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The Rise of Johnnie To
Critical darling 1/4 - Page 8
Author(s) : Marie Jost
Date : 28/2/2011
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
 Intext Links  
People :
Johnnie To Kei Fung
Movies :
Election 2
Fulltime Killer
Running On Karma
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Page 7 : The Apotheosis of Johnnie To
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Page 9 : Johnnie To best films?

Perhaps it is mere coincidence that Johnnie To, a filmmaker initially seen as specializing in “genre” pictures and active outside of both Hollywood and the European film industries, should gain such international exposure, eventually going on to receive the highest critical accolades, precisely when the internet appeared as a major force that fundamentally changed the face of film criticism. The fanboy community was the first in the West to embrace Johnnie To as a filmmaker. It was also among the first to embrace the internet and its possibilities for disseminating information and encouraging exchange of ideas (whether through civilized discussions or flame wars) about cinema and filmmakers that had been ignored, marginalized or castigated by traditional film critics. Eventually, established critics and print media began to adopt the internet in a variety of ways to more effectively disseminate their views on film. Print publications began to place some (or all) of their content on-line. Internet-only film criticism publications made their appearance after 2000, and some have garnered considerable critical accolades over the years. Whereas the first film bloggers came from outside the ranks of vetted critics writing for established print sources, as the decade has progressed some well-known and important critics have launched blogs, and even some in academia have embraced the new media in a serious way. The internet provides the most timely way to disseminate breaking news and opinion about film. A majority of the resources necessary to write this paper came from the internet, and many of them are exclusive to the internet. The one exception to this ever increasing migration of fact and opinion to the internet has been academia. The university community still insists on print publications as the most important and legitimate medium for sharing ideas with academic peers. Consequently, the academic community is one of the most conservative in terms of adopting internet technology for the dissemination of ideas and discussion about film. It is probable that Johnnie To would have still garnered attention in the West, even without the increasing impact of the internet on film criticism, but the internet quickly became the major avenue for promoting him as a significant new filmmaker on the international stage, an opinion that eventually was consecrated in traditional print media as well.

Breaking News, © Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., Media Asia Films, China Film Group


It can be argued that criticism in any art form is characterized by the following activities: describe, analyze, interpret and evaluate. Film historian David Bordwell (1) defines three main platforms for critical discussion in film criticism: the review, an academic article or book and the critical essay. A review is a brief characterization of the film aimed at a broad audience who hasn’t seen the film. It is defined as a type of journalism. An academic article (2) or book of criticism offers in-depth research into one or more films and presupposes that the reader has seen the film. The critical essay, which falls between the other two types of criticism, is longer than a review, but usually more opinionated and personal than an academic article. Any critic can write on all three platforms, the lines between these formats are not absolutely rigid. I, however, will discuss academic writing on Johnnie To in a separate section because it adheres to somewhat different criteria and exhibits different motivations than reviews and critical essays.

Until very recently, there was a major distinction drawn between reviews that appeared in print media--newspapers, magazines and journals--and reviews published on the Internet. There was a definite prejudice against any type of film criticism that appeared in an exclusively on-line format, and greatest disdain was reserved for bloggers, those who dared to review or otherwise write about films without having been subjected to the vetting process that anoints print journalists. Print publications could include everything from Cahiers du Cinéma and the New York Times to the local Daily Bugle. A lot has changed in the past decade. (3)

Today the New York Times and Cahiers du Cinéma are available in on-line editions, and some newspapers and journals make at least some of their content available for free to anyone on the Internet. There are also highly respected film journals such as Senses of Cinema that are strictly internet affairs. The same critics that write for print publications can now also be found writing for internet sites. Even the distinction between bloggers and “serious” critics is beginning to break down, with some academics and film critics beginning to embrace the blog format. Of course, there are still bloggers of the film enthusiast or niche cinema variety who are making their contributions, but even they are gaining some respect in more traditional critical circles, however grudgingly bestowed. The Korean print film weekly Cine21 wanted to write about the Johnnie To films being released in 2008, but no serious critics in Korea were familiar with his work. The magazine, rather than abandon its plan to write about To’s films, turned to the bloggers who were actively engaged with Cine21’s on-line forum. Very knowledgeable about Johnnie To’s films, they were given space in the print version of the magazine to write about To. (4)


Andrew Grossman, “Johnnie To: a current appraisal,”

Johnnie To films have been reviewed in the New York Times by Manohla Dargis (Election 2), in Variety by Derek Elley (Running on Karma) and in Time Magazine by Richard Corliss (Fulltime Killer) (5), Shelly Kraicer has reviewed and interpreted Johnnie To, both individual films and his oeuvre, on-line for chinesecinemas.org and Senses of Cinema (6). Critics as prestigious as Derek Elley and Tim Youngs have written capsule reviews for the Udine Film Festival. Charles Leary has written an analytical and interpretive essay on Johnnie To for Senses of Cinema, and Andrew Grossman has penned an expanded analysis of Johnnie To’s career for ACMI (7). It is thus abundantly clear that Johnnie To has attracted a lot of critical attention from important film critics in the past decade.

(1) Monroe K. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problem in the Philosophy of Art Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), 74-78, referenced in David Bordwell, “In critical condition”, Observations on film art, Wednesday, May 14, 2008
(2) http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=2315
(3) “Film Criticism in crisis? A New York Film Festival panel discussion hosted by Film Comment, September 27, 2008 at the Walter Reade Theater”, Film Comment, Nov/Dec 2008, http://www.filmlinc.com/fcm/nd08/fccrisis.htm.
(4) “Film Criticism in crisis.”
(5) Manhola Dargis, “…Leads to a game of wits in a sinister underworld,” The New York Times, April 24, 2007, http://movies.nytimes.com/2007/04/25/movies/25tria.html?pagewanted=print; Derek Elley, “Running on Karma”, Variety, December 16, 2003; Richard Corliss, “Fulltime filmmaker”, Time, September 3, 2001, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,172589,00.html
(6) Shelly Kraicer, “The Mission”, http:// http://www.chinesecinemas.org/mission.html; Shelly Kraicer, “Wu Yen”, http://www.chinesecinemas.org/wuyen.html; Shelly Kraicer, “Help!!!,” Senses of Cinema, February 2001, http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/12/help.html
(7) Derek Elley, “Running out of time,” ; Derek Elley, “The Mission”,
; Tim Youngs, “Love on a Diet,” ; Tim Youngs, “Running on Karma,” ; Charles Leary, “What goes around comes around: Infernal Affairs II & III and Running on Karma,” Senses of Cinema, January 2004, ; Andrew Grossman, “Johnnie To: a current appraisal,”

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