Since the handover in 1997, no Hong Kong filmmaker has been as consistently successful and influential as Johnnie To. An increasingly prominent figure on the festival circuit, the fifty-three-year-old To has had trouble cracking the United States market. But the release this spring of his three most recent films, Election, Triad Election, and Exiled, may finally bring him the recognition he deserves.
A writer and producer as well as director, To says he was inspired as a youth by the films of Akira Kurosawa and Sam Peckinpah. He got his start as a messenger for a television station, gradually involving himself more and more in production until he became a director. ” I always aspired to a career in film,” he says through his translator and production supervisor Yuin Shan Ding. Sipping espresso in the corner booth of a plush lounge in a hotel off New York’s Central Park, he has the sleek, unhurried air of a successful businessman, but he is alert to his surroundings and thoughtful in his responses. He describes his career as “full of coincidences, but my focus remained constant.”
To entered film at the tail end of an amazing renaissance in the 1980s that brought Hong Kong stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li to international prominence. His early directing efforts were generally movies for hire, but by overseeing several successful franchise films, he quickly gained a reputation as a shrewd producer. While colleagues like John Woo and Ringo Lam sought work in Hollywood, To stayed behind, building up creative relationships with actors and writers. He also formed Milkyway Image, helping shape it into the most honored film company in Hong Kong today.
Over the years To has honed a distinctive visual style in which fluid camerawork is tied to an extremely precise sense of framing. His formal compositions and clear, uncluttered editing schemes evoke an earlier era of filmmaking. Known in this country for cult films about gangsters and killers, the director has tackled a wide variety of genres, including special-effects spectacles, slapstick comedies, and intimate romances.
The one constant in To’s films that may surprise Western viewers is their strong streak of Buddhism. “I particularly like two philosophies in Buddhism,” he explains. “One is that every human being must go through inevitable stages in life, from birth to death. That is your destiny. The other is that everything has a cause, that whatever you do today will affect your future. There is always a balance, a struggle, between destiny and your free will, and I think that is what I try to explore in my movies.”
To singles out My Left Eye Sees Ghosts as one of his favorite romances. A comedy steeped in melancholy, it focuses on a wife who is unable to cope with the unexpected death of her husband. “Humans feel most miserable about what they can’t let go, whether it’s emotions or material goods. In Chinese, we say that a human is an animal of feelings. For a filmmaker, these feelings–happiness because of what a person has, misery from what he loses–that is what makes movies.”
Buddhism permeates To’s recent two films about Hong Kong triads, Election and Triad Election, both written by long-time collaborators Yau Nai Hoi and Yip Tin Shing. They examine the shifting power struggles in the Wo Sing Society as its members try to adapt to changing times. To attributes the idea behind Triad Election to a cryptic comment by a security official on the China mainland: “Even gangsters can find a way to serve their country.”
Asked what draws him to the gangster genre, To cites one survey that estimated that almost ten percent of the population of Hong Kong had triad connections. “Under British rule, filmmakers could not examine the history of triads or the true impact they had on society. I wanted to try to show the traditions and rituals of the triads, and also examine what will happen to them now that China has assumed power. At the same time, it’s a very diverse world, with really strong personalities, very dynamic, very suited to movies.”
For these films, To augmented his regular performers like Simon Yam and Lam Suet with accomplished actors like Louis Koo as Jimmy, a second-generation gangster trying to go straight. Describing his directing methods, To says, “I don’t like actors to feel too much pressure before shooting, and I don’t like them to over-prepare. In my mind I know what I want them to do, and I talk to them a little about it before we start shooting.”
On the other hand, To maintains complete control over the actual shooting process, going so far as to design his own shots. “I really go by instinct, and I am very specific. I would never let the cinematographer set up a shot for me. With the editing, too, I have very definite ideas. To me the play of time and space, particularly with the action scenes, that is crucial.”
The director’s best films usually feature at least one passage of jaw-dropping virtuosity, such as the intricately choreographed, seven-minute shot of a street melee between a gang and the police that opens Breaking News. Exiled starts with an explosive, three-way gunfight in a dim, confined Macao apartment; Triad Election has a chase that incorporates a half-dozen different viewpoints. Yet To’s films have a clarity and precision that most movies lack.
Asked what makes the action in his films so distinctive, To leans forward to give a crash course in designing an action scene. “Setting and character are the two basics of action. First of all, everything you see here–the chairs, the tables, the candles, the stools at the bar–everything can move. Even the curtains can move, can become part of how the scene is constructed. But the more important element is the character. Who is he? What is he like? What will he do in this location? So you combine these two elements into your basic concept of how you want the scene to look.”
One sequence with a meat-grinder in Triad Election takes violence to a new and uncomfortable level. “We actually shot two-thirds more of that scene than is in the movie,” To reveals. “For the actors and for me as a filmmaker, it was part of the process, a way to understand the scene. What the audience sees is actually very little. What was important was not being graphic, but to emphasize the fear and anxiety in the gangsters’ world. That’s how gangsters operate, they impose fear. They use the word honor, but it’s really all about money and profit.”
The director spent years preparing the two Election films, then shot them back to back. He admits that the pressure was enormous, in part because he was no longer sure that the Asian market would accept serious films. In contrast, Exiled, which follows five down-on-their-luck gangsters caught in a dead-end trap, seemed almost like a vacation. “It was more of something to just enjoy myself with. I started with just the first scene, shot it, then thought, ‘What do I want to do next?’ It progressed like that, a real break from what I had been doing.”
To’s Asian distributors marketed the film as a sort of sequel to The Mission, To’s ice-cold depiction of betrayal among a crime kingpin’s bodyguards. Both Exiled and Triad Election scored well during last year’s awards season in Hong Kong, complementing the honors Election received the year before.
While To ponders several future projects, including an English-language remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, he has already completed Triangle, an omnibus film he co-directed with Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark. The remake rights to Exiled have been sold to Hollywood. To also produced his protégé Yau Nai Hoi’s debut directing project, Eye in the Sky, a thriller about a jewelry heist. Despite his increasingly impressive track record, To is matter-of-fact about his accomplishments. “I aspired to be a film director and then I became one,” he says with a quiet smile.