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One Country, Two Visions:
An Interview with Johnnie To

by Martha P. Nochimson and Robert Cashill

Johnnie To

Johnnie To on the set

Johnnie To, born April 22, 1955, one day before Shakespeare's presumptive birthday, has been directing, producing, and writing for television and film roughly since 1980, but the English-speaking world still isn't sure what to do with his name. Admittedly, this a problem rooted in structural linguistic problems posed when Chinese names are translated into English, but according to his IMDB listing his name has seven (rather than the typical two or three) variants憂ohnny To, Qifeng Du, Kai Fung To, Kei Fung To, To Kai Fung, To Kei Fung, Du Qifeng, and the variant that he himself uses on his printed English-language materials, Johnnie To (pronounced toe), as he will be referred to here.

Johnnie To served an apprenticeship in Hong Kong television in the early 1980's, and has gone on to create genre films of all varieties. In 1996, together with his colleague Wai Ka-Fai, a producer, writer, and director in his own right, To set up a production company called Milky Way Image. To and Wai have since written, directed, and produced comedies, ghost stories, action-adventure films, and immensely innovative gangster films, of which they have made a mini-specialty. Their cinema, much of which has been celebrated by critical acclaim and awards, runs the gamut from the realistic, to the fantastic, to the surreal. By most accounts, however, To's masterpiece is The Mission (1999), a brilliantly conceived, shot, and edited gangster film that begins when Mr. Lung (Eddie Ko), the boss of a Triad society, that form of crime organization with roots in ancient China on which all Hong Kong gangster films are predicated, finds himself menaced by assassination attempts made by an unknown enemy. After his bodyguards successfully identify and eliminate the boss's nemesis, the real action begins when it becomes known that the youngest and most inexperienced of them has seriously violated the Triad code by sleeping with Mr. Lung's young wife. The four veteran Triad gangsters find a way to save the life of their young colleague that is as ingenious and skillful as their defense of the boss.

Misread as an ice cold thriller by some critics, The Mission is, in fact, a passionate exploration beneath the surface of mobster appearances, which To is qualified to undertake because of his observations as a child living in the projects built by the British to house the thousands of immigrants to Hong Kong after the Communists took over China葉his public housing became fertile Triad breeding grounds. When To made The Mission, his earlier A Hero Never Dies (1998), and his later Full Time Killer (2001), he considered himself a pioneer in the gangster film, who was bringing a greater reality to a genre that he felt had been overromanticized by John Woo and Andrew Lau's wildly popular Young and Dangerous gangster film series. Lately however, To has revised his estimation of his earlier work, which he now includes among Hong Kong's idealized gangster sagas. Rather, he claims that his latest films, Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006), which explore the destabilization and possible demise of the Hong Kong Triad societies, bring an essential and new realism to this very popular genre.

To's Election films chronicle the attack on Triad traditions by the oddly contradictory yet combined forces of the capitalist profit motive and Chinese Communist government interventions in the Hong Kong underworld. In making these films, To, for the first time, did a great deal of formal research, which allowed him to bring to the screen Triad rituals, correct in all their details. The first film tells the tale of an obligatory biannual election for the position of chairman held in all Triads still faithful to historical practices. The adversaries for the position, Lok and Big D, seem to present two clear alternatives. Lok, played by Simon Yam, a distinguished Hong Kong actor with whom To has worked many times, positions himself as a traditional leader, who places fidelity to the ancient Triad codes above any other commitment. Freewheeling Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), offers what he styles modern leadership and the prospect of big bucks unfettered by old ways. When Lok wins, however, he reveals that his pious proclamations have hidden a viciously pragmatic competitor determined to possess the money and power of a Triad chairman, no matter what the cost to code rules.

Election

The Wo Shing Triad in Election honors its traditions

Election 2 picks up the story two years later when it is time for the next voting process to take place. Lok, still placidly spouting not just lies, but damned lies, gets a horrible comeuppance when a new generation of Triad mobster in the person of Jimmy, a sleek, boyishly wholesome looking Triad operative with an MBA and an English name, is backed as chairman by the Chinese government. The price of Chinese support is very high, however. Jimmy, who had planned to use his Triad past as a stepping stone to becoming a legitimate businessman, comes face to face with an implacable Chinese will to turn Triad societies into orderly underworld organizations controlled by the mainland bureaucracy. The Chinese government plans to execute its plan by dispensing with Triad elections altogether and keeping Jimmy in place as a Triad boss accountable to them.

To is unrivaled in his ability to negotiate this kind of ironic situation, as the borders blur between law and order and gangster life in aid of what the Chinese security bureau agent working with Jimmy asserts will make for a more stable and affluent Hong Kong. The nonnegotiable Chinese terms doom Jimmy and all the foreseeable generations of his family to come to lives as Triad gangsters under the thumb of the mainland Establishment. Under the name Triad Election, the second film of the pair will be released in the United States by Tartan USA on April 25.

To has not, however, completely abandoned the very popular action Triad film. In June, Magnolia Pictures is scheduled to release Exiled, an adventure in the spirit of his earlier gangster films, in which four Triad soldiers sent to assassinate a former colleague who has left the gangster life find that they are loathe to violate the brotherhood and loyalty of the Triad for a corrupt and dishonorable boss. As in all well-conceived Triad films (and some really silly ones too), the price of fidelity to honor is high, but the action is thrilling and the ode to friendship vivid. Exiled is a little too reminiscent of To's former, better work, but it stars four of Hong Kong's finest actors由oy Cheung, Francis Ng, Suet Lam, and the always amazing Anthony Wong Chau Sang (not coincidentally the four veteran gangsters from The Mission). And they do not disappoint.

Cineaste met with To and his able, extremely helpful translator/supervising producer Yuin Shan Ding, while they were in New York to show Election 2 at the 2006 New York Film Festival, in order to talk about To's career and his latest films.

Cineaste: When Taylor Wong's Triads: The Inside Story, which starred Chow Yun-Fat as a U.S.-educated businessman who reluctantly agrees to take charge of his slain father's gangland activities, opened in Hong Kong in 1989, it was quite controversial. The feeling was that it might incite violence or lead to an increase in Triad membership. Were the Election films similarly received?

Johnnie To: The existence of Triad societies has always been a problem for Hong Kong. There were Triad-led riots in 1957 and again in 1967, part of a long and complicated history. Gangsters have always been troublesome for the government. The Election films follow how the Triads have tried to transform and survive in the last twenty or so years, from 1983, when China started negotiating with the British government about the return of Hong Kong, to 1997. Before the handover that year, the mainland government, officially and unofficially, sent people down to Hong Kong to appease the gangsters, by working out deals with them.

Regarding that film you mentioned, at that time, in the late 1980's and 1990's, a number of film companies, like Win's Entertainment, had some connection to the Triad societies, which is one thing that the mainland government wanted to resolve. Despite the changing times that my films reflect, I should say that shooting in Hong Kong was interesting; within its boundaries, filmmakers and other creative people can still say and do as they please, even in this new day and age.

Cineaste: If the government is so sensitive about Triads, why didn't it simply censor the movies? Why did they give you the freedom to make a movie about this subject?

To: When the British government ruled Hong Kong, there was no sense of democracy; the government leaders were British appointees. But they governed with an open hand, so whether in movies or other cultural events, they let creative people pretty much do what they wanted to do, so long as the films and events (like dragon dances, which could be fronts for protection money) weren't controversial or criminal in nature. Before the three-category film ratings system was introduced in 1988, it was impossible to feature any Triad-related language, gestures, or hand signs in movies. (John Woo's gangster movies, some of which were made before the system was introduced, didn't go into any specifics about Triad activity.) Once the ratings were in place the Hong Kong censorship board said that if a filmmaker wanted to depict any Triad-related rituals in a movie, that movie would automatically be rated Category III. [The "Category III" designation, the most restrictive of the three ratings, is the equivalent of a hard R or NC-17 in the U.S.由.C.]

Cineaste: Louis Koo is a very interesting choice to play Jimmy in the Election films. He's very good-looking and very personable, but he doesn't have that kind of charismatic passion that, say, Exiled star Anthony Wong has葉he kind that grabs the audience's affections. He allows you to stand back from the movie; you aren't pulled into it. Was it a conscious choice to cast an actor with that kind of coolness?

To: Jimmy is not what an audience would have in mind for a gangster, that is, someone very rowdy, who walks around with a gang of followers. Jimmy is different, a business-driven kind of gangster, who is not involved in the core criminal activity but on the business side of things. He has only a minor role in the first Election, selling pirated VCD's [a cheap, low-end video disc format popular in Asia由.C.]. The character came from our research of criminal bosses, some of whom we actually met. He sells things for a living, by exploiting the Triad network, and doesn't want his followers to address him as "Big Brother," as a typical Triad gangster would. He's more rational, and distances himself from the gangster world. In the first film, he's not really involved; it's only when his big boss was in trouble that he had to act, based on the ceremonial oath that he took, which is that you look out for your brother.

Anthony Wong in Exiled

Anthony Wong as Blaze the assassin in To's Exiled

I didn't need an emotional actor for this part. At the end of Triad Election, the mainland government approaches Jimmy; they don't want to deal with a 'big boss' type, who is out-of-control and could possibly outsmart them, but someone who acts more rationally and has greater social status. The mainland can level with someone like Jimmy, who believes in prosperity and stability. He's within their control. Louis Koo is perfect for this part, the kind that a younger Chow Yun-Fat might have played.

Cineaste: In Triad Election, the violence displayed creates tremendous anxiety. The two films are very somber, with the characters locked into this world forever. In Exiled, there are violent action scenes that give you a sense of elation or exhilaration. There's triumph in the way the gangsters defend their honor. Can you comment on the contrasting use of violence in the two films?

To: Different kinds of films call for different ways to handle these sequences. Triad Election is all about fear entering this controlled environment. Exiled is the opposite; it has a kind of romanticism about it, and it's all about the rhythm and music of the action scenes.

Cineaste: In past films, like A Hero Never Dies or The Mission, the 'good' gangsters care about honor, while the 'bad' ones care only about money. You've said those movies are all about honor. But in the Election films, nobody really cares about honor. They talk about it, but it's really all about the money. Why did the gangsters who believed in honor disappear from these films?

To: Those two films, along with Exiled, are fictional. They follow the path other Hong Kong gangster films had set, with everyone shooting guns all the time. But the Election films are meant to portray reality, the way things really are. No one shoots guns. It's the way gangsters really behave.

Cineaste: When Triad Election press-screened at the New York Film Festival, you said that the film asks the question: Is this the end of the Triad tradition? We ask, what would be the loss to Hong Kong if it was the end to this tradition?

To: Triad society is largely a product of unstable times after World War II. They got together after the war because they needed an organization to protect themselves. I think Triad society is a thing of the past, outdated. Hong Kong today is an industrial society; it doesn't need special organizations, it has laws that are fairer to all its people. Like the Mafia here in the U.S., the gangsters themselves have moved on from criminal activity to things like protection money and blackmail money from Hong Kong's unions and fish and fruit markets. These are not helpful, of course; they increase the price of fish and fruit, for example, and when in 1997 the government needed to kill all the chickens during the bird flu crisis to prevent its spread, the Triads mobilized the ignorant farmers against it, which threatened everyone. They remain a problem, and if Triad society does indeed die it will not be missed.

Cineaste: This year marks the tenth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. 2009 is the tenth anniversary of the handover of Macau, where Exiled takes place, to China. Both films seem pessimistic about the future of these former colonies under Chinese rule. Do you see any optimism in their future?

To: It's important to distinguish the pessimism of the future of the Election gangsters and pessimism over the future of Hong Kong. The end of the film may mark the end of the Triads, or the beginning of the end. Regarding Macau, it was already highly influenced by China long before it was handed over by Portugal. Its people work more cohesively with the mainland government. I think it will be fine. Hong Kong, however, has appointed politicians who engage in immature struggles, and the government of chief executive Tung Chee Hwa proved incapable of running itself. [Nicknamed "Old Confused Tung" by his critics, and deeply unpopular with the public, Tung, Hong Kong's first posthandover chief executive, resigned from his second five-year term in office in 2005由.C.]

Hong Kong still remains a competitive city, like Shanghai, or even more than Shanghai, and everyday life is stable. But the Beijing government has decided that, while we're still talking about "one country, two systems" and Hong Kong not changing for fifty years and Hong Kong rule for Hong Kong people and all of that, it will rule Hong Kong, and rule Hong Kong more directly. I still think that Hong Kong will remain an important place as part of China.

Purchase Johnnie To DVDs by clicking here

Cineaste, Vol. 32 No.2 (Spring 2007), 36-39.

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