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The Rise of Johnnie To
Addendum: The HK perspective 4/6 - Page 18
Author(s) : Marie Jost
Date : 28/2/2011
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
 Intext Links  
People :
Johnnie To Kei Fung
Wai Ka Fai
Movies :
Don't Go Breaking My Heart
Election 2
The Mission
Needing You
Running On Karma
< Previous
Page 17 : Sebastian Yim, the postgraduate
Next >
Page 19 : Can Tse, the film enthusiast

“ More often than not, there's a method to the madness. ”

Ross Chen is the founder of LoveHKFilm.com, a website in English language in which he has reviewed hundreds of films since 2002. His texts signed under his nom de plume Kozo are considered insightful and highly entertaining by Hong Kong film buffs. Chen is also Managing Editor for online Asian Entertainment retailer YesAsia.com and writes for various Asian film festivals and events both local and foreign, including the Udine Far East Film Festival, the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and the Asian Film Awards.
Q&A conducted by Thomas Podvin (by email), 10/04/2011


A Hong Kong cinephile and critic

HKCinemagic: To is celebrated in the West for his gangster films, such as The Mission, PTU, Exiled or Election. How are these films received and estimated locally, compared to more commercial efforts such as Yesterday Once More, Wu Yen, Love on a Diet, Running on Karma, Needing You, etc.? Do local moviegoers or fans take Johnnie To's gangsters flicks seriously? Is he well respected in Hong Kong because he has gained success and awards overseas?
Ross Chen: From what I understand, regular audiences do enjoy and respect Johnnie To's crime films as examples of quality filmmaking. However, their popularity is nothing compared to the commercial efforts that you've mentioned, simply because those films belong to more popular genres and, more importantly, they feature very big stars.

As a filmmaker, Johnnie To gets a large measure of respect, in that his films are covered by the media seriously – or, at least, not in the same fast food, gossip-oriented way that other films are. His respect has come from many things: his previous TVB career, plus also the acclaim he's received. His international popularity of course factors in, as it creates news, but his success has been quite great in Asia too, especially with the Golden Horse Awards and the Hong Kong Film Awards. His local and overseas acclaim have sort of fed each other.

Too Many Ways To Be No1, © Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., Golden Harvest Ltd.
HKCinemagic: Western critics will tend to analyze and criticize To from their own perspective, sometimes forgetting about Chinese cultural elements present in To films. As a HK film enthusiast and critic, can you give us a few quick tips to appreciate his films better?
Ross Chen: Johnnie To does have many Chinese cultural elements in his work, but I think it's not such a big deal when he doesn't work with Wai Ka-Fai. Appreciating Johnnie To's films for their culture is actually easier than one would think, as other than a few examples his themes are more universal. Brotherhood, honor, etc., this stuff is not unique to Chinese culture. Some things do require some specific knowledge, e.g. the depiction of triad societies in Election or even Exiled, but those things are easily understood. It's very much one-way – you see it, you read about it, then you understand it.

However, when To works with Wai Ka-Fai, the need for understanding culture gets far greater. Both enjoy irony, but To seems to handle that visually and without the same amount of layers that Wai Ka-Fai does. Wai Ka-Fai attempts so many levels with character, theme and story that it's no surprise that he's more hit-and-miss than Johnnie To is. When combined, the two are amazing, as To realizes Wai's ideas visually. That's when their work is most powerful – when the images and ideas meet wordlessly. I think Milkyway's work is vastly superior when the two work together than when they work separately. And even then, I'd argue that Wai's solo career apex (Too Many Ways To Be No1) outshines any of To's solo work, with the possible exception of the Election movies.

As for tips, the biggest one is to look out for Wai Ka-Fai. If he's listed on To's work, then one should look a little harder than if it's just Johnnie To. Buddhism, karma, etc., they are present in a lot of their joint work – even the romantic comedies. And local culture matters too. I personally think Needing You is a great, great movie, and a lot of it has to do with how To and Wai capture local culture so well. Office politics, family, doing business – this stuff is portrayed so well in that film that it gives the film a depth, color and truth that you simply won't find in, say, Don't Go Breaking My Heart.

In the end, the biggest tip I have is research, research, research. A viewer can learn a lot from watching Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai's films. If one of their films doesn't make sense, a person should do some research or some reading before immediately dismissing it. More often than not, there's a method to the madness.


Wai Ka-Fai and Johnnie To at the Udine Far East Film Festival in 2008. Photo © Frédéric Ambroisine. Used with permission.

HKCinemagic: When a new Johnnie To film is released in Hong Kong, do HK critics analyze his new output on its own or do they place it in the context of To's body of work, as Western critics would do? In the West To's films are not necessarily released in chronological order and sometimes they arrive several years after they were released in HK. Western critics have very little context to write on the films. On the contrary, in HK there is the advertisement for the film release, the buzz around it and To's radio, TV and magazine interviews to support the film marketing as well as the promotional activities attended by the stars of the film. And of course the gossip magazines. Do these elements influence you a lot when you write a critic?
Ross Chen: Critical analysis works the same way in both the West and the East. You have the critics who place Johnnie To's films in context and then there are those who handle everything as a one-off. Even then, contextualizing To's work has many pitfalls. Critics both east and west like to group his crime films while ignoring the comedies or romances. It's very sad, actually, as a lot of To can be seen in those films. It's not like he's making garbage when he's not making a crime film, but too frequently, critics will act like those films are beneath mention or notice.

For myself, I factor in whatever information I have when writing a review of a Johnnie To film – or any other filmmaker for that matter. Previous work of course matters, as does information about the stars, their casting, the subject matter, or even the industry forces behind the film's production. All of this stuff makes a difference, as it helps play a part in whatever the intentions the filmmakers had when making their film. It also plays a part in audience expectations.

For western film critics, their context for To is largely related to genre and Internet reputation. Also, nowadays western film critics have the benefit of English language news sites for Asian films. The context may be slanted too much towards crime films, but in the end, there are many ways to review a film and no way is the real “correct” way. What's wrong is to not be honest or fair, like dismissing a film simply based on its genre. Or, you shouldn't claim authority when you really don't have any. Like saying that a film is “The best film Johnnie To has ever made” when you've only seen five or six of his films. But both western and eastern film critics make those mistakes.

HKCinemagic: As a Hong Kong-based film enthusiast, what is your favourite Johnnie To's film and why?

Ross Chen: It's hard to choose one favorite Johnnie To film, as it ignores a film's individual merit and skews it towards my personal likes and dislikes. I'll try though. If I had to choose To's best solo film, I'd say it's either Election 2 or The Mission. The former is more mature and deals with local politics and culture, while the latter is a complete, enjoyable film that doesn't require lots of extra knowledge or thinking to get. Both are very well realized, though.

For a Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai collaboration, I'd probably go with Needing You or Running On Karma. The former is much more enjoyable and develops its standard romcom characters in unique cinematic ways. For me, the latter is great because it delivers a very prosaic cinema message – forgiveness, being the better man, etc. – and does so in a very compelling way.

Generally, I think films don't have much new to say anymore, and that it's all about HOW the filmmakers say those things that make the films special. Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai really know how to repackage common cinema tropes to make them feel new and interesting.

HKCinemagic: When you go to the cinema to watch a Johnnie To film, do you have a lot of expectations? Are they usually fulfilled?

Ross Chen: Of course there are expectations when seeing a Johnnie To film! If I respect or admire someone, then I expect a great deal from them. That said, the expectations are not always fulfilled, but there are many factors that contribute to that. I think Johnnie To tries – perhaps not always successfully, but it's clear that he's trying SOMETHING when he makes his films. As such, I'm always willing to give his films a chance.


Ross Chen's LoveHKFilm.com, http://lovehkfilm.com/

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