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The Rise of Johnnie To
Introduction 1/1 - Page 1
Author(s) : Marie Jost
Date : 28/2/2011
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
 Intext Links  
People :
Stephen Chow Sing Chi
Chow Yun Fat
King Hu
Johnnie To Kei Fung
Tsui Hark
Wong Kar Wai
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Page 2 : Milkway Image and the Fanboys
PDF version available here (2.8 Mo)

Some photos of Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai were kindly offered by Laurent Koffel from http://www.laurentkoffel.com, Frédéric Ambroisine, Yves Montmayeur, Bastian Meiresonne and David-Olivier Vidouze. All rights reserved.

The rise of Johnnie To Kei-fung in the West from virtual unknown to lauded, decorated and hotly debated “auteur” filmmaker could be described in the kind of clichés that are typically used to characterize Hong Kong action films: fast, furious, unpredictable and with some totally unforeseen twists thrown in that defy Western expectations. So how did Johnnie To go from an almost unknown director in Western circles in 2000 to one of the world’s most talked about international filmmakers today? It is a tale of fanboys and cult cinema, film festivals and bitter debates waged by critics, and ultimately the embrace of Johnnie To by international film festival programmers and the academic community.

Johnnie To behind his monitor on the set of Breaking News. Behind him, Nick Cheung and Hui Siu Hung.
Photo © Yves Montmayeur, used with permission.

Johnnie To was making films long before 2000, the first year there was any great public recognition of him in the West. Before 1996, his work was firmly situated within the realm of commercial Hong Kong filmmaking. He was a respected director and producer known for releasing commercial genre films that, more often than not, made money and were popular with the general movie-going public. He was especially well-known for his comedies featuring the biggest stars of the day such as Chow Yun Fatand Stephen Chow. In the two English-language “bibles” of Hong Kong film, Stephen Teo’s Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimension (1997) and David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong (2000), Johnnie To receives only the briefest of mentions. Teo gives him a capsule bio-filmography (1) in the back of his book and mentions To as a director of new-style “moral” comedies. The filmography ends at 1997’s Lifeline. Bordwell in Planet Hong Kong (2) discusses 1997’s Lifeline as an example of one of several films released that year that celebrated the “self-sacrificing heroism displayed by peace officers” as opposed to the films that glamorized the world of the triads. Bordwell (3) did seem to catch a glimmer of greater things in To when he mentioned Johnnie To as an innovative filmmaker within Hong Kong’s cadre system, and puts To in a list of filmmakers that includes King Hu, Tsui Hark and Wong Kar Wai. But if Johnnie To had continued on the trajectory that Teo and Bordwell described in the late 1990s to 2000, he would not have become the darling of the international film festival circuit routinely premiering major films in recent years at the “big three” international film festivals--Venice, Berlin and Cannes--and being invested as an Officer of the National Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication in May 2009 at the Cannes Film Festival. Several important elements had to shift for Johnnie To to go from commercial genre filmmaker, known almost exclusively in Hong Kong circles, to one who is now highly respected by many critics and academics, is the subject of numerous international film retrospectives, and whose films and DVDs now receive domestic releases in the US, Britain, and Europe. First and foremost To made some radical career moves, initially in 1996 and then again in 1999, setting the stage for his transformation first into a cult Hong Kong filmmaker and then into an internationally lauded auteur.


Clapperboard for Breaking News
Photo © Yves Montmayeur, used with permission.


(1) Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimension (London: BFI Publishing, 1999); David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000).
(2) Teo, Hong Kong, 281-282.
(3) Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong, 42.

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