Johnnie To may well just be the Hong Kong film industry’s lifeline, and the key figure in its current revival. Not only has he been long celebrated at home for his unique combination of versatility, box office savvy, and artistry as both producer and director, To is also admired by overseas Hong Kong film fans for such connoisseurs’ classics as Heroic Trio (1993), an ultra campy triple-superhero action fantasy featuring Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung before the last two became famous in the West, and the suavely-hip, ice-cool gangster fantasy The Mission (1999). And the film circuit in the West is finally taking notice. The UCLA Film Archive, in conjunction with the Asian Film Foundation, featured seven of his films in the series “Go Johnnie To” last month in Los Angeles. And New York’s intrepid Subway Cinema offered that city a series of works from To’s production company Milkyway Image last year.
From a career that started in TV production in the ’80s, To has directed just about every genre during the Hong Kong film industry’s revival throughout the ’80s and ’90s. From hugely popular comedies like Eighth Happiness (1988) (starring Chow Yun-fat) and Justice My Foot (1991) (a vehicle for HK’s then No. 1 box office king of comedy Stephen Chiau) to operatic melodramas like Lifeline (1996) and the intense personal dramas like Loving You (1995), To kept both audiences’ and critics’ favour until 1997. A change in direction came in 1996, when To and screenwriter, co-director and co-producer Wai Ka-fai set up their own production house, Milkyway Image. Their films together proceeded to reflect the unsettled local atmosphere of the time with a series of darkly brilliant but much less commercially successful 1998 features, including the disturbingly violent The Longest Nite, A Hero Never Dies (a twisted deconstruction of the gangster-bonding film made famous by John Woo), and the brilliant but utterly downbeat Expect the Unexpected. The artistic experimentation of The Mission (1999) yielded to the surprise mega-hit Needing You (2000), a romantic comedy that allowed To and Wai again to reconquer the HK box office. Since then, they haven’t looked back: next came a wacky costume comedy Wu Yen (2001) (which brought back the triple heroine trope of Heroic Trio) and a diversified output that continues to thrill critics at that same time that it finds large audiences at home.
Wai Ka-fai may seem like the “brains” behind Milkyway Image (in counter distinction to Johnnie To’s commercial brawn), but it is more accurate to say that their talents mesh and overlap. Wai’s more distinct art-house “edge” might be explained by the two films that he has directed on his own: Chow Yun-fat’s last Hong Kong feature, the rich and controversial allegory Peace Hotel (1996); and the brilliantly subversive Too Many Ways To Be Number One (1997). After a substantial career writing and producing Hong Kong television dramas, Wai Ka-fai joined To in 1996 to form Milkyway Image, and has co-produced, co-directed, and co-written most of that company’s output since then.
Wai and To’s most recent hit, the gangster fantasy Fulltime Killer (2001), was a highlight of the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program, where I had a chance to interview To together with his producer/director colleague Wai Ka-fai. Thanks to Shan Tong for his assistance with translation. Johnnie To spoke largely in English, while Wai Ka-fai answered questions in Cantonese.
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Shelly Kraicer: Fulltime Killer‘s pace was very fast and quite exciting, but not relentlessly, crazily speedy, like Tsui Hark’s recent Time and Tide. You alternated moments of calm, of contemplation, with incredibly fast-paced sequences. How did you plan and construct the film’s pace?
Johnnie To: Firstly, Wai Ka-fai’s script provided much space for the director. You know, in this type of Hong Kong movie, there isn’t too much dialogue. This means that the screenplay can give more space for the director to create a mood. Why is the pacing like this? I want a complete mood of fantasy in the movie. I needed to create a mood that was not only violent, not only full of gunfire, but that was something like dance.
SK: So the tone is intended to be fantastical, as if it’s created in someone’s imagination?
JT: Imagination. If a movie has a great deal of dialogue, you only service the dialogue very carefully. Not in Fulltime Killer. The script provided the situation, the locations, the characters, and it’s my job to turn it into fantasy. Wai Ka-fai and I agree that the feeling, the basis of the movie is fantasy, rather than violence. Take the scene in which Tok goes into the street to kill the guy who’s smoking. You can shoot that scene very fast, with some street fighting. But I don’t want that: it’s too much. During the gunplay in the street, I want to hold the time dimension longer. How long can I make it last? That’s a spotlight on how you create the mood, the style of the movie.
SK: Fulltime Killer radically changed in the last half hour. Police inspector Simon Yam, formerly a minor character, takes over the story and becomes the first person narrator. This can be quite surprising and disorienting for the audience. Challenging the audience in the context of a popular film by introducing extra layers of narrative complexity – flashbacks within flashbacks, changing narrative voices, a continuous series of embedded points of view – is not something you both do lightly. How do you balance narrative complexity with populist storytelling?
Wai Ka-fai: What I liked in the original novel was that it was told from various points of view: it had multiple narrators. So when I was adapting it, I had the idea: what if the whole thing was just a fiction? And I took off on that idea. So, the switch of the narrator – suddenly having Simon Yam taking over – suggests that, in a way, what we’ve been seeing the whole time had just been a fiction written by this mad man. We don’t even understand what the “real” story is. I just expand on the idea of fiction: everybody in the movie is just telling fictions to each other.
SK: Is there any underlying “true” story that you leave for the audience to hold on to at the end? Or would you like to have it completely up in the air?
WKF: Based on this notion of fiction, what the audience takes away is still up in the air. I think that the author of the original novel was influenced by movies and books about hitmen. So you see a lot of that in the original novel. When I was adapting it, I thought about using this and create something new, which is this whole notion of fictionality. You can see, for example, many scenes in Fulltime Killer that remind you of other movies, and that’s intentional: it just emphasizes this fictionality.
SK: And how did you [JT] balance narrative complexity with populist moviemaking in Fulltime Killer?
JT: This is the problem: if you want to make a more commercial movie, then it’s not going to be Fulltime Killer. No. We know what the audience would like. But this movie is interesting for me. I like it because of the script. Like Wai Ka-fai said, it’s not about what is clearly true. You can add one more ending to the film, and yet another one after that… That’s interesting, to shoot that kind of movie. But if you want the audience to follow you, while working with this story line, it’s not easy. Why would I want to change Fulltime Killer to be the kind of movie the audience likes? If I want to make an audience pleasing movie, it won’t be this one … we will make one like that with our next project.
SK: Like you both did with Needing You, your giant box office success in 2000, for example?
JT: Yes, something like that! Our mission with Fulltime Killer was to make the kind of movie we like.
SK: And let the audience come to you.
JT: Yes. And this may be difficult for a Hong Kong audience. They want to see a story that’s easy to follow, they want more gongming, more resonance with their lives. With Fulltime Killer, they will have to think. A commercial movie asks the audience just to follow the story, not to think about the story. It’s difficult. In the beginning, I wasn’t going to accept the audience not knowing the “true” story. But as I directed the film, and left open all of the story’s possibilities, we decided to leave things as they were [in Wai Ka-fai’s original open-ended conception].
SK: But Fulltime Killer was still very profitable: it was a commercial success in HK, wasn’t it?
JT: The movie’s success in HK was due to Andy Lau. He is a big star, and has had very good box office in his last two movies. People like him.
SK: You two together have co-producer and/or co-director credits on more than ten recent films of your production company, Milkyway Image. Describe the process of your collaboration: how you work together, how you divide up responsibilities? What is it that you give to each other that makes the team work so well?
WKF: We work together very closely, and mutual confidence is really important. Quite often, whether Johnnie or I actually come up with an idea, he [JT] has a lot of faith in me. So I’ll run off with the idea and build a script from it. Sometimes, the creative process of scriptwriting takes place quite close to the actual film production time. Johnnie is in the front lines making the movie, and I’m still writing the script. But we’re so in tune with each other that whatever I give Johnnie will work, even while he’s shooting the film.
JT: I really believe in Wai Ka-fai’s creativity: his writing, his ideas, everything. Which makes it easy for me to handle the production. At the beginning, he controls the whole thing. I just put it into pictures: everything he writes becomes pictures. I can’t find any one else in HK like him: his discipline, talent, his good budgeting sense [laughs]. We enjoy making movies together.
WKF: I really have full confidence in Johnnie’s execution. But I think that, personality-wise, a loose analogy of the way we work is something like yin and yang. When Johnnie’s being aggressive, I’ll say “take things slowly”, because if we’re both very aggressive, then things could go wrong. So we complement each other very well, in the good times and the bad times.
SK: You’ve both been quoted in the past as saying that you see yourselves as having a task, a mission to reinvigorate the Hong Kong film industry. What gave you this sense of mission, and how successful do you think you’ve been?
JT: If we cannot rejuvenate the industry, give it support, and make it more exciting, then perhaps investors will have no interest in putting more money into it. Why does an investor want to put money into the Hong Kong film industry? To make a profit. At Milkyway Image, we aim for a balance between the kind of movies we like and the kind of movies audiences like. That is our goal. A few years ago, we only did the movies we liked. That would make the industry dead.
SK: You mean your dark, critically acclaimed films like Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (1997), The Longest Nite (1998), and Expect the Unexpected(1998)? They were not exactly box office successes.
JT: [laughs] Yeah, these were not successful in HK, but of course, in the end, many people tell us “it’s a good movie, it’s a good movie, it’s a good movie…” But this kind of support is not enough to boost the industry. So, we decided in 1999 that we would shoot an audience movie first. We knew that if we were successful, then we would have the spare time and money to shoot the kind of movies we like, like Fulltime Killer. As a result, we were successful [with the hit Needing You]. The commercial movies we’ve released last year and this year are in fact getting good box office in HK. And I think that this will continue. Which means investors will give us money, and will give other producers money to shoot movies in Hong Kong. It’s not easy. Good directors have experience: they learn how to control a budget, how to direct actors and actresses. For that they need time. We might need at least ten years to train the good directors and writers the way we want to.
SK: You’re a very versatile filmmaker: you’ve done romantic comedies, populist farces, police actioners, gangster operas, special effects dramas, art films, serious dramas. What is your approach to genre filmmaking? Do you like to push the boundaries, tweak the edges to keep your films interesting, fresh, and original?
JT: I enjoy shooting different kinds of movies. But of course you cannot always choose what kinds of movies you make: sometimes you must consider the market. If you ask what kind of movie I want to make, it is not the kind of movie that is commercially successful. I think I would prefer the other type, but I need more experience shooting different genres to find out.
WKF: What you call genre movies we call “audience movies”. There are elements in these movies that you know the audience and the market will appreciate. So, we are very clear on the distinction between our commercial genre movies and our personal movies. Every time we plan a movie, we define it very clearly. We know that there are certain genre rules that you definitely can’t violate. But of course we’ll try to add something new, something that will still adhere to the rules without changing the genre. When we make personal movies, then basically the entire world is ours: we can do whatever we want.
SK: The Milkyway Image hospital drama Help!!! seems like a very different kind of movie from both of you: a black comedy, a satire with political overtones. Where did that project come from?
WKF: The movie was made under time pressure: it was conceived to fill a particular release date slot. Johnnie wasn’t interested in making a little movie with one set and two actors: we wanted to take on the challenge of doing a really big movie. So, in the creative process, with the extreme the time pressure, what came out was maybe the “Milkyway Image genes” in our bodies. Which had been suppressed, perhaps, during the making of Needing You. But they took over when we were under pressure; and the result was Help!!!
JT: It was quite a challenge. There were only 27 days between the time I talked to Wai Ka-fai about wanting to make the movie and the date it had to be in theatres.
SK: You made it at something like Wong Jing speed?
JT: Yes, but we wanted a good quality movie created quickly. We needed a movie good enough to be called a Milkyway Image film.
SK: How do you work with actors? Do you give them a lot of freedom on the set, or do they have to stick strictly to the script?
JT: It depends on the actors. We leave our actors alone at first. If they can’t control their character in the movie, then we take over and handle it ourselves. Sammi Cheng [the female star of To’s Needing You, Wu Yen, and Love on a Diet, a Cantopop singer whom To’s films have made into Hong Kong’s newest leading female box office star] is very special. When I’m shooting a movie with her, after each scene, we go back to Wai Ka-fai. He sees from day to day what is interesting about Sammi, and then changes the script. We change it every day. Whatever works well, we take advantage of, and work into the script. This is my method for making a commercial movie.
SK: So it’s about flexibility?
JT: Flexibility in everything! Wai Ka-fai will fix the characters if necessary. Everything can change, all at once. And in the next day’s shooting, maybe everything will change again.
SK: Can Hollywood work this way any more?
JT: Hollywood can’t do this. But we can: we can change things whenever we want.
SK: Is there a film that you would consider to be your most personal movie, one that comes the closest to what you really want to say?
JT: You know, some movies have some good things and some not so good things in them. [laughs]. It’s a difficult question to answer. But I like Fulltime Killer, and The Longest Nite, and The Mission.
SK: The favourite among film critics seems to be The Mission. Is that the Johnnie To “art film”?
JT: I don’t know. It’s the movie I wanted to shoot: I don’t know what kind of movie it is. But it was a small budget picture, 2.5 million HK dollars [only about $320,000 US], so there was no risk.
SK: It’s been suggested that John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) was intended to be a “calling card” to Hollywood, a catalogue of his techniques and style that displayed him at best advantage to a new potential Western market. Could your Fulltime Killer be seen as your own calling card to Hollywood?
JT: No. I’ve answered many questions about this before. We want to keep making movies in HK. We want to develop projects in HK. But if a good opportunity arises to shoot a movie in the West, then that would be fine. Maybe Wai Ka-fai and I would do it together: he would write a script for a Western movie, and I would direct it. But it wouldn’t be a movie just for American audiences. In our movie-making future, it’s not the goal of Fulltime Killer to bring us to Hollywood.
SK: Do you have plans to continue the Milkyway Image partnership, to continue to make movies together? The Chinese press recently reported that you [JT] left your management position at China Star Entertainment in order to be able to concentrate on directing full time.
JT: I want to put more time and energy into production. Of course I hope that Wai Ka-fai and I can continue to plan projects and make new films. We especially want to support new directors, new writers, and new actors in our production company. This is our plan. I hope we can do it together for many years.
WKF: We want to continue collaborating, and continue to foster the next generation of filmmakers in HK.