Lai takes up the chase. Lau’s corpse, strapped into a wheelchair, rolls alongside Lai in a final, thunderous attack on a bar.

If Wai’s ludic sensibility yanks heroism down to earth, To reenchants it through style, and his palette is wide-ranging. Early in A Hero Never Dies, the two killers face each other in a nightclub. As the bartender pours wine and the chanteuse belts out “Sukiyaki,” To carries the game of tit for tat down to details: The killers take turns snapping coins at each other’s wineglass. As their gestures echo one another, plot doubling generates startling pictorial symmetries, and gamesmanship turns into boyish bravado. The pitches become ever more elaborate, and the lush treatment—with the camera circling at the pace of the song, glimpsing a shattering glass or a ricocheting coin—shows To’s ability to pull ordinary objects into a compelling visual rhythm. Exhilaratingly audacious, at once deflating and exalting its heroes, this tabletop fight scene has no parallel in recent cinema.

Alongside such ornateness, The Mission, perhaps To’s masterpiece, looks scraped to the bone. Five men from the Hong Kong underworld are hired to protect a triad boss from being assassinated. Wai’s characteristic touch emerges when the mission is accomplished two-thirds of the way through the film. The plotter is eliminated; the team is dissolved. How to continue the movie? With a new mission: The men must eliminate one of their own, who has been having an affair with the boss’s wife.

The Mission keeps it all frosty, as the camera stays back and the men stand their ground. The film is, in part, about how boring it is to be a bodyguard; at one point the on-duty heroes kick a ball of paper back and forth to amuse themselves. There are action set pieces but not the usual symphonies of flying bodies and bursting glass. In one assault, a sniper pins our men squirming underneath cars. The most famous sequence shows the team attacked in a deserted shopping mall. They mount their defense with unruffled precision. As they take up positions, in tensely poised postures, we wait. Their maneuvers are subjected to a geometrical rigor and a terrible stillness reminiscent of Kurosawa but new to Hong Kong film. Each widescreen composition harbors pockets and apertures, and every cut reshuffles spatial relations, so we are constantly recalculating the team’s strategy. The style is as laconic as the men themselves. This terseness, along with the double-dealing story line, makes you think To should be given a chance at adapting Elmore Leonard.

To’s policiers have been called postmodern parodies, deconstructions, and pastiches. They seem better characterized as wide-ranging efforts to revitalize conventions at the core of the ’80s golden age. PTU, for example, probes the Mission vein further, sketching a bleak tale of triad rivalries, corrupt police, a missing pistol, and cell-phone mix-ups. Unhappy accidents and crisscrossed plotlines show the hand of Wai Ka-fai. But the action plays out in sober long shots of the squad pacing through eerily deserted neighborhoods, and a suffocating sequence in a video-game arcade, where a cop makes a tearful punk try to rub off his tattoo, has the visceral exhilaration of classic filmmaking. For Johnnie To and his Milkyway, pressing tradition to new limits is the best way to sustain it.

David Bordwell is the author of Planet Hong Kong (Harvard University Press, 2002).