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Statistics :
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The Rise of Johnnie To
From fanboy favorite to internationally acclaimed filmmaker 3/6 - Page 4
Author(s) : Marie Jost
Date : 28/2/2011
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
 Intext Links  
People :
Fruit Chan Gor
Ekin Cheng Yee Kin
Sammi Cheng Sau Man
Andy Lau Tak Wah
Johnnie To Kei Fung
Movies :
Fat Choi Spirit
In The Mood For Love
Love On A Diet
The Mission
Needing You
Running Out Of Time 2
Companies :
Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd.
< Previous
Page 3 : First Years on the Festival Circuit
Next >
Page 5 : A Fresh Look at Johnnie To: the early retrospectives

Johnnie To was invited to join the newly created Hong Kong film production company 100 Year of Film launched in 1999. To was entrusted with executive and creative responsibilities. The focus at the new company was squarely on commercial filmmaking and profits. Although Milkyway Imageproductions had garnered a certain cult following in Hong Kong, being nominated for numerous awards and gaining the respect of critics, the films were resounding box-office failures. The situation was so dire by the time The Mission was filmed in 1999 that the budget was so tight every bullet had to be counted and accounted for (this in a film with numerous shoot-outs), and there was so little film stock that there was little room for error as retakes were out of the question. To was no stranger to commercial filmmaking, having been a successful commercial filmmaker in the past, and his expertise was called upon at 100 Years of Film to get the company launched on a strong commercial footing. A two-track system of production was envisioned from the start: popular movies that would feature big stars and make good profits, which in turn would provide the capital for more personal, even art-house films. To was very candid in a 2000 interview with Thomas Shin: “Our target for this year [2000] is good box office. With this purpose in mind, we have to follow the wishes of the audience or even pick something that has proved to work in the market...many people are dissatisfied with us or have misunderstood us. Maybe it will take some time for them to understand what we are doing.” (1)

Running out of Time, (c) Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., Win's Entertainment Ltd


Not only were filmgoers in Hong Kong potentially confused by the abrupt about-face at Milkyway Image, it is easy to imagine that programmers and filmgoers at the Western festivals were less than enthusiastic about the latest offerings coming from Milkyway after having their appetites whetted by Milkyway’s dark, nihilistic, highly stylized takes on the Hong Kong heroic bloodshed tradition. Between 2000 and 2002, Milkyway Image released eight films. Six of them were comedies features attractive and popular stars, including a wacky, cross-dressing Cantonese New Year’s Comedy (a genre very popular with Hong Kong audiences, but little known in the West). That left Running Out of Time 2, starring Ekin Cheng (replacing the charismatic Andy Lau in the lead antagonist role), a rather weak sequel to the critically acclaimed and popular Running Out of Time, and Fulltime Killer, a pan-Asian crime thriller that showcased Andy Lau but was not an entirely satisfying film, to appeal to the nascent fans of To’s earlier Milkyway Image films in the West. Milkyway Image and 100 Years of Film adopted a local strategy to launch the new venture on a sound financial footing and establish a reputation among Hong Kong audiences for quality popular entertainment featuring some of the top stars in Hong Kong. Two Cantopop singing big names, megastar Andy Lau and the charming Sammi Cheng, starred, between them in six of the eight new releases. They were paired in two of the highest grossing Hong Kong films to that time, Needing You and Love on a Diet, both of which broke box-office records in Hong Kong and established Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng as the reigning king and queen of the Hong Kong box office. Clearly during this time Milkyway Image was not concerned with its image abroad, even though it must have been gratifying to have so many of their films selected for screening at Western film festivals during those years: Help!!!, Berlin 2001, Udine 2001; Fulltime Killer, Toronto 2001, Berlin 2002, Udine 2002; Love on a Diet, Udine 2002; Fat Choi Spirit, Udine 2002.

Even with screenings of A Hero Never Dies, The Mission, and Fulltime Killer at international film festivals, Johnnie To’s films were mostly absent from the radar of serious critics because they were “genre” pictures. Those subscribing to the auteur theory of filmmaking were focusing on two other Hong Kong directors in these years: Wong Kar-Wai and Fruit Chan. In 2000 and 2001, the international festival stage was whole-heartedly embracing In the Mood For Love as the revelation of Hong Kong filmmaking, alongside the works of Fruit Chan. In list after film critic list of the best international films of 2000 and 2001, In the Mood For Love dominated. Clearly, Johnnie To pictures were not making that much of an impression on critics who were not already aficionados of Hong Kong genre movies.


(1) Thomas Shin, “The driving force behind Milkyway Image: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai,” Hong Kong Panorama 2000-01: The 25th Hong Kong International Film Festival (Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 2001), 49.

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Previous :
Page 3 : First Years on the Festival Circuit
Next :
Page 5 : A Fresh Look at Johnnie To: the early retrospectives

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