Hong Kong Ethics: A Johnnie To Primer

Johnnie To is a prolific Hong Kong-based film director and auteur who has been active since the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Initially working in both television and film, he firmly decided to work in the regional movie business in the mid-1980’s. Beginning his film career as something of a journeyman director, To would go on to found his own production company, Milkyway Image, with frequent screenwriting collaborator, Wai Ka-Fai, in 1996. Were prior to 1996 and the founding of Milkyway, To had primarily been involved in directing one, perhaps two, movies per year; from 1997 to the present day this output became a constant and even increased, with To directing sometimes up to three or four movies per year (e.g. 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2004). His prolific output has seen him at the helm of over 50 movies, with more than 30 of these coming post-1997 and the founding of Milkway.

On the basis of career length (nearly 40 years) and exceptional output (in excess of 50 movies) one might expect To’s films themselves to be incredibly diverse in nature. If one were to think this, one would be quite correct. To’s films span across, broadly speaking, four categories: 1) those having to do with triads and police, 2) rom-coms, 3) what I will call “the blends”, and 4) his “unclassifiables”.

Undoubtedly the films in the first category are what To is most famous for. The unique ethic and milieu of Hong Kong and its criminals and law enforcement—along with To’s upbringing in Hong Kong itself—afforded him a unique framework for a dissection and examination of life there. The film’s in this category span in nature from stark examination of (e.g. PTU, the Election series, and Drug War) or artistic homage (e.g. The Mission, Exiled, and Vengeance) to the police and triads and their connections, to satire (e.g. Breaking News), and even to out-and-out comedy (e.g. the Running Out of Time series). While most famous for his more straight ahead films that look at the police and triads—due, not least, to the ingenuity of his craft in sculpting and shaping characters and action set pieces—his more comedic and satirical looks at these particular entities do not lack for comment on Hong Kong, and even arguably capture more of his outlook on the world.

The second category, and one that To is not nearly as well known for in the West, is the romantic comedy. While some say it is these films that To used to bankroll Milkyway and as collateral for making the films of the first category, this is a reductionistic view as they see To often at his most narratively adventurous. In fact, a number of To’s collaborations with screenwriter and sometimes co-director, Wai Ka-Fai, come in this category, and it is these films in particular that often have viewers witness To establishing his worldview in a way his police and triad movies don’t quite allow for. From experimentation (e.g. My Left Eye Sees Ghosts and Love on a Diet) to muted satire (e.g. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2) to genre exemplification (e.g. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Needing You…) to poststructuralist fever dream (Turn Right Turn Left) to pure distillation of ideas (e.g. Romancing in Thin Air), To’s work in the second category is just as much the equal of nearly anything in the first.

The final two categories I want to mention, “the blends” and “unclassifiables”, mark first those films that—not least due to collaboration with Wai Ka-Fai—blur and blend and riff on ideas from films in previous entries and genres, and realise them in new forms in another genre or cross-genre film; and second those films that nearly transcend simple classification in To’s canon. In the case of “the blends”, films such as Mad Detective and Blind Detective form a kind of nexus in bringing To’s police genre into dialogue with formal experimentalism (MD) or slapstick comedy (BD), while also reapplying ideas that we might have seen before in films such as My Left Eye Sees Ghosts. While for the “unclassifiables”—which name films such as Sparrow, Throw Down, and Running on Karma—are each singular in To’s canon, because while they may reuse to some degree the affective register and technical signatures of earlier films, each in their finished state mark an exploration of unique content (pickpocketing, martial arts, Buddhism and the moral gravitas each can contain) and provide unreplicated improvisations in form and influences.

With this basic sketch of To’s output in mind, I’d like to offer a rundown of my top 10 favourite films from the Johnnie To catalogue, as they currently stand on my ever-changing ‘Johnnie To Ranked’ list on Letterboxd. As I go I’ll try and offer a basic introduction or summation of what makes said films interesting, along with an outline of their place in and relationship to his wider work and the categories outlined above. Johnnie To contains multitudes, with all of his films offering a new look or riff on his themes and ideas; enter this dense and delightful world at your own risk.

Admittedly, however, limitations abound, in that what follows must come with the caveat that I have only seen approximately half of To’s films—primarily because of reasons such as lack of availability or subtitles—and as such my own viewing experience is quite incomplete. Yet, I offer this with the hope that having seen 25 films by any one director is worth something.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time watching the To films that I have—it is utterly remarkable that the 25 that I have watched are of such consistently high quality—and I am excited to discuss below why I love each of the movies I will name.

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  1. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (2014)

DONT_GO_BREAKING_MY_HEART_2_Trailer

A film that will undoubtedly require the viewer to have watched the genre typifying first film in the series, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 sees To turn his focus toward the quirks of character and story (e.g. love triangles) that make the rom-com tick and take them to their terminal points. Ending on the most devastating final shot in all cinema from the year 2014, DGBMH2 has To reshape the rom-com into a tragedy. We see the nihilism contained in the ascetic pursuit of the Manic Pixie, of being stuck in a state of pining, and the destruction this realises in the self and others. Romance becomes melancholy because the rules of the genre, if allowed to continue beyond the happy ending, entail constant play that ignores, a refusal to settle, to make ever greater gestures that ensure an entropic spiral into decay—romance dooms itself. This is what To sees in the rom-com: a failed promise, a heart broken.

  1. Drug War (2011)

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To’s cinema is complex. Were Hollywood action cinema relies, more often than not, on exposition, on insert shots of significant information to tell us what is important, To refuses this convention entirely. In fact, he shows us very little, important details or behaviours, which you may only see once, are played as nothing more than scenery—until they’re not, until we see in course of the film that they’re something more. This Toian tendency, the “rule of one”, is emblematic of the best of Drug War—it entirely refuses to pander.

Taking us through some of his most confusing, intriguing, and violent scenes and sequences, To teaches us to pay close attention—if a detail is missed, more fool you. This taut, tense journey through the Chinese drug world is fittingly unglamorous, and a subtextually telling examination of what it means to live in and be Chinese in the 21st century: an existence lived between poisons, between the facelessness-in-death of the capitalist precariat and the state agent. The drug dealer Everyone loses.

  1. Running on Karma (2003)

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An “unclassifiable”. One might think that Andy Lau acting a Buddhist monk in a muscle suit would be played for straight laughs—it’s not. Running on Karma is a readily dramatic, properly sympathetic, and wholly singular reflection on the effects and complications of Buddhist spirituality and morality in and for life. Equal parts funny, gruesome, and profound, Lau plays a character able to see the karma of others, and with that we journey through all the ugliness that forces him to reckon with, in himself and others. Written and co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai, Wai’s interests in forming a or wrestling with a Buddhist theodicy typify the film; and yet it is exactly Wai’s narrative outlandishness that allows To to be doing work among his most adventurous in its humour, drama, and violence here. A tale in search of a moral that is graceful yet healing in its brutality.

  1. Election 2 (2006)

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Another second entry in a series that will obviously require the viewer to have seen the first entry, Election 2 expands the scope and interests of its predecessor. Focused, as both are, on the life and traditions of the triads of Hong Kong, each give us beautiful looks at the ritualistic and sublime historical aspects of this community, before showing how the values of capitalist life and economy work to undo the commune. Indeed, while Election is concerned with the corruption of power, Election 2 is a harrowing look at the entrapment wrought by a system of corrupt power and how the wrestle for very parochial power is overshadowed by power and corruption greater on a yet greater scale—the universal corruption of capitalism seeking profit. A deft and weighty look at the evisceration of social and historical meaning, Election 2 sees To sharpen his political and economic criticism of Chinese and Hong Kong relations and life.

  1. Blind Detective (2013)

Blind-Detective-25

To’s top romantic comedy stars, Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, join together after the longest time in 2013’s “blend” film, Blind Detective. A story in which Lau stars as the titular former detective, now paid for hire solving cold cases, and Cheng as a cop looking to solve a haunting personal mystery, the film kicks off and proceeds with intense, exposition refusing momentum, as it efficiently maps for us the emotional geography of the characters’ lives; forcing us to encounter their quirks and qualities, without understanding—until we do.

Blind Detective is ostensibly a police procedural that features a host of digressions into romantic longing, seemingly irrelevant cases—and lots of eating. While this might sound unappealing, its firm character focus builds a tapestry that when the plot’s long game begins to emerge the danger becomes real and truly alarming. The violence and romance of this slapstick is a curious and concerning mix that makes Blind Detective highly worthwhile and its conclusion all the sweeter.

  1. Exiled (2006)

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One of, and probably the best of, To’s gangster-homage movies (cf. The Mission and Vengeance), Exiled is an artful and stylistic triad-as-Western look at the near-dialectical effort to maintain an ethic that prioritises trust and honor in a business and socio-economic world that flirts with an uncompromising nihilism. Melancholic, yet warm and charming to the last, Exiled follows the emerging friendship between two groups of hitmen, as one seeks to protect and the other kill a target. To’s character work here is at its height, as he has these men labour over the smallest of tasks and the most important of ethical decisions, before presenting them with the most heightened of action set pieces in which to fight for them. Singular and refreshing, Exiled is a delight—and features a shootout that uses a soft drink can in a way you’ve never before seen.

  1. Breaking News (2004)

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The most clearly satirical of any of To’s output, Breaking News tells the tale of the Hong Kong police getting drawn into a tit-for-tat manipulation of the media for public support which they have instigated, against a band of criminals who the media had previously reported defeating the cops. While certainly a comment on life in a 24 hour news-cycle world, Breaking News is more interestingly a story told from below, focusing on the failed ambitions and misfortunes of its criminals, on their being crowded out of modern life and being overwhelmed by state power—if they can’t get a share of the wealth, they’ll damn well tell their story.

To’s auteuristic and masterful touch is at its most obvious from the offing, as Breaking News opens with a seven-minute long take that offers a cartographic sketch of every pore of a street, before having it explode into action. Indeed, To’s intimate awareness of Hong Kong’s claustrophobic living conditions is used to full effect throughout the events that take place inside an apartment block, in turn raising the tension of Breaking News’ action set pieces, and heightening our proximity to something genuine in the behaviour of the criminals—in contrast to shallow manipulations of the police. In short, this is taut, tense, and nuanced action cinema.

  1. Sparrow (2008)

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A musical without the music, a dance without the dance—To’s Sparrow is totally unclassifiable. You can see the influences and the references, but their coming together is like little else. Sparrow follows a group of Hong Kong pickpockets drawn into an effort to use to help a young Chinese woman escape the clutches of an exacting old man. Graceful and humourous, every image speaks, the drama is established with such skill that we know, as the stakes emerge, what is there to be won or lost, what is at risk in a scene. None of this is clearer than in the film’s greatest scene with the umbrellas in the rain, where the artistic flair is matched only by To’s capacity to map the geography of the pickpockets’ battle. Fantastic and fun to the last, Sparrow is necessary viewing.

  1. Romancing in Thin Air (2012)

A scene from Johnnie To's ROMANCING IN THIN AIR starring Louis Koo, playing at Hong Kong Cinema, September 21-23 at New People Cinema.

Released in the time between the two Don’t Go Breaking My Heart films, Romancing in Thin Air is both an interesting intertextual, yet curiously straightforward, romance that charts a measured, healthy, and deeply touching response to loss—not of a manic pixie, but of a lover. In we see the pain of woman wrestling with the reality that a lover cannot be replaced, but someone singularly different and wholly themself (even in apparent similarity) can be found. In many ways the “what is to be done” that the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’s demonstrate the refusal of, Romancing in Thin Air presents the confrontation of loss and pain as an act that can bear in it something generative.

Romancing in Thin Air, in this way, feels like a distillation of much of To’s previous work, but here sans Wai Ka-Fai. As I say, it plays with the ideas of the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’s, but also My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, but fully situates them in a less surreal, perhaps even more tangible, emotional world. It has its odd, “Hong Kongian” insistence on coincidence, but even that isn’t as outlandish as, for example, Turn Left Turn Right—its conceit only serves to compound the emotional drama. Delicate and masterful, this is the Nietzsche’s “What does not kill [you] makes [you] stronger” committed to film. Also, Sammi Cheng for life!

  1. Throw Down (2004)

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If Romancing in Thin Air is Nietzsche’s “what does not kill you…” quote made film, then Throw Down is Nietzsche’s amor fati made the same. A movie that follows a judo champion who has let his career go, an aspiring combatant, and a singer with ambitions to greatness, Throw Down is about overcoming, acceptance, and ultimately joy—with a shitton of judo flips included for good measure. To’s weirdness is at full here, serving to make each of the characters all the more compelling and confused and human.

I mentioned in regards Drug War, To’s “rule of one”—a filmmaking style that refuses to bog us down in exposition or callbacks. His films proceed, you see information once, it’s there but attention is given to it only as much as the characters’ are aware that it is pertinent—if you’re slow, too bad. Throw Down is the same, there’s a possibly major twist in store if one is not able to stay attentive to the film’s visual language—I wasn’t. The characters’ here keep secrets, openly, the world doesn’t explain itself, you see it, and you know when the truth is told. All of this enables Throw Down’s success and spectacular achievement: the viewer encounters the transformation that sees a character love their fate at the most surprising moment and is transformed with it.

Against the line that says To’s action work is paramount, Throw Down—like his other “unclassifiables”, comedic, and rom-com work—is perhaps the definitive statement as to To’s worldview: joy, joy that accepts and overcomes—a masterpiece.

Matthew McCracken
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Matthew McCracken

Lives and works in China where he teaches English, watches movies, and fails to finish the books he starts to read. ☭
Matthew McCracken
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