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Johnnie To: A Current Appraisal

johnnie to
Johnnie To
American film critic, filmmaker, and independent scholar Andrew Grossman holds an interest in both transgressive and popular cultures. His critical writings appear in the anthologies Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade (Haworth Press, 2001), 24 Frames: The Films of Korea and Japan (Boxfish Media, 2004), The New Korean Cinema (University of Edinburgh Press, 2005), and Chinese Connections: Critical Perspectives on Film, Identity, and Diaspora (Temple University Press, forthcoming). He is also an associate editor of and frequent contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal ( In this essay for ACMI Grossman examines the enduring and often enigmatic vision of Johnnie To.

The aching, costly crudities of Hollywood, poisoning perhaps all other film industries within their colonising touch, have fostered in us cheerless equations between the popular and the meretricious, the generic and the mindless, the visceral and the crassly adolescent. The simple nobilities the American action film once claimed in the days of Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah were, to be sure, the products of a male chauvinist romanticism, but from it was born a beautifully dangerous naiveté, the belief that our violent fantasies may be indulged as long as the world remained within the hands of moral individuals. Even The Wild Bunch's Pike Bishop, for all his mercenary disregard for innocent bystanders, reassures us with a name (and hence morality) unambiguously borrowed from the 1960's Episcopal Bishop Pike, once famous for his anti-Vietnam protests. But nostalgia for nonexistent moralities is a poor substitute for our present confusions.

The corporate ideology of the blockbuster film, postmodern cycles of nagging pastiche, and a culture of overweening irony have exposed the moral hero as the chimera we always knew him to be. The de rigueur fetish of CGI experimentation-which will die out sooner or later-further renders the action hero a thoughtless, hopelessly commercial cipher, a dehumanised, generic prop whose moral codes must be implanted like so many computer chips. But we dare not mourn our loss: the gap is neatly filled by our proud, petty cynicism and the defensive conviction that filmmaking is, at heart, a marketable diversion to be manufactured, consumed and excreted as stylishly as possible. The "art of film"-if one can speak such a phrase without cracking into a sneer-is responsible now only to its own sense of style, and we, audiences guaranteed only our own passivity, become responsible only to (and for?) our own senses of emasculation.

In retrospect, it is easy to overromanticise the Hong Kong new wave's cheerful coexistence of artistry and commerce, for it was a rare time when a capitalistic industry (albeit one controlled by gangsters!) gave rise to sublimely naïve rather than calculatedly sentimental filmmaking, to borrow Schiller's binary. Hong Kong's new wave-which, in its various guises, extended roughly from Ann Hui's The Spooky Bunch (1978) through the destabilisation of HK's film industry in the early 1990s-was for many years a precious rebuke of the inexorable Hollywood narrative of moral implosion. Here was a movement that, though beholden to Western filmmaking techniques, sought to delight rather than impress, or oppress. Artfulness and populism came together ingenuously, style served (not substituted for) efficient narrative structures, and naiveté once again seemed plausible. Of course, this is not to overstate the case: for every Hong Kong 1941 (Po Chih-leong, 1984), Dream Lovers (Tony Au, 1986), Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1987), or A Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990), there were dozens of risible quick-buck titles like Stooges in Hong Kong, Sex Racecourse, and Boss No-Balls. But even the lamest specimens of Hong Kong capitalism seemed somehow innocent ... if not truly blameless.

Johnnie To Kei-fung, whose career spans the full breadth of the HK new wave and extends to the present day, has emerged as the former colony's most industrious contemporary filmmaker precisely because he's been able to shrewdly adapt artful means to commercial ends. It is doubtful that To could have imagined he, and not once better-known action auteurs, would now assume this unique position; never seeking an exilic fortune in beckoning, beguiling Hollywood, however, To never fell victim to the ill post-colonial providences endured by those unsuspecting cineastes all too eager to jump ship before for the 1997 handover. The now-inconsequential John Woo, once the standard-bearer of the HK action film, has since descended into slow motion self-parody after selling his soul and gun-slinging mythos to Hollywood boardrooms. Shanghai Blues (1984) and Once Upon a Time in China (1991), now accumulating two decades of nostalgic dust, are fading reminders of the charms Tsui Hark can no longer recapture. The frantically transnational Jackie Chan, who always looked westward, has since returned to Chinese film production, but cannot shake the embarrassment of having played second fiddle to Hollywood actors without a fraction of his gifts. And it is best not to dwell on the current fates of Po Chih-leong, Ching Siu-tung, and countless other downgraded talents now roaming the pitiless limbos of HK television and direct-to-video marketplaces. It thus that To, through all his eclectic periods of sincerity and irony, through stretches of genuine inspiration and cycles of journeyman competence, has outlasted them all.

the enigmatic case
The Enigmatic Case
Its moodiness presaging the noirish opacity of his recent gangster exercises, To's debut feature, The Enigmatic Case (1980), belongs to that sadly short-lived period of the HK new wave when films such as The Butterfly Murders (Tsui Hark, 1979), The Story of Woo Viet (Ann Hui, 1981), and Coolie Killer (Terry Tong, 1982) championed elliptical over linear narrative. Though nominally grounded in the martial arts genre, it is the film's moody natural landscapes and anachronistic electronic score, rather than its action, which envelop the viewer. To's return to cinema seven years later (after a hiatus in television) placed him squarely within HK cinema's mainstream, where he quickly alternated candy-colored, happy-go-lucky, and altogether materialistic comedies in the vein of 1987's Seven Years Itch [sic], the commercial hit Eighth Happiness (1988), and The Fun, the Luck, and the Tycoon (1989) with the bloody policier The Big Heat (1988) and the pulpy gangster fable A Moment of Romance (1990).

  the fun, the luck and the tycoon
  The Fun, the Luck, and the Tycoon
With The Heroic Trio (1992), To, along with co-director Ching Siu-tung, transferred martial arts tropes to a stylised comic-book underworld, perhaps following the lead of David Lai's cult favorite Savior of the Soul (1991). Retaining The Heroic Trio's gravity-flouting, "metaphysical" action choreography, yet looking back wistfully to the Confucianist Shaw Brothers epics of the 1970's, To's The Barefooted Kid (1993) is both a full-throttle entry in the then-fashionable wu xia craze and a full-blooded morality tale; its sincere emotionalism, furthermore, is unpretentious proof that genre revisionism needn't succumb to self-congratulatory, amoral pastiche. What remains a constant in To's work from this naïve period to the more self-conscious present is a simply structural beauty: in a Spartan ninety minutes of narrative-and often a bit less-To economically spins what an egoistic Hollywood would distend to nearly twice the length and half the effect.

With the founding of his Milkyway Image production company in 1995, To embarked on the present, lengthiest leg of his career, which has more critically reimagined and recontextualised the virile traditions of genre filmmaking-particularly those of the gangster film-as ironic statements on the construction of masculinity, the performance of genre, and the ways in which audiences respond to genre conventionalities, especially when generic rules are violated. Though early Milkyway efforts were stylish yet decidedly heartfelt (Loving You, 1995; Beyond Hypothermia, 1996), as the uneasy cusp of the colony's 1997 handover approached, the films To produced became increasingly experimentalist, nihilistic, and anarchic, even if they eschew any sociopolitical conscience (let alone agenda). Filtering the cool asceticism of Jean-Pierre Melville through the straight-faced burlesque of Godard's Pierrot Le Fou (1965), triad satires such as The Odd One Dies (1997) and especially Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (1997) dragged their antiheroes through absurd cityscapes that defy both logic and survival (indeed, Too Many Ways, more anarchic in its genre deconstructions than the Takeshi Kitano films that inspired it, is intended as urbanised, brutalist Lewis Carroll). Realising his "experimental" period was alienating him from mass audiences, however, To quickly adjusted the way he went about reinventing genre, supplanting Godardian absurdism with a more humanistic quirkiness that, in its own way, challenges genre dictates equally well. To's experimentalist phase was not an artistic cul-de-sac, however; these experiments were necessary trials for the more accessible gangster ironies of
  a hero never dies
  A Hero Never Dies
A Hero Never Dies (1998) and the roguish Running Out of Time (1999), just as, to pose a rather distant analogy, Leonard Bernstein's unpublished experiments with atonality in the 1960's gave indirect birth to the more melodious and popular Chichester Psalms.

In his Milkyway-era films, To deliberately disrupts our expectations of the genre film while still abiding by generic assumptions, particularly those of gender. Excepting the more active heroines of 2003's Running on Karma, To's is an inherently, irrationally masculine universe, where women are generally tangential, intermediary points in triangulated male relationships, or, as in Where a Good Man Goes (1999) and Exiled (2004), symbols of domesticity and rationality.
where a good man goes
Where a Good Man Goes
Yet unlike Martin Scorcese or Michael Mann, for instance, To has a more subversive, love-hate relationship with his masculine orders: he first creates supra-mythic icons from his chic parade of nocturnal, gun-slinging hooligans, and then insists they act in petty, ridiculous, or even understatedly humanistic ways that contravene stoical genre ideology. In his most recent films, To is interested in hybridising tonalities, not genres; his heroic archetypes, for all-too-brief moments, step from their culturally circumscribed roles to behave as we might-not to remind us that heroism lies within us all, but that to reveal that heroism, when defined exclusively by stylishly inhuman feats of violence, exists at odds with true humanity.

On the surface, Breaking News (2004) is a conventional, tightly plotted, technically elaborate thriller, with an audience-pleasing opening shootout that-replete with roaming, unbroken crane shots and an omniscient mise-en-scene-recalls nothing less than the magniloquent opening tracking shot of De Palma's Snake Eyes (1998). Yet we are forced to rethink this straightforward action narrative (leavened with some media critique) when its murderous gangster antagonists tenderly pause to prepare a lavish dinner for their hostages. Similarly, we must reevaluate the seemingly deterministic roles of the macho triads of Exiled (2006) when they-in the wake of the sort of baroque shootout in which such characters surely engage daily-find time to create a poignant photo album, as if disclosing latent humanities buried under the inherited legacy of an impassive genre. Weaned on the cartoonish violence both exemplified by and parodied in To's Fulltime Killer (2001), we are likewise arrested by the bloody Running on Karma's pacifist, Buddhistic conclusion, and come to a happy catharsis when Throw Down (2004) uses the narrative of a martial arts challenge only to turn old tropes of violence into a friendly game played out against the playful backdrop of a video arcade.

Like all good visual storytellers, To is expert at mining emotion from the simply revelatory image-think of the teary-eyed, bleeding dog in Running on Karma we witness losing its soul after helplessly getting caught in senseless crossfire. But his real forte, perhaps, is crafting anamorphic landscapes of urban ambiguity: updating the affectations of Sergio Leone to HK's neon nocturne, To transforms chic taciturnity into the choice mode of (non-)expression for the postcolonially disenfranchised.
Indeed, PTU (2003), among the best-known of To's recent works, is less a compelling narrative than a widescreen mood piece, buoyed by an ambient-synth soundtrack and engraved in deep focus chiaroscuri whose consciously narrow color palette ranges from blue-grey to icy aquamarine (with occasional splashes of life-or-death red thrown in for effect). PTU's minimal dialogue only begins to hint at maximally Machiavellian plotting, evoking the narrative tortuosity of The Big Sleep (1946), which even William Faulkner was at pains to unfurl. Through relentless close-ups and curiously unpeopled streets, too, does To craft a claustrophobia in his widescreen compositions as oppressive as the cramped, squared aspect ratio of 40s noir.

While To's exercises in genre irony can be deemed "comic" in some vaguely postmodern fashion-A Hero Never Dies is a good example-we must ask what exactly is the comedy's object of critique. Is it the rigid rules of a ritualistic machismo, equal parts diluted Confucius and revved-up bloodletting; the static, cyclical, incestuous nature of genre filmmaking; or those audiences who, enthralled to genre's eternally returning comforts, remain forever in the grasp of received mythologies? A film such as To's Fulltime Killer (2001)-apparently a more gorily commercial venture than, say, a measured mood piece like PTU (2003)-further confuses our attempt to decide whether To is poker-faced parodist or goal-oriented satirist. By the time Fulltime Killer's perpetual phallic posturing and slow motion body count conclude in a finale abounding in showy crane shots, spraying fireworks, and hummable snatches of Beethoven's Ninth, no less, the film has mutated from a parody of post-John Woo patriarchy into a critique of its own audience's desire for the fetishised, squib-pocked signs of a masturbatory mythology, now moving past its prime.

Any artist as prolific as To is bound to endure unevenness and periodic lulls-few would argue that As You Like It is the equal of Twelfth Night, and even the most rabid devotee of Haydn would not claim all 104 symphonies are equal in merit. Regardless, throughout his career, To has treated genre as the alternately inspiring and contemptuous game it is, and as he now intently twists genre inside out, we see along with him what humanities, authentic or ghostly, might lurk within. From these twists, we are confronted yet again with the impossible balance of innocence and irony.
Revisiting a film such as The Barefooted Kid could certainly remind us irony-laden cynics of the values of unselfconsciousness, now discarded by sinister corporate technologies intent on our mass alienations and emasculations. On the other hand, the knowing ironies in which To does engage are, in a sense, progressive, for they force the viewer to question-and perhaps emasculate in the process-the dehumanising assumptions of cinematic myth, rather than revel in an unquestioning abyss of Tarantino-esque pastiche
  the barefooted kid
  The Barefooted Kid
whose very removal from originality becomes a perverse point of pride.

With To's recent Sparrow (2008) -its criminal heroes gallivant pickpockets, not sociopathic killers-To threatens to enter openly lyrical terrain, pulling HK's noir underbelly into a crowded and cosmopolitan (if still occasionally nasty) daylight. But if in transnational eyes and film festivals works such as Exiled and Sparrow are legitimised as "art films" (that horrible redundancy), we should remember there was a more naïve-though not philistine-time when such legitimation was not only superfluous, but undesired.

Andrew Grossman, October 2008
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