EXCL: Hong Kong’s Legendary Johnnie To!

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If you’re a fan of Hong Kong cinema, particularly the early films of John Woo and the Infernal Affairs trilogy that inspired Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed, then you probably already know the name Johnnie To. The legendary director has been making movies since the ’80s and getting more prolific with age, with two or three movies released every year in China, though his U.S. fans are made up mainly of Asian-Americans and cult Asian film fans.

His best-known film here is probably 2003’s Full Time Killer, but Mr. To’s career hit a true turning point when his 2005 gangster movie Election became a huge blockbuster in China. Over a year later, the movie hasn’t been released in the U.S., even as its sequel Election 2 was made and released. That’s about to change as Tartan Films is finally releasing both movies here with the sequel being retitled Triad Election. (To’s other 2006 movie Exiled will be released by Magnolia Pictures in two months.)

Both movies deal with Hong Kong’s organized crime family The Triad, as one crime division prepares for the bi-annual election of their chairman, causing friction between feuding members of the gang. Triad Election follows a Chinese businessman named Jimmy who is trying to go legit though his Triad past keeps forcing him back into a life of crime, and though it works fine on its own, it’s even better when seen in conjunction with the original movie.

There’s no question that Mr. To is every bit as intimidating in person as the characters in his movies, and when ComingSoon.net sat down for an interview during his visit to New York to present Triad Election at last year’s New York Film Festival, it took us aback when he pulled out a cigar, used clippers to cut off the end and proceeded to light it with a mini-blowtorch. It was like a scene out of one of his own movies and made us very wary about what we asked him.

ComingSoon.net: A few years ago, you were doing police dramas like “PTU,” now you’re making movies about the criminals. Why did you decide to look at the other side of the equation?
Johnnie To: The Triad society in Hong Kong has played a very influential role since the end of WWII, and they’ve had a big impact on Hong Kong society. It is a part of everyday life in Hong Kong. Obviously, this is not something that the history books will write about; this is the underground history. Since Hong Kong was handed back over to China in 1997, we knew that Hong Kong has undergone a transformation socially, economically and politically, and the real reason I wanted to do these “Election” movies is because Tao Siju, the former Chinese Security Bureau Chief in the early ’90s said this one line that I thought was very powerful: “Even criminals can have a way to serve its country.” That has become the way that mainland government approached the Triad gangsters of Hong Kong, so they can finally try to work together. This is the kind of transformation that’s happening to the Triad Society in Hong Kong today, and as a filmmaker, I wanted to document that.

CS: I know the movies have done well in Hong Kong, but when you started making the first “Election,” did you receive any flack about making a movie that might glorify the criminal lifestyle?
To: The audience is used to these kind of genre movies, and with these films, what I tried to offer was a realistic picture of what the Triad people really are like. Most of the people in Hong Kong approve the “Election” movies, because they think that without gunfire and heroism, these movies can’t show the other side of Hong Kong. In the second film, “Triad Election,” a lot of people, especially the friends in my intellectual circle, they really agreed and saw this movie as a metaphor for the way Hong Kong has become politically.

CS: In the last few movies, you’ve been working with the same group of actors like Simon Yam and Suet Lam. Can you talk about what each of these actors brings to the ensemble that appear in your movies?
To: I think that I have a very narrow view on choosing actors; I’m kind of lazy. Unless a movie’s script is finished before I start shooting the movie, I don’t want my actors to do a lot of homework and prepare themselves for acting in my movies. I want them to service me, doing whatever I tell them to do during the shooting of my movies, and I want the communication between me and my actors to be fresh. I don’t want to overprepare myself for a shoot beforehand. As far as working with the same people over and over again, these are the people that I’ve established a good relationship with over the years, and they listen and follow my directions. That’s what I want.

CS: And working specifically with Simon Yam in so many movies, is he becoming your De Niro in that sense?
To: He’s not necessarily my Robert De Niro. I would say that Simon Yam is somebody who knows my personality very well and understands my way of production very well. I don’t want my actors to always ask me questions when I am shooting my movies; I just want my actors to do whatever I tell them to do, and when my actors make mistakes, I will teach them how to do it. As long as they have the basic technical skills of acting, whether it’s Lau Ching-wan, Tony Leung Ka-Fai or Simon Yam, they can be interchangeable.

CS: In that case, how do you decide who is going to do which role when you’re casting a new movie?
To: There are two things that help me decide, because obviously age-wise determining who plays what. Firstly, it’s about meeting the need of the film companies on which actor will offer a greater appeal for the audience. Secondly, each character brings a different personality to each role, so I will look at each of them can offer and what I want and what I see that attracts me, and that will help me decide who will play what character.

CS: I’m interested in how you decide how to incorporate violence and action into your storytelling, because your movies tend to be more about the characters and drama.
To: It’s really what the dramatic scenes call for. For “Election 2,” the objective is to give that movie a realistic portrayal of how Hong Kong gangsters really are, and Hong Kong gangsters never use guns, that’s all you see in movies. I can introduce an elaborate sequence if I want to but that’s not a reality, so that will not happen. “Exiled” is really about romantic heroes, so the action there is really an expression of the romanticism of the heroes. An action scene for me is really a play of time and space, and I’m always inspired by the personalities of the characters and the environment of the location. That’s what inspires me to design these action sequences.

CS: Last year, one of the biggest movies in the country was “The Departed” which was influenced by a Hong Kong movie. When I interviewed Scorsese, he said he was hugely influenced by Asian films, so does that influence go both ways?
To: Moviemaking is always just a constant change of culture. You can say that Hong Kong has been influenced by Western movies, and in the end, it really depends on the creativity of the filmmakers, what they take from their influences and how they use them.

CS: Although you’ve been making movies for decades, you’ve become a lot more prolific in recent years, or at least that’s the perception here. Do you just like keeping busy or do you have a lot of ideas that you’re trying to get made at the same time?
To: I just wanted to do as much as possible while I’m still in really good health and while I’m still physically and mentally able to do so. I have a lot of ideas I want to shoot, and I also want to try different things. Now, at this time, I still have the opportunity to do so and I’ll try. Maybe one day, even if I wanted to, I won’t have the kind of environment or the kind of body condition that would allow me to do so, so now I try to do as much as I can.

CS: I live in Chinatown, so I can get your movies on DVD when I want, but why has it been so hard to get your movies released here theatrically?
To: Maybe it just isn’t a good time to release my movies or maybe distributors think my movies are not worth being released here. Maybe it just needs more time for people to watch small movies like mineĀ… or maybe I’m still not a good filmmaker. (Note: That last part must be a joke.)

CS: Now that you’ve had success with the first two “Election” movies, do you see wrapping them up as a trilogy?
To: What’s important is that “Election 1 and 2” is not really about a continuation of the characters, but it’s really about how Hong Kong as a society has evolved during these years. If down the line, we see Hong Kong society continuing to move onto the next phase, and I’m there to see it, that might inspire me to do another movie about “Election” and the way gangsters are under that new environment. If the future development of Hong Kong as a society is worth being documented, I will make “Election 3”; otherwise, I won’t make it. In short, whether I make “Election 3” will depend on the future history of Hong Kong.

CS: Now that “Exiled” is due to come out soon, do you know what your next movie will be? Do you want to get away from the crime genre at all?
To: My work method is a little different because I’ve already finished another film before coming here after “Exiled.” It’s a romantic drama called “Linger” and when I go back to Hong Kong, I have three more films to finish in early 2007. One will be called “The Sparrow” about pickpockets, another movie will be a cop thriller which I’ll be reuniting with Wa Ka-Fai, and another one is a movie with the working title “Triangle,” which I’ll be shooting with Shri Hark and Ringo Lam, each one shooting half an hour. So after all this is done, I have various other projects I want to do, maybe martial arts, maybe a road movie, various things. Of the three films, I’ve begun to shoot two of them already.

Johnnie To’s Triad Election will open at New York’s Film Forum on Wednesday, April 25 for a two-week engagement with Election being played every day at 3:30 PM. One can expect that Tartan Films will then move both movies to other cities throughout the country, and then To’s most recent film Exiled opens in June.

Thanks to Susan Norget for making this interview happen and to marychan for helping with the translation.