Johnnie To: The Godfather of Hong Kong Gangster Cinema

While visiting Edinburgh International Film Festival, Hong Kong action master Johnnie To discusses the aesthetics of violence and the changing nature of the Hong Kong film industry

Feature by Alan Bett | 17 Jul 2015

For those wise to the Hong Kong gangster oeuvre of filmmaker Johnnie To, the scene will feel familiar. At a table in an upmarket hotel bar sits a man of obvious respect, immaculately dressed in a well-fitted suit more showbiz silver than grey, finger sporting a jewelled ring; a beautiful woman is by his side. A table of minders sit nearby, alert, expectant. He raises a glass to make a toast. Respect is given; a deal concluded. All that dilutes this scene is my hand clasping that second glass. The man is Johnnie To himself, here for interview, the woman his translator.

A potted history for the uninitiated: To has been a producer and director of films since 1978, successfully spanning genres from romance to action and wuxia kung-fu, but he's most celebrated in the West as the godfather of modern Hong Kong gangster cinema. He is Asia’s Scorsese, Coppola and Michael Mann rolled into one, but with an aesthetic of violence very much his own.

So, we sit as our own little triad, drinking wine and bouncing questions and answers between each other in morphing language. His responses are long-form: mini lectures delivered in Cantonese then filtered through translation. Often they stray far beyond the question asked, predicting and covering the next three in line, and it strikes me that perhaps I’m a little obvious. But world order must be maintained. If you’re in Raffles, you would order a Singapore Sling. If you're interviewing Johnnie To, you discuss the aesthetics of violence.

While reminiscent of various past masters – from the blood-splattered heroism of 80s John Woo to the chic criminality of Jean-Pierre Melville – To’s signature is embedded in his work as through a stick of rock, more visceral than Woo, more physically complex than Melville, and with a playful dark humour always evident. His explanations of the origins and development of this technique, however, must be pulled like teeth.

“It’s really difficult for me to say exactly where it comes from,” he remarks. “Back in the days when I made The Mission (1999) it was one of the worst times to be making Hong Kong film because there were no investors, nobody wanted to give money to us. In fact The Mission was shot in 19 days and the entire film made in a month. I basically ran out of time, ran out of budget, ran out of everything. So, I’m not really sure why I thought of the whole choreography of the action scenes. Maybe it came from an inspiration of the moment, maybe I’m influenced by past films in my memory that I don’t realise, but it was a very free moment and there was no plan, it just happened.”

It’s a frustrating response, difficult to accept for all those who have seen the intricate arrangement of his more personal and creative works: Exiled (2006), Vengeance (2009) and the aforementioned The Mission – even his big budget mainstream action flicks Fulltime Killer (2001) and Breaking News (2004). If ever there was a filmmaker whose set pieces appear precision planned it’s To, their dance of death displaying footwork so finely tuned no toes are trod upon.

A stylised shootout from Exiled (2005)

He expands a little, and for PTU (or Police Tactical Unit) admits to absorbing inspiration from beyond the scope of cinema. “PTU was influenced by Chinese paintings. A lot of Chinese landscape paintings are very misty and there’s a lot of smoke, but there’s also empty space where you use your imagination to fill in what’s happening. You don’t know what else is in the painting.” It’s a technique more associated with theatre sets than the natural eye of cinema. The Macau-set Exiled takes the influence a step further. In one single scene, framed like a Chinese scroll painting, the camera descends in a vertical line down a dilapidated building, following gunplay exploding from windows and stairwells. It’s a restrained movement of the lens in comparison to Breaking News’s opening shot, which glides in and out of an astonishing seven uncut minutes of action.

These stylised shootouts reveal the true To, but are interspersed with more commercial endeavours. The filming of PTU stretched agonisingly over years, fit into the gaps between his contracted work for production company China Star. “PTU in fact is a very personal film for me,” To confirms. “It’s what I would say is a selfish project in that I thought only of what I wanted to do and I wanted to make. I didn’t have any thoughts about box office, commercial success or if it would please other people. It was just made to please me.” It’s a wonderful piece of cinema, so I thank him for his selfishness. There is a gap as words are translated. A short moment later he laughs. “In fact, while I was making PTU, I made four other films and that’s simply because working in the film industry we do need to make a living, we need to make money, we need to survive and so we have to make these films. But other titles like The Mission and PTU are, as a director, how I would truly express myself.”

To is visiting the the UK as guest of BAFTA, with Edinburgh International Film Festival using this prime opportunity to programme Exiled, followed by an In Person event. Preceding all this though he is welcomed with a Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office champagne reception in The Sheraton; a ‘Little Hong Kong’ on Lothian Road. I lurk on the periphery, underdressed and conspicuous alongside sleek business types. Previous research on how best to address the man (To Sir, I am told, as a sign of respect) evaporates as palpable excitement negates the need for formality, even for pause – “JohnnieTo” reverberates through the room in single syllable as his presence is confirmed. “JohnnieTo is here!” He's late, yet finds time to smoke a cigar outside the hotel.

This is relevant perhaps: his films are filled with cigarettes and alcohol. Brandy and whisky bottles are swigged, smoke exhaled as seductively as in Hollywood’s golden age, even from the mouths of bloodied and dying men. In particular, Anthony Wong Chau Sang – in true Hong Kong heroic bloodshed sub-genre style – seems unwilling to shuffle off this mortal coil without adjusting his shades (Exiled) or lighting one final smoke (Vengeance).

The astonishing opening seven minutes of Breaking News (2004)

Wong is part of a tight troupe of actors used consistently throughout To Sir’s crime catalogue. He’s most often joined by varying assortments of Nick Cheung, Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, Francis Ng and the great Simon Yam – a collection of Hong Kong’s finest screen performers. This ensemble technique ensures the audience are wrapped in the shared narrative rather than blinded by the light of a single leading A-list star.

Team building is a long haul tactic and presumably takes effort, but it's an assumption To quickly dismisses. “I’m actually very lazy,” he claims, again deflecting praise with self deprecation – or perhaps simply concealing the secrets of his artistry. “I’m quite lazy to communicate with new people and reach out to new actors… when I choose an actor it’s normally because of two reasons: one, they have a lot of heart as an actor, and two, they listen to my instructions and are able to imagine what I have in my mind. If I had to re-establish this sort of relationship every time I met a new actor it would take a lot of time to make this relationship grow, which is the reason why I like to go back to people I’ve worked with before and can trust. Also, the other point is that I just think they are very good actors.”

This trust has translated into regular work for this pool of performers and To’s crime films often feel like a bit of a boys club (although he provides strong female roles elsewhere – see Kelly Lin in Fulltime Killer or the 2008 feature Sparrow). I imagine rowdy masculine film sets housing egos in need of pruning. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there’s a lot of discipline or that I have to instruct them that much on set,” he reveals. “However, all the actors I work with, they do respect me a lot and they let me do what I want. They listen to me and whether I want to push them a certain way or not they would do as I say.”

The actors also look as if they're having fun. Lam Suet hilariously enduring his buttock-embedded bullet removal in Vengeance must have lit up the crew as much as the screen. The camaraderie on Exiled looks like it could easily have seeped beyond the frame – that melancholy masterpiece of an Asian Wild Bunch out of time and place, courting death with more vigour than victory. (During the Edinburgh screening the elderly man sat next to me hauled himself out early, finding it unnecessary to view the now famous final act. “I’ve a feeling it’s no gonnae end well son,” he advised, with vision and accuracy).  While admitting to friendships away from the set, To explains that personal relationships are put on ice while the cameras roll; the director’s singular vision takes precedence. “Work-wise you could say that I’m quite a hard person in that if I want something to happen in a certain way, I say 'this is how it should happen' and there’s no discussion. You can’t talk about it. This is how I imagine it, this is how I want it to be.”

A thug waiting room in The Mission (1999)

This reverence is easy to visualise – literally in fact. On entering The Sheraton he is surrounded, toasted and cheered. A bouquet of flowers is placed into his arms. The dames line up for photographs as cameras flash like Kalashnikovs. Yet tempering this excitement is a definite respect, as if he’s some character escaped from the frames of his film. Hong Kong’s film industry is a labour market over which the Triads have historically held a firm grip.

In 1990, leading lady Carina Lau was abducted while filming the Wong Kar-wai classic Days of Being Wild. Inappropriate pictures were forcibly taken of her as punishment for her refusal to act in a Triad-backed flick. Others have faced threats of violence in return for snubbing roles in similarly sub-par features. Some made it to screen; hagiographies of varying quality, like To Be Number One (1991), the Andy Lau vehicle Prince of Temple Street (1992) and Casino, the self-financed and -produced biopic of Macau godfather Broken Tooth Koi. In 1996, while filming an episode on ITV’s Cracker on location in Hong Kong, the production manager was kidnapped and held for ransom. Cash was demanded for his return in one unbroken piece.

These high-profile incidents aside, Hong Kong remains one of the world’s safest and most pleasant regions, far removed from its often ferocious onscreen representation. It’s wrapped up in the history of the Triads, To claims in answer to this reality gap. These ancient brotherhoods flourished in Hong Kong post-WWII as flocks of migrants banded together for safety and strength. “They would talk about honour and be in situations defending their gangster boss,” he says, “so it would come that they would have very heroic attributes and would start talking and acting as if they were heroes.”

Legends grew from here and the film industry set them in celluloid. “In the early days of Hong Kong cinema, a lot of stories were about heroes and heroic attributes and a lot of cinema therefore became about the gangsters and the triads, the brotherhood.” This gangster life provided a canvas over which to paint exaggerated depictions of everyday issues. “Of course, all of these stories encapsulated everything from drama to heroes to action and even to romance. A character's entire emotional life is covered by these stories and that’s why I think Hong Kong cinema represents so much of what you would call violent cinema or gangster or action films.”

Gangster governance in Election (2005)

To Sir went on to bleach these legends of bravery and heroism with his gritty and masterful Election films in 2005 and 2006. Chaos and carnage reigns as Triads Lok and Big D brutally circumvent the Wo Shing society’s democratic leadership process. The films display shocking depictions of violence, present for a purpose beyond simply boosting box office. The moments of murder in both Election films, to borrow the words of Pauline Kael, 'put the sting back into death.' Both stray across the border into mainland China, the sequel featuring a National Security Bureau Chief as omnipotent puppet master to the criminal gangs.

The relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China features more and more in Hong Kong cinema, certainly in Johnnie’s films, where political parallels lie close below the surface. “I think that actually the entire world is being influenced by China right now, not just Hong Kong,” he suggests. “In fact one of the simplest ways I can use to explain it – you can see this also in Drug War – is that in the past a lot of the characters in the films that came from mainland China, they were always playing the part of criminals. Now it’s the other way around, so a lot of Hong Kong actors, they’re the ones who are committing the crimes.”

Drug War (2012) plays over a mainland setting and ends with a disturbing state execution: a scene visibly, politically and culturally removed from Hong Kong. China is a vast market to be courted, and to reach it a censorial system must be appeased: one strongly opposed to drug-dealing gangsters living happily ever after, or at all.  “But without the China market, which is massive, you can only make small films,” To confirms. “If you just make them for the Hong Kong audience you have to make a small film. To the extent that if you want to make a film in China there are investors who are willing to pay…” The interpreter stalls him, confirms the figure, utters a pronounced “wow” and continues. “…100,000,000 HKD (well over eight million Sterling) to make one film, whereas in Hong Kong you can’t even get an investor for 10 million HKD.”

“You cannot make a film in China and be completely free” – Johnnie To

“In terms of cinema, how is China influencing Hong Kong?” he continues, flowing more freely on the political than the personal earlier on in our interview. “I think the biggest problem is that you are seeing less and less free Hong Kong cinema. You cannot make a film in China and be completely free. You can still do it in Hong Kong but you can’t in China. At the minute Hong Kong cinema is still completely free and you have artistic license to do what you want. But the news already, a lot of it is false and no longer [contains] freedom of speech, it is completely whatever they want to tell you.”

Supporting evidence lies in the reporting of the recent Umbrella Movement, when campaigning students and workers took to the streets in the name of democracy, tightening the financial flow through the arteries of Hong Kong’s businesses and disrupting black markets alongside stock markets. Some criminal organisations reportedly took the role of demonstration breakers, working in alignment with establishment goals. This cocktail of politics and violence seems prime To territory, yet potentially poisonous subject matter. “I do feel that what those students and young people did was show a huge respect for Hong Kong and its future. Whether or not I want to make a film about this happening – if I answer from my heart then yes, I would say I would definitely want to, in the same way that I would really love to make the third part of the Election trilogy. However, if we had to do this right now, right in this moment, I think it would have some sort of consequences for my company.”

Yet his final words must stoke fan optimism and expectation for his future works: “This story and this moral element of what happened during the Umbrella Revolution and what it means for Hong Kong will always be in my head, will always be in my memory and my imagination, and it will definitely appear in my films in the future.”

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Johnnie To was speaking at the Edinburgh International Film Festival