Running Out of Time (1999)

See the Johnnie To filmography at the end of this article.

If there ever were a single filmmaker who could hopelessly complicate-if not fundamentally undermine-the premises of the auteur theory, it must be To Kei-fung, better known to Westerners as Johnnie To (or, occasionally, Johnny To). To’s body of work, overall, is so multifaceted and chameleonic that it does not evince any particular guiding formal or thematic principle. Rather, his work can be divided into various three-to-five year time periods, each of which has its own internal consistencies but which, when lumped together, stubbornly refuse to add up to an overarching directorial project. Apart from slick production values, brief, efficient running times, and an occasional weakness for syrupy musical interludes, To’s early comedies, his martial arts fantasies, his sentimental melodramas, and the anti-sentimental, ironic films of his Milkyway Image production company have not much to do with each other (although it would be fun to see someone argue otherwise). No, it would be downright impossible to discern that the same man is responsible for the fluffy romantic farce of Fractured Follies (1988), the maudlin contrivances of Loving You (1995), and the ice-cold ironies of The Mission (1999). But with the founding of To’s Milkyway Image production company in 1996, To began to, after years as a highly competent but hardly individualistic filmmaker, stake his claim as an independent artist, attempting to join the ranks of Stanley Kwan, Wong Kar-wai, Fruit Chan, and Ann Hui as one of the few remaining auteurs in postcolonial Hong Kong. But while it is certainly true that To did finally assert himself as an artist after establishing his own production company, I am hesitant to claim that his Milkyway films are greater works of art than his earlier genre films, for in some ways I actually enjoy the ‘primitive’, thrashing emotionalisms of To’s A Moment of Romance (1990), Casino Raiders 2 (1992), and The Barefooted Kid (1993) more than I do the intellectual calculations of the Milkyway films, which, for me at least, can grow repetitive once their shock wears off (1).

However, unlike a Wong Kar-wai or Stanley Kwan, To is a director of genre films. Yet the auteurism that emerged in the Milkyway period is not a working through genre in the way that, for example, the personalities of Sam Fuller or Howard Hawks managed to both shine through and become emboldened by their generic constraints, a feat which To himself was often able to accomplish in the early 1990s. Rather, it is a working against genre, a deconstructionist burlesque spoofing the very genre conventions To had practiced throughout his career, a purposively ironic move that perhaps suggests that the surest way to be taken seriously is to become an ironist. (Perhaps an unstated, and naïvely romantic, assumption of auteurism is that artists never mature or change identities as happened with Johnnie To; in other words, a true artist simply is an auteur but does not become one.) Nevertheless, with his Milkyway films To would break new ground in HK genre filmmaking, unraveling action genres through intentionally disjointed and over-stylized narratives, constructing cryptic jigsaws through which pass a variety of lowlifes, hustlers, and triads noirishly existential enough to make Alain Delon in Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) look like Tom Mix by comparison.

With his Running Out of Time (1999) and The Mission dominating the 1999 HK Film Awards (2), it was indeed his Milkyway films that prompted both local and international critics to take To more seriously, just as John Woo was only christened an auteur after A Better Tomorrow (1986). Yet it is precisely the heroic codes of yi that Woo modernized which To seeks to lampoon, stripping away the calloused romance of the gangster’s masculine violence to expose the ridiculous, cowering, and nihilistic skeleton beneath. Yet what are we to make of the sudden turnaround in To’s career? Are the in-your-face ironies and abstract stylizations of Milkyway, seemingly devoid of social, cultural, or political meanings, only a shrewdly calculated bid for auteurist respectability? Or does this very absence of apparent meaning itself represent a serious reappraisal of the historical values of HK genre filmmaking-and filmmaking in general-in light of a dwindling democratic future and a recessing HK film industry that may no longer be able to support (genre) filmmaking as it once did? Are these films, in fact, experiments with genre as desperate and uncertain as was a Hong Kong caught between rampant capitalist excess and encroaching communism? Indeed, the characters that populate the Milkyway ‘galaxy’ are creatures of the absolute present, without a past and a future as ambiguous as post-1997 HK. These films may be To’s way of saying that, like Hong Kong, the gangster genre-though it will inevitably persist as did the Western in the wake of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch-has nowhere left to go, or, at the very least, is facing an uncertain future.

* * *

Before delving into the Milkyways, let’s consider the two-decade career against which To’s bid for auteurism must be contrasted. To-like so many other HK new-wave directors is a graduate of the Television Broadcasting Corporation (TVB) factory (3)-made his directorial debut with The Enigmatic Case (1980), a gung fu detective adventure that takes its visual cues from the previous year’s Butterfly Murders (Tsui Hark, 1979) as well as, arguably, the stark widescreen compositions of chambara directors such as Misumi Kenji. It is a film of sensualist impressionism above all else, as cinematographer David Chung’s lovely naturalist imagery captures the misty forests, perilous cliffs, and untamed wilderness of the classical Chinese landscape in all their grandiosity. Unfortunately, the film suffers from an obscure, overly enigmatic narrative, despite a rousing (and fascinatingly anachronistic) electronic score that apes the funkier aspects of Ennio Morricone. Like Butterfly Murders, To’s technically imaginative yet dramatically hollow reinvention of the martial arts film as ‘art film’ proved unsuccessful at the box office, and he would return to the safer waters of TVB for the next several years.

In 1986, To reemerged with considerably weakened ambitions as a workhorse for Cinema City, HK’s most avowedly commercial production company (4). Together with Cinema City’s Renaissance man Raymond Wong, To co-directed a young, adorably inept Maggie Cheung in the popular, intensely juvenile fantasy Happy Ghost 3 (1986). A box office hit, To’s career began afresh, and from 1987 through 1989 he continued pumping out cotton-candy comedies emboldened with Cinema City’s high-gloss production values and the rising appeal of frequent star Chow Yun-fat, fresh from the success of his Woo collaborations. To and Chow’s Eighth Happiness (1988) wound up the box-office champ of its year and their melodrama All About Ah Long (1989) nabbed Chow Yun-fat a belated Best Actor award at the HK Film Awards, a prize I would argue Chow was more deserving of for his subtler performance in the more ‘adult’ Hong Kong 1941 (Leong Po Chi, 1985). Surely the best product of To’s Cinema City period is The Big Heat (1988), an orgiastically brutal yet intelligently structured policier, co-directed by Andrew Kam, a second-tier helmer best known for his acid violence (c.f. Fatal Termination, 1989) (5). Yet the success of The Big Heat is most attributable to the fact that its producer was Tsui Hark, who, like To, had reinvented himself as a populist after the failure (and censorship) of his own Don’t Play with Fire (1980). Clearly, Heat’s textbook-perfect plot schema and state-of-the-art production design bear Tsui’s fingerprints, not To’s.

With the great success of Ah-long, To discovered and exploited a romantic formula whose sentimental overtones his later Milkyway films would happily deny. He produced the smash hit A Moment of Romance (Benny Chan, 1990), a gangster romance starring Andy Lau as a sentimental delinquent of James Dean proportions. It is a film redolent of the kind of non-ironic melodrama scoffed at in the Western world, but which, in fact, the overly ironic and self-impressed West is sorely lacking. Despite an excessive quotient of Cantopop montages designed to promote star Andy Lau as a pop idol, the film is an often flamboyantly effective melodrama, ending with the baroque image of a young would-be bride, gone mad after her lover’s untimely demise, roaming HK’s neon-soaked cityscape bedecked in a blood-spattered wedding gown. (It may be noted here that the calculated-ness of To’s sentimentality in his early-to-mid-1990’s films is often betrayed by his soundtracks’ liberal use of lowest-common-denominator pop songs) A Moment of Romance 2 (1992) soon followed, as did To’s own Casino Raiders 2 (1992), another electric amalgam of triad violence and unblushing Cantopop melodrama.

In the early 1990’s, after a few entertaining though unremarkable action-comedies (Royal Scoundrel [1991]), To’s career would change stripes again, as he joined forces with action director Ching Siu-tung (A Chinese Ghost Story [1987]) for a pair of post-Swordsman (1990) wirework-martial arts fantasies. Both The Heroic Trio and its sequel Executioners (filmed back-to-back in 1993) were the first films with which many Western fans became aware of To, though their dark, comic-book futurisms were less appealing to HK audiences, both films performing only fairly at the domestic box office. But the Heroic Trio films were quickly picked up as hot cult items on the Western bootleg market, where the action diva iconographies afforded by stars Maggie Cheung, Anita Yuen, and Michelle Yeoh elicited the sort of drooling cult response mirrored in Jean-Pierre Léaud lusting after real-life Maggie Cheung in Olivier Assayas’s self-reflexive Irma Vep (1996). To followed the early-’90s period costume trend with the overrated Stephen Chow legal comedy Justice My Foot (1992), the slight but often bizarre Chow fantasy The Mad Monk (1993), and the straight period martial arts drama The Barefooted Kid (1993), an homage to the Shaw Brothers studio starring pop idol Aaron Kwok. With Barefooted, To made what was perhaps his most mature film to date, a film whose melodrama unfortunately oversteps the boundaries of classical structure into populist sweetness one or two times too often, but whose sincere emotions and heartfelt, if naïve, performances seem free from any hint of hackwork (6).

To would return to modern times with Loving You (1995), starring future Milkyway icon Lau Ching Wan, whose flabbily uncharismatic physique and hangover facial expressions have proved to be a viable alternative to the endless parade of HK pretty boys. The first half hour of Loving You is a hard, lightning-paced examination of Lau’s heartless, unscrupulous cop; the second half, sadly, devolves into a predictable variation on Mike Nichol’s already maudlin Regarding Henry (1991), wherein Lau must reexamine his personal ethics after a gunshot to the head prompts soul-searching. In the family-reunion ending, Lau is morally redeemed when he rescues his neglected wife from the clutches of the man who shot him, pulling her from the burning television studio to which the villain had kidnapped her moments before it explodes. Far worse, however, is A Moment of Romance 3 (1996), an in-name-only sequel directed by To himself and not director-for-hire, Benny Chan. An homage to Hollywood World War II romances, it features Andy Lau as a felled pilot encountering tragic romance behind enemy lines. The film features To’s most Hollywoodized technique to date, wherein each synthetic emotion is underscored by plush strings and cued by gratuitous crane shots. The film’s thick 1940’s-era nostalgia-the period art direction is impressive-conspires to grant Lau a stay of execution at the film’s end, undermining the film’s otherwise tragic arc and fallaciously suggesting that simpler times spared their noble heroes, whereas the underclass modern antiheroes of A Moment of Romance 1 and 2 must presumably suffer for their fated urban poverty.

So, what then are we to make of To’s next period, the period in which he established his Milkyway Image company, when anti-sentimentality, the action genre deconstructions, and the endless winking ironies all seem poised to scathe the very generic sentimentalism that To had engaged with, if not exploited, throughout his career? Firstly, it should be noted that by the mid-1990’s-specifically, after the unexpected success of Derek Yee’s ‘weepie’ C’est la Vie Mon Cherie (1993)- production of violent action cinema for which HK is renowned drastically dropped off. Just as hopping vampire comedies flooded the market after the success of Ricky Lau’s Mr Vampire (1985) and HK filmmakers jumped on the period martial arts bandwagon after Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (1991), so too did C’est la Vie inspire an industry-wide trend for romances, and little room was left for action films after 1994 or so. 1998, the year in which the Milkyway films really started to earn their ground, very few action films of any kind were being made in HK, and the ones that did appear (c.f., Extreme Crisis [1998]), were embarrassing Xeroxes of formulaic Hollywood bombast (7). So it may be that only in the absence of a constant stream of action films-and steady emigration of film producers before 1997, which left the HK film industry too shallow and under-funded to continue manufacturing B-movies as it once did-that To felt the time was ripe for his Milkyway ironies. Secondly, while To’s Milkyway films do indeed, I believe, amount to a noteworthy movement both in the context of HK and international cinema, these films, even at their very best, do not to my mind do anything totally new (this is not to suggest that newness is the sole criterion of artistic judgment, but I do think that To is looking for a novelty that will reenergize HK film). Indeed, their debts to the French New Wave are profound-for example, the narrative disjunction in The Odd One Dies (1998) that magically saves scruffy hero Takeshi Kaneshiro, delivering him with a discontinuous edit from the fatal precipice of a building to the inexplicable safety of a car speeding away from his pursuers, seems straight out of Alphaville-era Godard. Indeed, it is only deconstruction, not destruction, and just as Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1962) or Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) consciously pay homage to the American detective and musical genres respectively, so too do the Milkyway films remain in the thrall of the gangster genre they dispassionately yet all-too-knowingly toy with. In a sense, the Milkyway films are reconstructions of genre, folding a deconstructive aesthetic of self-reflexive irony into a new and improved genre identity that happily absorbs whatever slings and arrows deconstruction has to offer. In other words, by creating a hip, gorgeously stylized film universe that richly satirizes the masculine ethos of the gangster, the gangster genre is actually enriched rather than lessened: the impervious genre, in an almost Nietzschean sense, absorbs its criticisms and becomes stronger in the end. Perhaps if To’s visual technique and perfectly proportioned widescreen compositions were less physically attractive, his deadpan comedy would be more dirtier, messier, and more scathing. But his style, particularly in A Hero Never Dies, is often so baroque-not to mention conventionally professional-that he winds up glamorizing the genre he simultaneously questions. But we might also assume that the deconstructions here are just as much issues of generic style as they are of formal narrative, for it is not only the formal structure of the three-act action drama but the ethos of the gangster and the stylized world he inhabits that To’s deadpan milieu mocks. What is arguably unique about Milkyway, however, is that it represents not a one-shot attempt at genre deconstruction, but a continuous project by a collective of filmmakers rather than an individual director (8).

But while they are more than the gangster films that inspire them, the Milkyway films as a whole cannot be considered a postmodern negotiation of high and low culture because many of them-Expect the Unexpected, A Hero Never Dies, and Running Out of Time in particular-don’t actually borrow a diverse range of ideas from high culture, save for a shunning of linear narrative exposition. On the one hand, they are something more like ‘generic art films’ – aware of the conventions they engage with, sleek machines bundled in their own artifice, whose ideas seem directed at the conventions and formalities of the action genre, and at the nihilism of a stumbling HK film industry without a cause. Interestingly, despite their entwinement with genre conventions, To’s Milkway films performed extremely low at the box office, suggesting that local HK audiences apparently view them as impenetrable and elitist, regardless of their generic identity. Because the best of the Milkyway films financially perform about as well as, say, the ‘art’ films of Fruit Chan, it would seem that their nonlinear formal games trump their ‘low’ generic content (i.e. cool violence) (9).

From 1996, To, as Milkyway’s impresario, would collaborate with several directors, as well as screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi and subsequently the so-called “Milkyway Creative Team,” a constellation of writers which reportedly changes from film to film. Here, the HK conception of the producer further complicates the Western notion of auteurism: while more than half of the Milkyway films were produced but not directed by To, they nevertheless represent his ‘house style’; furthermore, the Cantonese word for producer actually translates as something akin to ‘writer-director’, so we may assume To has stewarded all the films. While it is true that the functions of the ‘producer’ in HK are more fluid than they are in the West, To earned a reputation for lording over his underlings, perhaps just as Tsui Hark, and became known in some circles as a controlling megalomaniac. For example, after To expressed dissatisfaction with the “immaturity” of director Patrick Yau, he demoted Yau to television duties. That To himself retreated to TVB after the failure of The Enigmatic Case seems to be one irony that got lost somewhere along the way.

Milkyway’s first attempt was Beyond Hypothermia (1996), directed by former John Woo acolyte Patrick Leung. Wu Chien-lien plays a literally cool (hence the title) female assassin who, in between some icily filmed shootouts, seeks to humanize her temperature by redemptively romancing peaceful noodle shop proprietor Lau Ching-wan. The gender reversal is intriguing-for once, an active, immoral woman is redeemed by a passive, moral man-though it is apparently easier to generically rationalize a female killer than a male love object. Wu Chien-lien plausibly portrays what would traditionally be the male role of the cool gun-toting hero, but Lau Ching-wan, as a (heterosexual) love object, must act existentially aloof to avoid being feminized by an aggressive genre that sees all passivity as feminine. To my mind, this aloofness echoes Wong Kar-wai’s then-recent Fallen Angels (1995), whose characters must pose and pine and stare into space meaningfully to convince us they are not grounded human beings but existential spirits wafting aimlessly across each other’s fragile paths. Whereas in the traditionally gendered action model, the man often leaves the allure of the female for a life of solitude, or is tragically ventilated by bullets, Beyond Hypothermia has a shared tragedy in mind for its protagonists. But when they endure a Pyrrhic victory at the climax, the horrid pop tune that underscores their gory fate reminds us that To is still unsure as to whether his new cool attitude is truly cool or can still be played for teary-eyed schmaltz.

Nevertheless, Hypothermia‘s alluring, arctic visuals make it the best of the earliest batch of Milkyways, all of which still operate within the bounds of conventional filmmaking. The next effort, Final Justice (1997), was directed by the occasionally inspired Derek Chiu, whose work ranges from the unintentionally homophobic Oh! My Three Guys (1994) to the well-acted though adamantly middlebrow police drama The Log (1996) to the neglected, slightly experimental, and near-brilliant black comedy Mr. Sardine (1994). Final Justice, despite its hip Milkyway label, follows in the slick yet bland realist mode exemplified by The Log, and devolves into the sort of stale courtroom drama the depths of which, sadly, all too many HK films seem to enjoy plumbing. Milkyway would continue with one more attempt at bourgeois realism, the firefighter melodrama Lifeline (1997), directed by To himself. The film’s crowd-pleasing fetishization of slow-motion balls of rolling fire (the film’s raison d’etre) both borrows from and exceeds the Hollywood film Backdraft, but, while the fiery climax rates as To’s greatest spectacle, the action is molded around characters whose dullness seems nearly intentional. Its middlebrow emotionalism, exacerbated by a maudlin orchestral score, continues in the humanist vein of Loving You, suggesting that characters’ psychological traumas can be somehow magically and cathartically exorcised by braving (metaphorical) infernos.

With Intruder (1997), however, it is clear that To and company were attempting something uncompromising. A disaster financially-it earned about US$70,000-the hardened viciousness of its story of a husband and wife team of Mainland Chinese serial killers nevertheless hints at the antisentimentalism to come. Though at best a marginal cult item among devotees of HK’s “category 3” visceral sadism, the film’s “European” avoidance of narrative exposition marks a new direction for To, setting the stage for the more experimental Too Many Ways to Be Number One (1997), The Odd One Dies (1997), and The Longest Night (1998). These films, taken as an unofficial trilogy, mark Milkyway’s strongest attempt at genre experimentation, and engage what is more or less the opposite of dramatic irony, presenting characters who know more than the audience does, or ever will. Patrick Yau’s Odd One Dies and the Wellesian The Longest Night may be considered post-neo-noirs, with impossibly puzzling plots, wildly expressionistic use of HK’s choice colors of red and blue, and very little interest in whether or not the audience understands what is going on between near-random acts of sadism. They reduce genre to pure stylization-perhaps almost pure form-and as we struggle to decipher what is transpiring, we are reminded that plot structures exist just as much in our heads as they do in a text anyhow. But it is Wai Ka-fai’s Too Many Ways to Be Number One (1997) that emerges as Milkyway’s one authentic attempt at avant-gardism. Suffused with wanton stylistic excess-disoriented cameras are turned upside-down for minutes on end, characters in the spasms of blood-spurting death illogically recite Jabberwockian poetry. The film’s hypothetical-flashback structure makes the subsequent Run, Lola, Run (1998) look like child’s play. Yet its inspirations emerge too baldly at least once: the scene in which an inebriated triad repeatedly breaks bottles over an unsuspecting dolt’s head is for some reason plagiarized outright from Kitano Takeshi’s subtler, though not drier, Boiling Point (1990).

Milkyway would continue with two slightly more populist films, Patrick Yau’s Expect the Unexpected (1998) and To’s own A Hero Never Dies (1998). Expect is an ensemble policier, an uncommonly sunny film with urban chumminess that recalls contemporary Japanese television serials. The film’s wild card is its climactic shootout (the source of the title), where we are to learn who lives and who dies; while this ending is at first heart-stopping, it also tends to reduce the whole endeavor to a one-note commentary on the ‘realities’ of mortality in action films. For me, however, it is A Hero Never Dies which remains Milkyway’s finest achievement, the one time when To seems intent on making a real film instead of a joke, a film whose irony does not eclipse all other interpretationss. A stone-faced parody of the John Woo gunplay subgenre, the film manages to satirize both the misogyny and homophobia underlying action conventions while at the same time surpassing Woo himself in operatic excess, madly walking the tightrope between ridiculous bathos and a soaring romanticism that transcends all notions of genre.

From this height, however, To abruptly descended to Where a Good Man Goes (1999), a pointless (and genuinely misogynist) game of ‘wits’ among an ex-con (Lau Ching-wan), a bullying cop, and a blank-faced woman (Ruby Wong) who nobly endures their abuses. With no attempt at characterization and only emptily ritualistic gestures failing to fill in the blanks, this is perhaps one Milkyway film that can be deemed postmodernist: it is a critique without a text, an intersection of actors whose meaningless gestures towards one another beg for interpretation but hold no actual content worth interpreting. The same problems plague Derek Chiu’s Sealed with a Kiss (1999), a tale of seaside longing between a mute orphan and the heartbroken girl who seeks refuge in his inn. Their sometimes elegant, mostly meandering romance becomes merely a pretext for another ‘surprise’ Milkyway ending, a tacked-on tragedy whose fatalist Milkyway trademark-as a trademark-now becomes conventional in itself. The gratuitousness of the ending’s fatalism both pleads to be taken seriously and desires to pass itself off as a mere wink to the audience; the entire film is reduced to an unsatisfying gimmick, and one is left somewhere between perplexity and infuriation. Seeking a commercial success, To would slightly shift gears with his own Running Out of Time, a more accessible thriller that retains just enough narrative ellipses to make it interesting. Starring Andy Lau as a quickly dying thief wrapped up in cat-and-mouse with cop Lau Ching-wan, the film plays like a cross between D.O.A. (1950) and Andy Lau’s 1995 vehicle What a Wonderful World (in which he also suffered a fatal disease), jazzed with fast-motion, slow-motion, fades, confusing time frames, and other Milkyway style games.

While I personally prefer Too Many Ways and Hero Never Dies, it is To’s next film, The Mission (1999), which attracted the most popular attention – a film which can be seen as a clinical study in cinematic uneventfulness. Five bodyguards, hardly characterized beyond their tough-looking physiognomies, spend the first half of the film playing games, kicking crumpled up pieces of paper around, and otherwise doing nothing as they wait for their boss to emerge from his meetings. Because what in other films would be the plot (whatever the boss talks about in his meetings) is kept secret from the viewer, a new subjectivity of the uneventful is created around the empty lives of the bodyguards. When the bodyguards act, protecting their boss during numerous assassination attempts, the shootouts are filmed statically, pictorially, with the utmost cinematographic technology capturing their posturing macho stasis within a generically chaotic action environment. Eventually, some plot must be invented: one of the five has an affair with one of their boss’s wives, and another bodyguard is hired to kill the transgressor. The friction within the group becomes the real plot of the second half. Yet with his choice of music To lets himself off the hook too easily: before the credits roll, an exceedingly jokey, almost silly synthesizer tune that has been nudging us throughout the film is played full force. This directorial cue encourages us not to delve too deeply into the film, not to analyze too carefully the discreet relationship between the uneventful first half and the more eventful second, and to ultimately write off the entire affair as another joke.

The most atypical-and maybe the most satisfying-Milkyway is Lawrence Ah-mon’s Spacked Out (2000), an ultrarealistic look into the lives of aimless HK teenage girls (all played by newcomers), whose forays into drugs, sex, crime and assorted unchaperoned delinquencies cannot hide their adolescent insecurities or substitute for neglectful parents. At first, Lawrence Ah-Mon seems an unlikely choice for a To production-Ah-Mon is best known for realist-humanist films such as Gangs (1988) and Dreams of Glory, a Boxer’s Story (1991), perhaps the best boxing drama of the past decade. Yet Ah Mon is able to combine his keen eye for verisimilitude with Milkyway’s cutting-edge camerawork to produce something that other Milkyway directors have not-a smart, hip, cosmopolitan film that does not self-indulgently revel in its own irrelevance. This is an oddly endearing, touching film-it is nothing like Larry Clark’s cynically calculated Kids (1995), which offers the forbidden fruit of mock pedophilia to its bourgeois audience. But while the film offers a panorama of sights new for HK film-including a realistic abortion and HK’s only portrayal of an openly lesbian teenager (I discount Portland St. Blues [1998])-Ah Mon’s latent humanism turns out to be his Achilles’ heel. Emerging from her abortion, our scarred heroine reveals the source of her troubles with a voice-over plea: “Mommy.when will you come home?” The film is thus reinstated within a centrist, family-values network of guilt and shame, working against a more ruthless analysis of social problems.

With the turn of the millennium, To retained the Milkyway banner under the aegis of a new company, 100 Years of Cinema, and with frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai has directed a number of lighter, quickly filmed romances and comedies that became box office hits: Needing You (2000), Help!!! (2000), and the Chinese New Year’s film Wu Yen (2001), a period costume farce. But the ironic Milkyway style persists in Comeuppance (2000), directed by Derek Chiu, and produced by To. Less pretentious (and lower-budgeted) than previous To efforts, Chiu nevertheless exploits a full bag of tricks throughout, most remarkably a truly dreamlike, disorienting montage in the first half-hour and an expressionist style throughout, wherein physical objects symbolize emotional states: lightbulbs shatter whenever a character reaches an epiphany, or an angry, slammed fist bleeds only the illusion of blood. The story is simpler, too: a film projectionist (whose boss, of course, laments the declining industry) who discovers he enjoys poisoning evil triads is pursued by both a neurotic reporter (an unusually geeky Jordan Chan) and a standard-issue cop. The three are bonded into a tacit trinity, and as the reporter’s fabricated articles about the killer’s handiwork cyclically inspire the killer’s future deeds, the border between cause and effect becomes as skewed as the film’s quirky camera perspectives. The final killing is shown onscreen only when the reporter narrates it in flashback, only when he and not the actual killer ‘writes’ reality; like a metropolitan version of Ford’s “print the legend” thesis in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), historical reality-that which we are allowed to see-becomes fantasy, a journalistic legend. Furthermore, while the film’s flashbacks-and-forwards fool us into thinking the world is an unordered existentialism, in fact what seems like a de rigueur Milkyway existentialism is only a cut-and-paste version of fate, as the three protagonists’ paths cross all the same in the end, as we always knew they would.

Though it remains to be seen what future course To’s career may take-thankfully he seems to have no interest in entering the decadence of Hollywood-we might pause to question the long-term value of the auteurism of To’s Milkyway period if and when To decides to once again change his modus operandi. (With his newest, post-2000 batch of ‘accessible’ comedies, he may already be embarking on a more popular and less intellectually demanding path). I would like to hope that, whatever may lie ahead, To’s future films will be evaluated on their own merits, and not be retrospectively interpreted through the borrowed prestige of the Milkyway films, which may themselves seem positively quaint a decade or so from now (10). Furthermore, because the Milkyway films are films of the passing moment, inextricably linked with the unstable, tumultuous film industry of late-90’s HK, and because the macho archetypes they burlesque will endure regardless, we might also ask if auteurism could exist-if it should exist at all-somewhere beyond style in a time when many independent genre films (certainly in post-Tarantino Hollywood) are preoccupied with referring to their own ironic cum auteurist senses of style. If the independent genre film indeed has nothing left to offer but stylistic invention and variegated reinvention-Milkyway’s bread and butter-where are genre filmmakers to go in search of new identities but to a pop culture well of ever-increasing styles and what seems like an ever-increasing sense of self-congratulation? Then, auteurism may become no longer a deadly, canonical state of being but a democratic pursuit-yet this democracy is one of style only, a game of wits, a mere posturing, not a shining through of personality ala Fuller or Hawks but a new cult of personality where personality shines above all else. When this happens, if it has not already, we may become sentimental ourselves, and long for the simple emotions we thought that we were, but for a brief moment, above.

Johnnie To Filmography

The Enigmatic Case (1980)

Happy Ghost 3 (1986, co-dir. w/Raymond Wong)

Seven Years Itch [sic] (1987)

Fractured Follies (1988)

Eighth Happiness (1988)

The Big Heat (1988, co-dir. w/Andrew Kam)

All About Ah-long (1989)

The Fun, the Luck, and the Tycoon (1989)

A Moment of Romance (1990, prod. only)

The Story of My Son (1990)

Royal Scoundrel (1991)

Sisters of the World Unite (1991, actor only)

Casino Raiders 2 (1992)

Justice My Foot! (1992)

Lucky Encounter (1992)

A Moment of Romance 2 (1992, prod. only)

Bare-Footed Kid (1993)

The Heroic Trio (1993, co-dir. w/Ching Siu-tung)

Executioners (1993, co-dir. w/Ching Siu-tung)

The Mad Monk (1993)

Loving You (1995)

Only Fools Fall in Love (1995, prod. only)

A Moment of Romance 3 (1996)

Beyond Hypothermia (1996, prod. only)

Lifeline (1997)

Final Justice (1997, prod. only)

Too Many Ways to be No. 1 (1997, prod. only)

The Odd One Dies (1997, prod. only)

Intruder (1997, prod. only)

The Longest Nite [sic] (1998, prod. only)

Expect the Unexpected (1998, prod. only)

A Hero Never Dies (1998)

Where a Good Man Goes (1999)

Running Out of Time (1999)

The Mission (1999)

Sealed with a Kiss (1999, prod. only)

Spacked Out (2000, prod. only)

Needing You (2000, co-dir. w/Wai ka-fai)

Help!!! (2000, co-dir. w/Wai Ka-fai)

Wu Yen (2001, co-dir w/Wai Ka-fai)


  1. This repetitiveness is certainly an aspect (and perhaps the curse?) of many auteurs; geniuses from Keaton to Bergman have made what is basically the same film many times. While this is, of course, not a bad thing in itself, it can lend itself to monothematic filmmaking, and I sometimes do reach the point where familiarity does breed contempt.
  2. To won a Best Director award for The Mission; Andy Lau won Best Actor for To’s Running Out of Time.
  3. TVB served as an apprenticeship for Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Ronny Yu, and most of the other major directors of the HK new wave.
  4. Cinema City is known for its high-gloss production values, colorful set design, and grinning populism. While at their best Cinema City productions can be truly wondrous-i.e. Teddy Robin Kwan’s brilliantly produced The Legend of Wisely (1986)-the comedies that Cinema City handed to To are not among the company’s best work.
  5. On the other hand, the most unfortunate film of To’s Cinema City period is undoubtedly the Chow Yun-fat vehicle The Fun, the Luck, and the Tycoon (1989), a pointless (and unacknowledged) plagiarism of the Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America (1988).
  6. Admittedly, The Barefooted Kid was a box-office flop, raking in less than $4 million HK dollars (about US$500,000). Though I am unsure why the film was such a failure, its modest appeal lies in the fact that it is less physically bombastic than the Tsui Hark spectacles whose trend it follows.
  7. By 2000, a new crop of action films emerged: Purple Storm, Gen-X Cops, etc. With increased production values intended to compete with Hollywood imports, these wooden, poorly acted, heartlessly directed products evince none of the effortless charm that made more unassuming 1980’s HK action films so special.
  8. The Milkyway films thus invite comparison with the work of Japanese director Sabu (Dangan Runner [1996], Postman’s Blues [1997], etc.), who seems singleminded in his often overly cute yakuza deconstructions. On the other hand, his is not a collective project.
  9. Compare this lack of popularity against the films of Tarantino, whose attempts at deconstruction and nonlinearity are nevertheless tempered by conventional modes of narrative exposition.
  10. Certainly, the sad misadventures of John Woo in Hollywood are evidence enough that previous auteurism does not compensate for a present lack.