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

Article: 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.