Features | Killing Time: The Economical Diversity of Johnnie To

By Christoph Huber

In the beginning was the hairy mole, and the hairy mole belongs to Lam Suet. For the last decade it has been one of the most hypnotic fixtures in the work of Johnnie To (Kei-Fung), and it never looked so hairy as in To’s frankly rather silly 2001 sequel Running Out of Time 2 (co-directed by his frequent editor Law Wing-cheong in which Lam lends his distinctive short stature to his role as a gambling-addicted cop, spending most of his subplot losing at heads or tails. (Unsurprisingly, the coin is rigged.) More importantly, at some point Lam’s head is shaven, as if in penance for his Mad Love of coin-flipping, establishing with Dr. Gogol-like precision that we are looking at the Peter Lorre of Hong Kong cinema—or at least, of Milkyway Image, the production company founded by To (then usually called Johnny) in 1996, and crucial to his belated appreciation as self-conscious genre auteur, usually privileging his often exquisitely stylized thrillers.

Many of which are indeed quite stunning, but it would be a disservice to narrow the focus: What makes To’s work fascinating is its diversity, including aspects often overlooked in favour of his formalist bravado. One of which is his iconic use of actors (which, ironically, has much to do with the elegance of his mise en scène), such as the Lorre-like doggedness of Lam Suet, be it as one of the stoic hitmen in The Mission (1999), silently kicking a ball of paper to kill time, or as the battered carrier in Election (2005), tirelessly repeating the triad vows while being bludgeoned with a piece of wood or—in a rare leading part—his even unluckier, sweaty, bandaged cop in search of his gun in PTU (2003), one of To’s two recent riffs on Kurosawa Akira. Similarly, To has had the nerve to put handsome superstar Andy Lau, one of his more frequent leads, in a fat suit twice, in the very likeable romantic comedy Love On a Diet (2001) and the Buddhist madcap masterpiece Running on Karma (2003). (In between he also cast him profitably as an off-his-rocker, film-savvy hitman in 2001’s Fulltime Killer.) Even the masterfully choreographed, but ultimately minor Macao mannerisms of To’s recent gangster western Exiled (2006)—a deft, but not exactly deepening cross of the perfect ironic poise of The Mission and the frenetic heroic-bloodshed-swan song-as-spaghetti-serenade, A Hero Never Dies (1998)—is enhanced considerably by Anthony Wong, that most important Wong of Hong Kong cinema, who is not so much channeling, but through some miraculous alchemic process seems to have become that most effortlessly towering of presences, Lee Marvin.

Factoring in that despite a proudly Asian fecundity—as of writing, 26 films as a (co)director since 1997, not counting numerous producer credits—To’s work has been remarkably consistent. He is deserving of any retro, especially given that unpretentious, assured filmmakers reminiscent of the classical Hollywood tradition are a dying breed. This assures that even the occasional dud like Running Out of Time 2 has its pleasures, and not just because of Lam Suet. So why was the selection of To as Filmmaker in Focus for this year’s Rotterdam film festival a disappointment? There are two reasons. Firstly, like his (no less deserving) colleague Abderrahmane Sissako, the other Filmmaker in Focus, To is a firmly established figure, and most of his films were (and are) not hard to see: Remember when Rotterdam retros were about (re)discovery and not about fêting guys whose films played Out of Competition in last year’s Cannes? Secondly, there’s the selection of the films themselves: Although Gertjan Zuilhof’s catalogue intro rightfully insists on the diversity of To’s work, pointing out that although he “has acquired a reputation of largely making gangster films,” he “was and is a master” working all genres, the program itself consisted of an overwhelming majority of crime films, and mostly those which successfully made the rounds on the festival circuit in recent years. (Plus Running Out of Time 2, oh well.)

More disappointing was the rest of the selection, which might as well have been made by Lam Suet’s inspector flipping his coin. Missing was To’s debut The Enigmatic Case (1980), maybe because the young director was unhappy with the result and returned to television for the better half of the decade. But it’s an interesting work, and not just because it shows a director crossing over from TV to cinema productions simultaneously with the emerging Hong Kong New Wave. Born in 1955, To is only five years younger than that New Wave’s closest key representative Tsui Hark, and The Enigmatic Case shares elements with Tsui’s cinematic debut The Butterfly Murders (1979), not least a decidedly arty treatment of the martial arts film, although To is less successful in wringing philosophical ideas from a deliberately obscure narrative. Still, the use of lush widescreen compositions and an uninhibited, funky electro-score hint at future hallmarks.

Indeed, that irresistible staple of ‘80s Hong Kong cinema —melodramatics pitched to Cantopop extremes—plays a major role in To’s next career phase, when he churned out crowd-pleasers for the proudly populist company Cinema City, beginning with Happy Ghost 3 (1986). Roundly ignored in the Rotterdam line-up, these films prove To’s willingness and ability to work on any material with élan and efficiency, the latter undoubtedly consolidated in years of adhering to TV’s even more pressing finishing schedules. His Chow Yun-fat collaborations alone run the gamut from competent tearjerker (1988’s All About Ah Long, in which Chow sports unforgettably bad hair) to the sweet, funny fast-food trifle (The Fun, the Luck and the Tycoon, 1989). Yet at the same time To co-directed (with Andrew Kam) one of the most relentless action thrillers of the nihilism-prone decade, The Big Heat (1988), a punishment park steeped in handover dread. The use of sentimentality and violence in these films may be more shameless, but they certainly do predict strategies that To will use in his more celebrated phase from 1996 onwards. His mostly neglected popular comedies will stretch formulas still mostly adhered to here, the escalating violence and political fears of The Big Heat re-emerging in his masterful one-two punch about cycles of retribution, crime-as-economy (and vice versa) and Chinese control, Election and Election 2 (2006).

Rotterdam’s selection from the ‘90s was less ignorant, but more decidedly half-assed. It contained the most welcome entry overall: The Story of My Son (1990), a truly rare, early collaboration with constant Milkyway partner Wai Ka-fai, but—despite some twin auteur mumbling in the introduction—the programming of later To co-works was reliably spotty. To’s connection to one box-office king, Wong Jing, that most entertaining of Wongs of Hong Kong cinema, is given short shrift, yet the grand, bloody pier tragedy played out against fireballs and Cantopop in extremis in the midst of the heartfelt hawking and tricky gambling in Casino Raiders 2 (1993) alone is a nucleus for the slo-mo pageants of To’s firemen epic Lifeline (1997), not to mention a blunt harbinger of unexpected reversals in To’s later romantic comedies, climaxing in the refined elegance of another, decidedly more luxurious gambler’s delight, Yesterday Once More (2004). The other box-office king was presented: Justice, My Foot! (1992) may be the more consistent (whatever that means in the nonsense world of mo lei to) of To’s two Stephen Chow vehicles, but the unselected Mad Monk (1993) certainly has the more demented scenes, including those played out in a psychedelic studio-heaven very reminiscent of the most colourful of Chor Yuen’s Shaw fantasy films. Another descendent of the old days was present in The Heroic Trio (1993), long enshrined as a cult item among Western action fans even before Olivier Assayas referenced it in Irma Vep (1995), but the sequel Executioners (1993) was nowhere to be seen—though its apocalyptic overtones make it the more pronounced precursor of Milkyway’s cool, nocturnal thrillers.

And this is actually the point at which it should have gotten really interesting, but it didn’t: The first years of Milkyway—in which To tellingly did more work as a producer than a director—clearly were about collaboration, the emergence of a house style, and the search for a market niche. The spectrum was diverse, from the first production, Patrick Leung’s hitman romance Beyond Hypothermia (1996), a visually alluring film, but one still unsure in its fluctuation between icy cool and dark romanticism, to Wai Ka-fai’s daringly scrambled po-mo-thriller Too Many Ways to Be Number One (1997), a film loaded with visual experiments that were reused imaginatively in later comedies. But instead of allowing newcomers to explore a convoluted genesis, Rotterdam just dished up To’s somewhat atypical Lifeline, which is still all empathy in its portrayal of community, although the second hour—basically one long firefight with frightening stunt work—is close to the formalist excellence of the other three pre-millennial Rotterdam selections, all established classics, all showing To securely building diverse variations on a by-then established Milkyway genre basis: flamboyant and romantic in A Hero Never Dies, flamboyant and comedic in Running Out of Time, and masterfully distilled to some kind of essence in the static tableaux of The Mission, which are nevertheless full of tension. Despite its visual priorities, The Mission is also a model of careful construction, opening with a scene in a video-game parlour (a favourite To location) that presages the pattern of positioning that is crucial to the film’s original gunfights. (It also establishes the most unforgettable synth riff since Assault On Precinct 13 [1976].)

From this artistically secure situation, by the beginning of new millennium To’s gangster films started to alternate with popular comedies (more often than not made for that box-office splash at the Lunar New Year)—the token presence in Rotterdam being the first in the cycle, the perfectly serviceable Needing You (2000, co-directed by Wai), starring the preferred couple Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, both of whom are given more interesting things to do in the follow-ups, reaching a culmination with the unselected romantic caper Yesterday Once More, which starts off in Thomas Crown territory, then elegantly multiplies items, meanings, and feelings, only to end on a resonant, elegiac, inwards note. So does another Wai collaboration, the magnificently wild genre-bender Running on Karma, whichisn’t short on comedy either, but must have looked like a one-off in Rotterdam, with no other works of the possible co-auteur on display: neither the POV-shifting meta-meta genre extravaganza Fulltime Killer nor any of the crazier comedies, including the fantastic historical fantasy Wu Yen (2001), which picks up on the three-ladies model of The Heroic Trio and again stars Anita Mui, radiant as always in To’s films, and, in one moment of minor madness, chiding herself for dressing up as a man—although she plays two . Even more directly, Wai’s wonderfully wacky solo effort Himalaya Singh (2005) elaborates on the Buddhist equanimity with which Running on Karma hurdled from slapstick to a beheaded love interest. The apotheosis of the postmodern awareness typical of the Wai collaborations is achieved earlier, when the naïve Himalayan bumpkin is “taught” the world via faulty DVD, then in one of the most jaw-dropping show-stoppers of cinema starts to behave as if he himself were in a malfunctioning player jumble, movements back-forwarding, stuttering syllables for what may only be a minute, but for what seems like an eternity.

Far from Wai’s surreal headbutts, To’s work after Running on Karma comprises an elegant succession of stylized set pieces, as anticipated by PTU. The most single-mindedly personal work is probably Throw Down (2004), To’s second Kurosawa tribute, explicitly dedicated to that “greatest filmmaker,” a homage to his incredibly assured debut Sanshiro Sugata (1946) and an amazing directorial showcase for To himself, who throughout applies a totally relaxed and confident approach to almost associatively structured and lovingly treated low-key-material, be it quotes from the master (a man singing in the high grass to judo bouts) or just personal favourites (various types of humiliation in an arcade, some considerably less amusing than others; finding closure in a concerted effort, in this case trying to catch a glowing red balloon). Actually, To’s virtuoso riffing serves the seemingly light material better than both the (however perfectly mounted) retread of Exiled or the hostage pyrotechnics of Breaking News (2004), enjoyable for its athletic execution, but really shooting past most of its possible new themes. (Most complained about is the dropping of the media angle, although that is a characteristically shrewd decision, given its general overexposure and its head-on treatment here.)

Still, To is usually interesting even when he’s just riffing because of the directorial intelligence, integrity, and economy of his choices, but the densely plotted, uncompromisingly dark Election diptych of dirges suggests he’s strongest when working with a carefully calibrated script, not to mention one whose real-world implications are razor-sharp: Some 70 minutes into the first part it all seems over, but the film rolls on superbly—the editing in To films is reliably fluent, but Patrick Tam’s hypnotic rhythms here are something else—towards a merciless conclusion that more than justifies the narrative extension: it actually enhances the political meaning, positing a Hellhole Hong Kong next to Sam Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. (1961). And the unsuitably happy whistling tune that threatened to be end credits music reappears finally in melancholy orchestration, much like the chants of the mind-boggling triad ritual midway are prefigured in the opening credits: the complex interweaving of motifs and details warrants repeated viewings. Election 2 is even tighter and more stripped down, though what it loses in richness of canvas it gains in intensity and aggressiveness: its vicious cycle of violence is more cruel and efficient (thus even crueller), and the constraint enhances the claustrophobic feel that whole world has become triad territory, not to mention its economic system. And then all torture is eclipsed by two dialogue scenes that are tantamount to a punch to the face of the Mainland government. In the first dialogue it turns out that corrupt Chinese officials are pulling the strings and see the triad as potentially beneficial, to help them exert economic and social control; the gang survivor realizes that he’s misjudged the present severely, and by fighting his way to the top in order to attain power and respectability, he has sentenced himself to a future life of crime. The second, even shorter scene, proves with dry finality that he has forfeited the future of his family as well.

(Thanks to Lisi.)

t than the reflection of the disgust he inspires. What? He couldn’t say. He takes the height of artifice for the truth and of course he’s not wrong—since we are at the theatre.

For the elephant man cultivates two dreams: to sleep on his back and to go to the theatre. He will realize them both the same evening, just before dying. The end of the film is very moving. At the theatre, when Merrick stands up in his box to allow those who applaud him to see him, we really no longer know what is in their gaze, we don’t know what they see. Lynch has then managed to redeem one by the other, dialectically, monster and society. Albeit only at the theatre and only for one night. There won’t be another performance.

(1) In English in the text.

This text first appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, n° 322, Paris, 1981, and is reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, Volume 1 « Le temps des Cahiers 1962-1981 », Editions P.O.L, Paris, 2001, pp. 266-269. It appears here with the permission of the publisher Editions P.O.L (www.pol-editeur.fr). Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

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