Monday, 22 September 2008

hong kong's master auteur in focus

Jonnie To

Johnnie To Kei-Fung, known to Westerners as Johnnie To, is the master auteur of Hong Kong film, with a career spanning 28 years, and nearly 50 producing and directing credits to his name (and counting). This November, ACMI will present Focus on Johnnie To, a comprehensive retrospective program of his solo directorial works, spanning his early films to his most recent release.

An assistant TV director in the Shaw Studios era, To became known in the 1980s when many of his early productions struck box office success. By the 1990s, To had reached international fame and earnt himself a reputation for his ability to generate international cult classics across genres, from crime-drama to action to romantic comedy. Many of his most popular films are crime-dramas, often dealing with the challenges facing police. 

Other hallmarks of To's films include the regular casting of actors such as Simon Yam, Suet Lam and Andy Lau in lead roles. An ongoing partnership with frequent collaborator, writer/producer/director Wai Ka-Fai, extends to co-ownership of their independent production company Milkyway Image, established in 1996. Although Johnnie To has had many successful, long-term collaborations, this retrospective is a showcase of his solo directorial works. Now a veteran of the industry, To joined the Jury of the 2008 Venice Film Festival and enjoyed a similar retrospective of his work at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

"ACMI is thrilled to present Johnnie To's unique, singular cinematic vision in this film season.  He is regarded as an institution in Hong Kong and his films are synonymous with quality film making. To is without shadow of a doubt the most versatile and respected director to ever come out of Hong Kong and enjoy success in the West," says James Nolen, ACMI Film Programmer and curator of the season.

Director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Lorna Wong, concurred; "The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office is proud to collaborate with ACMI to bring this retrospective of Johnnie To Kei-Fung's films. Over the past three decades, he has generated Hong Kong's finest film exports, entertaining millions and earning himself the respect and admiration of people around the world. It is an honour for us to be involved in this tribute to one of our most talented film directors."

Opening with his most recent release, Sparrow (2008), this retrospective will start with To's personal tribute to his favourite city - Hong Kong - and a nod to great filmmakers including Jacques Demy. The film is named after the sparrows of Hong Kong; audacious pickpockets who will relieve you of your wallet without the slightest hint and To captures their skills with poetic brilliance, complimented by a seductive soundtrack by French duo Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril. The film, which was three years in the making, stars To regular Simon Yam, in their eighth collaboration, and Kelly Lin and follows a group of pickpockets approached by a mysterious woman. Sparrow opened the 10th Osian Cinefan Film Festival of Asian and Arab cinema in New Dehli in August and screened at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival. 

Leaping back in time, we take a look at To's largely forgotten directorial debut appropriately titled, The Enigmatic Case (1980). Following in the footsteps of fellow directors Tsui Hark and Patrick Tam, To's first outing is a martial arts (wuxia) film but his realistic style set this film apart from their special-effect-heavy productions. One of the first Hong Kong films to be shot in China, The Enigmatic Case stars Damian Lau, who plays a wanted swordsman on the run for murderer who knows the location of a hidden pot of gold. 

After his debut and a seven year absence from film while working in television, To returned with a briskly paced romantic comedy, Seven Year's Itch (1987). Only his second film and first foray into romantic comedy, Seven Year's Itch is an early display of one of To's trademarks: his ability to generate box office success across all genres. As the plot goes; an introverted business man Willie Ng (Raymond Wong) recently celebrated his seventh wedding anniversary to his Cantonese opera obsessed wife (Sylvia Chang). They are in a rut and on a business trip to Singapore Willie meets pickpocket Siu Hung (Nina Li) at the airport, triggering off a series of events that will challenge those marriage vows.

By the time Fulltime Killer (2001) was released, To's stylish film aesthetic had well and truly caught on in the West. Fulltime Killer, littered with hit-man movie references, garnered To serious recognition in the West, including screening at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival. Co-directed by frequent To collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, this high octane shoot 'em up pits heartthrob and pop star Andy Lau (Tok) against his biggest opponent Takashi Sorimachi (O), as they battle it out for the attentions of beautiful Kelly Lin (Chin). Hot on their tails is Simon Yam (Lee) as an Interpol inspector who becomes obsessed with the two assassins as he pursues them across Asia.

After what was regarded as a creative and financial lull for To, the veteran film maker returned to form with the much anticipated release of PTU (2003). A crime-thriller starring Simon Yam and Lam Suet, PTU unfolds over a single night and follows a group from the elite division of the Hong Kong police force (the Police Tactical Unit) as they frantically try to recover a missing colleague's gun. Set against the TsimShaTsui area that never sleeps, this solid example of Kowloon Noir ends with one of To's hallmark balletic shootouts. To was awarded Best Director at the 2004 Hong Kong Film Awards for PTU, which also enjoyed screenings at 2003 Berlin and New York Film Festivals.

Following the success of PTU, To's next police crime drama, Breaking News (2004), garnered critical and popular acclaim across the world. As well as making the Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival, the film won To awards such as Best Director at the 2004 Catalonian International Film Festival, a Golden Horse for Best Director (Taiwan, 2004), and a Golden Deer for Best Director (China, 2005). Breaking News is a fast-moving action drama that explores the role of the media in the reporting of current affairs. The Hong Kong police force takes a beating in the court of public opinion after their unsuccessful attempt to foil a high stakes robbery is broadcast live on television. The police attempt to turn the tables, arming themselves with cameras as they attempt to ambush the criminals hideout. On the making of Breaking News, To said: "Hong Kong police force, like its counterparts around the world, has adapted itself to the game of media manipulation in the information age. It understands fighting crime requires more than tough measures, but also showy presentation in order to win public's support. In many cases, image speaks louder than action. To quote one of the characters in the film - 'I promise, this will be a good show'."

Other highlights of the program include:
. Early To comedy The Fun, the Luck and the Tycoon (1989) stars Chow Yun Fat (Lam Bo Sun) as the richest man in Hong Kong who is expected to marry the ditziest of socialites in a matter of weeks. On a whim, he leaves it all behind and gets a job as a lowly bus boy at a noodle restaurant and finds the girl of his dreams.
. The Shaw Brother's co-production of The Bare Footed Kid (1993), an exciting remake of Chang Cheh's 1975 martial arts classic Disciples of Shaolin, stars the radiant Maggie Cheung and actor-singer Aaron Kwok as the barefooted kid, Kuan Feng-yu. A superior but naïve fighter who could do with a break (and a decent pair of shoes) becomes embroiled in a dispute between rival fabric dyeing factories. A number of fight scenes are masterfully directed by veteran action director Lau Kar-leung, featuring seventies kung-fu veteran Ti Lung.
A Hero Never Dies (1998) takes the whole 'heroic bloodshed' school of Hong Kong action films and pushes the genre to melodramatic heights. With unusually strong female leads, this action thriller unites two former opposing assassins in a bloody fight to the finish as they take on their former gangster employers.
. Proving that he can make quality popular entertainment as well as his more singular works, Johnnie To had one of the biggest box office hits in the history of Hong Kong cinema with the gripping crime thriller Running out of Time (1999). It stars two of Hong Kong's film heavyweights, Andy Lau and Sean Lau Ching Wan. With only days to live, Cheung (Andy Lau) embarks on an elaborate heist, and invites the determined, intelligent Inspector Ho (Sean Lau Ching Wan) along for the chase.
. Johnnie To's personal favourite and tribute to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, Throw Down (2004) is close to his best work. This is the film that best expresses his philosophy of 'jiji rensheng' or 'life as a positive force.' This means that no matter how ephemeral or abnormal life may be, one should struggle through it, just as alcoholic, former Judo champion Sze-To (Louis Koo) does. Down on his luck and being gently prodded to regain his former glory by Tony (Aaron Kwok), he finds redemption in his return to the practice of judo.
. The critically acclaimed Exiled (2006) is a who's who of To regulars, including Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet and Simon Yam. Set in 1998, just before the former Portuguese colony of Macau is to be returned to the Chinese government, every living soul jumps at every chance to make quick money. For a group of jaded hit men, they wonder where this journey will end.

With generous support from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office

Further information

Claire Butler
Communications Coordinator
[direct phone] 61 3 8663 2415 [fax] 61 3 8663 2498 [mobile] 0434 603 654
[email] claire.butler@acmi.net.au  
 
 
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