Johnnie To

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Qifeng Du, Kai Fung To, Kei-Fung To
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May 29, 2003
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Revitalisation of Hong Kong films

Born in Hong Kong in 1955, Johnnie To began his career in television in 1973 and has made 30 feature films as a producer and director. His films Running out of Time (1999) and The Mission (1999) have extended the repertoire of Hong Kong films and brought him international renown as a director.
Born in Hong Kong in 1955, Johnnie To climbed the customary career-ladder in Hong Kong film-making. After some years as a script-writer, then as a director’s assistant and then as a television-director, he made his first film for the cinema The Enigmatic Case (1980). But not till 6 years later did he turn to the cinema wholly, once more in a way typical for Hong Kong by taking with him his craftsmanship in all genres.

His scope as a director ranged from hardcore action in The Big Heat (1988) to historical parodies in Justice, My Foot (1992), the bad-girls’ hymn Heroic Trio 2 (1993), the police-thriller Loving You (1995) and the fire-brigade drama Liveline (1997). He kept this scope even in the following years, but A Hero Never Dies (1998) opened a new perspective due partly to the production company Milky Way Images, founded by Johnnie To and Wai-Ka-fai in 1996. Its films are based on good scripts, have not only attractive stars but also good actors in the main roles, and are technically accomplished. It produces three films a year, which is few for Hong Kong, but the quality is consistently high.

Hence in 1999 Milky Way Images produced Where a Good Man Goes, Running Out of Time and The Mission. These brought Johnnie To many prizes and catapulted him into the rows of directors with retrospectives. In 1999 The Mission was awarded the prize for the best film and the best director in Hong Kong. Running Out of Time was nominated on six accounts.

Unlike most of Hong Kong’s glamorous gangster movies, The Mission does not focus on the ageing gangster boss, Lung, and his antagonists but on his bodyguards. With established or rising stars in the main roles, it presents five characters of equal interest.

The plot in simple. The gangster-boss Lung has been worried by mysterious murders so has hired five bodyguards. Though riddled by bullets in the usual way, the film is distinguished by innovative camerawork and narration. Johnnie To slowed the exchange of bullets down, till the choreography was almost static, as in the late works from Kurosawa, whose masterwork The Seven Samurai served as a guideline. Johnnie To comments: ‘I used to move the camera a lot in recording shooting incidents. This time I wanted to capture the rhythm of the action-scenes in stills.’

The film’s tension arises from the distribution of the protagonists in space, and its dynamics from the relationships and friendships between the bodyguards. Their everyday life is made up of humdrum actions like cleaning weapons, waiting, protecting, waiting, and again waiting, but also of establishing a pecking or hacking order and, professionally, of killing. The five of them are bound together by danger and boredom. As one of them makes the mistake of getting involved with the boss’s woman, the others are ordered to kill him. By this time, though, they have acquired a feeling of fellowship.

Likewise in Running Out of Time (1999),Johnnie To varies the scheme of the gangster film and uses a quick narrative. Super-gangster is dying and keen to pull his biggest coup off, but super-policeman is keen to stop him. Since they are equally sly, they begin to respect and like one another. The tale and crimes are already familiar from other Hong Kong films, but Johnnie To’s humour and brilliant technique manage to rivet the viewer.

Running Out of Time stands in the tradition of gangster ballads and films about friendships between men, but To is unusual in bringing the homosexuality to the fore. The inspector is asked several times about his sexual leanings, but to no avail, till Wah stands in front of him as a drag queen, and Sang gives him a shy kiss.

In Where A Good Man Goes (1999), To is concerned to present gangsters realistically. He shows how they break into everyday life and asks what follows their years in the underworld.
Author: Ulrich Jossner  

Bio

Johnnie To (actually To Kei Fung) was born in Hong Kong in 1955. In 1973 he began his career in the scripting department of a television station, TVB Hong Kong, where he quickly worked his way up to directing television features. In 1980 he directed his first full length film for the cinema, Enigmatic Case, then went back to television for 6 years before directing The Happy Ghost 3 (1986). He then made a number of standard Hong Kong films in various genres and showed his ability as a producer on films like A Moment of Romance (1990), directed by Benny Chan: In 1996 he founded with Wai Ka-fai Milky Way Image, one of Hong Kong’s most ambitious film production companies.

On the basis of this company, Johnnie To began to make more personal films. This culminated in the making of three films in 1999: Where a Good Man Goes, Running Out of Time and The Mission. Running Out of Time was nominated on 6 accounts for the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1999, and Johnnie To was topped only by himself, as The Mission was chosen as the best film with the best director. He was chosen as the best director once more in 2000.

Works

Wu Yen

Film / TV,
2001

Help!!!

Film / TV,
2000

Where A Good Man Goes

Film / TV,
1999

Running Out of Time

Film / TV,
1999

The Mission

Film / TV,
1999

A Hero Never Dies

Film / TV,
1998

Loving You

Film / TV,
1995

Heroic Trio 2: Executioners

Film / TV,
1993

Justice, My Foot

Film / TV,
1992

The Happy Ghost 3

Film / TV,
1986

The Big Heat

Film / TV,
1986

The Enigmatic Case

Film / TV,
1980

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Festival of Vision: Hongkong – Berlin

(27 July 00 - 10 September 00)