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Statistics :
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The Rise of Johnnie To
Addendum: The HK perspective 5/6 - Page 19
Author(s) : Marie Jost
Date : 28/2/2011
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
 Intext Links  
People :
Sammi Cheng Sau Man
Andy Lau Tak Wah
Richie Ren Yin Chi
Johnnie To Kei Fung
Wai Ka Fai
Simon Yam Tat Wah
Movies :
The Mission
Running On Karma
< Previous
Page 18 : Ross Chen, the film buff
Next >
Page 20 : Conclusion and Thanks

“ Wai Ka Fai is about the story,
while Johnnie To is always about visuals. ”

Can Tse is a female Hong Kong-based film buff who majored in Cinema and TV at the School of Communication of the Hong Kong Baptist University. Tse focused her studies on Johnnie To at a time his company, Milkyway Image, was getting some traction. In 1999, Tse had the chance to watch The Mission at the university before its public release and to participate in a talk with Johnnie To. She has followed To's career closely ever since. For two consecutive years, Tse worked in the Operation Team of the Hong Kong International Film Festival for the duration of the festival. Aside from Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, Tse is also fond of the cinemas of Jeff Lau; Wim Wenders, Ingmar Bergman, Ozu Yasujiro, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Theo Angelopoulos and Abbas Kiarostami.
Q&A conducted by Thomas Podvin (by email), 12/04/2011


A Hong Kong film buff

HKCinemagic: As a Hong Kong-based fan, what is your favourite Johnnie To's film and why?
Can Tse: Personally, I love Running on Karma most. It is a well-balanced film commercially, content-wise and aesthetically. But its success has to be attributed also to the scenario written by Wai Ka-fai. After all, To and Wai co-directorial works really have a distinctiveness if you compare them with the individual projects of Johnnie To. Among To's sole projects, I like The Mission the most, which can show To as an auteur director.
HKCinemagic: Do you enjoy the gangster films Johnnie To made ( Breaking News, Election, The Mission, PTU …) as much as the female-oriented comedies with Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau?
Can Tse: I love both. Obviously, the female-oriented comedies are made for mainstream audience. Of course the directors managed to keep their signature style with very good stories, but still those comedies are not that ambitious in achieving anything cinematically.
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 films seriously? Is he well respected in Hong Kong because he has gained success and awards overseas?
Can Tse: If you mean box office takings as an index to measure the popularity of a film, the popularity of To's films really varied a lot. Say The Mission, which is one of his first completed auteur projects, was critically acclaimed, but did very poorly at the box office. PTU and Exiled were not well received in the local box office too. Election was an exception; its official selection at Cannes really made some noise in HK. Also, the extreme violence depicted in the picture and the mysterious side, rituals of gangster (Election was rated Category III in HK - for only audience aged above 18 – due to the detailed description of gangster rituals) also drew public attention. For general audience, Johnnie To's gangsters films of course were well-known, with lots of awards, highly recommended by critics and enjoying overseas success, but not very well received usually. They were somehow marked as movie fans stuff rather than blockbusters. But To is still one of the most respected filmmakers in HK now, with lots of commercially successful films but also he is highly acclaimed by critics with his smaller-scale personal projects.
HKCinemagic: There are many Chinese cultural elements present in To films. I am thinking of fate and karma that seem to be always of interest for To, and his colleague Wai Ka Fai. For instance Running on Karma, which seems to follow Buddhist beliefs have puzzled many Western critics and moviegoers. Mad Detective also contains some very specific ideas non-Chinese viewers might not be familiar with. As a HK film fan, can you give us a few tips to appreciate or understand To films better?

Can Tse: One of the most important reasons I like Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai's films is that their films are really “Chinese.” So, you got the point, I do think Westerners may have difficulties in understanding their films thoroughly, especially for stories by Wai Ka Fai. I read an interview of To before, some critics asked him about the meaning of pistols or guns in his films, mentioning they signified the male genitals. You know what To said? He said, there is nothing to do with gender thing. He loves samurai films, and in the 21 st century, pistols and guns are just like swords of samurais in the old days. That's it! I have to say, Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai were not film graduate. They learned how to make films at the TVB, the local TV broadcaster, learning the most basic techniques to tell story by images, but they are no film scholar, and they won't play with difficult theories or things like that. Their films are straightforward. It is especially true in their comedies in which you can see plenty of local specific elements and oriental thinking. So to understand their films, don't over-interpret.

A note: for the fate and karma thing, it's absolutely Wai Ka Fai's style but not Johnnie To's. Of course Johnnie To does agree a lot with Wai's thinking, but you can see in To's sole projects that it is mentioned much less, and that he uses a bit more black humour and stylish cinematic techniques. Wai is always about the story, while To is always about visuals.


Wai Ka Fai and his mighty pen.

HKCinemagic: In HK, you are in contact with the advertisements 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 cast. And of course there are the gossip magazines. Do these elements influence you a lot to go and watch a Johnnie To film or when you discuss about his films with your friends?

Can Tse: In fact, Johnnie To is one of the local filmmakers who tried to stay away from the gossip thing. He seldom accepts interviews, unlike other directors. His cast, most of the time, are not big stars. OK, Richie Ren and Simon Yam are famous artists, but they are not this kind of artists that draw gossips. So Johnnie To's films are quite insulated from this type of media. What about his commercial films, you may say, such as the comedies with Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng? They do draw a lot of gossips, and of course, it's a kind of promotional strategy with the casting too. So you can see why Johnnie To never cast big big stars for his non-commercial works.

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Previous :
Page 18 : Ross Chen, the film buff
Next :
Page 20 : Conclusion and Thanks

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