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ASIA EXTREME: Economically viable auteurism and the films of Johnnie To

Equally as comfortable with broad slapstick humor as he is with brooding psychological drama or straight-up genre films, Johnnie To is one of the (if not the) hardest working producer/directors in the Hong Kong film industry. A genuine auteurist who also knows how to create a crowd-pleasing hit, To’s career began in television back in the 1970s. Turning to cinema towards the end of the 80s, he spent the next seven years churning out a sizeable number of genre films – everything from comedy, action, suspense, and melodramas both large and small. Most of these films found a fair amount of success at the box office, but none were runaway hits. (The closest was THE HEROIC TRIO, which featured the dream leading-lady trifecta of Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung.)

In 1996 he partnered with writer/producer/director Wai Ka-fai and formed Milkyway Image, a production company that allowed for the freedom to direct the kind of films that appealed to them. Early titles, such as WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES and A HERO NEVER DIES were decidedly different than typical Hong Kong fare of the time. These were darker stories, with a greater emphasis on character than on action. As liberating as that freedom was, To soon realized he’d have to find a balance in order to remain commercially viable, so he and Wai decided on an alternating pattern – “one film for the audience, one film for us”. (Example – The somewhat abstract and dark, complex crime film FULLTIME KILLER versus the lightweight, audience-friendly RomCom NEEDING YOU.) Yet even within his mainstream films, which strictly adhered to genre convention, To still managed to insert enough signature directorial flourishes to distinguish them from the multitude of titles flooding the market at that time.

It was with 1999’s THE MISSION that To first began to find acceptance amongst international festival audiences. An utter distillation of the standard Hong Kong Triad film, this minimal, somewhat formalist work has nods to both Jean-Pierre Melville and Takeshi Kitano, as well as elements from classic Hollywood noir. From this point forward, To would become a regular festival name, with analyses of his films (such as FULLTIME KILLER, PTU, and 2008’s SPARROW, an ode to both classic Hong Kong cinema and Jacques Demy) popping up in high-brow film magazines, journals and websites worldwide. Yet in between these films, he continued to direct and produce more populist fare, many to great success.

What is most evident about To’s “art house” films is a greater sense of realism and a lessening of the tropes dictated by genre cinema. These are the films he always wanted to make, and they can be seen as the antithesis of the glossy romanticism of John Woo’s gangster films. For many (both critics and audiences alike) To’s greatest example of this can be seen in 2005’s ELECTION and its sequel, 2006’s TRIAD ELECTION.

The two ELECTION films do for the Triads what the GODFATHER trilogy did for La Cosa Nostra. It looks at the Triads from both an economic perspective as well as a political one – namely in the changes that took place after the Hong Kong handover to China in 1997. These are precise, tightly structured films that pay more attention to the inner workings of the organization than to artful shootouts or other action set pieces. Set around the biannual election for a new Triad chairman, both films focus on the procedures, processes and rituals that go in to these elections. In ELECTION, To regular Simon Yam plays Lok, who represents the old world of the Triads, bound by honor and tradition. His adversary Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) is a hot-headed youngster (think Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS) driven by profit motive and a desire to do away with the old ways, and recreate the Triads anew. The sequel, TRIAD ELECTION, set during the following election two years later, finds a new, even more dangerous kind of opponent – Jimmy (Louis Koo), a clean cut kid with an MBA and the support of the Chinese government.

Both ELECTION and TRIAD ELECTION were critical and box-office hits at home and abroad, with ELECTION sweeping the 2006 Hong Kong Film awards. Since the success of these films, To’s career has leaned heavily towards festival-friendly fare, with EXILED, MAD DETECTIVE, SPARROW and this year’s VENGEANCE (his first film with an international cast) having their world premieres at Venice, Berlin, and Cannes. To’s next project is a remake of Melville’s LE CERCLE ROUGE, a co-production between Milkyway and France’s Canal+. Does this mean To is finished with simple, crowd-pleasing genre films? Only time will tell.