Johnnie To (To Kei-fung) has been one of the most successful directors in the Hong Kong film industry for the last 15 years. He made his name in Asia with such hits as The Eighth Happiness, a 1998 comedy starring Chow Yun-fat, and All About Ah-Long (1989), a dramatic tearjerker that earned Chow Yun-fat his third Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor and, more importantly, his first for a non-action role.
Stateside, Johnnie To is better known for the gritty, explosive crime thriller The Big Heat (1988) and the wild supernatural superhero fantasy The Heroic Trio (1992), co-directed with action choreographer Ching Siu-tung and starring Anita Mui, Michele Yeoh and a sassy, leather-clad Maggie Cheung as costumed heroes who blow Charlie's Angels right off the screen. In recent years, Johnnie To has risen to the top of Hong Kong gangster drama with such films as the two Running Out of Time caper thrillers (1999 and 2001), the dreamy, sleek assassin opera Fulltime Killer (2001), and the lean underworld thriller The Mission (1999), the strongest evocation of the romantic criminal code of brotherhood, blood and bullets since John Woo left for Hollywood.
Johnnie To took time out in the midst of shooting Running on Karma to fly from Hong Kong to Seattle for the North American premiere of PTU at the 2003 Seattle International Film Festival. Jet-lagged, he arrived in Seattle on Thursday, June 12, and generously gave me an hour of his time for an interview, squeezed into a busy day of interviews, the very afternoon he landed. The next day, he appeared at the Friday, June 13 premiere of his film (which, due to customs delays, arrived Friday morning, much to the relief of all), answered questions from the audience and was feted at a special after-film reception. (Between the screening and the party, he allowed me a shorter informal interview session.) The party went late into the night but To had to say his goodbyes early, for he had an early morning flight back to Hong Kong on Saturday. Monday morning he was back on the set of Running on Karma.
Mr. To speaks fine English and would often begin to answer a question in English, but for interview purposes, he prefers the ease and articulation of Cantonese. Shan Ding, the associate director of his production company, Milkyway Image (HK), translated. Settled in a spacious, bright conference room overlooking Seattle rush hour traffic on a sweltering summer day, the three of us sat down for a whirlwind career retrospective of the man who has, for the past five years, consistently delivered Hong Kong's most compelling gangster and crime films.
How did you start in the business? What was your education and your first work in the industry?
I never had formal training in film or television. I got into the business when I was 17. My first job was as a messenger at Hong Kong's TVB, the Television Broadcast Company, and I became interested in television production, so I became the assistant director on the TV production team and then graduated to become executive producer, which is like a director, basically.
What kind of shows did you start with?
Drama shows. I started on The Legend of the Condor Heroes (1973, which won the New York International TV Festival Gold Award) and worked in TV for more than 20 years. It's a very good training ground. I directed 20 to 30 hours of drama a year and was constantly working. But there's a difference between TV and movies. People pay for movies so you are judged not just on artistic quality. The audience votes with their dollars.
According to the IMDb, your first feature film was The Enigmatic Case in 1980. The Chinese title listed is Bi shui han shan duo mong jin.
[Laughs] That's correct, but this is a Mandarin translation. The film was shot in 1978 and released in 1979.
What is it about? And how did you make the transition from TV to film?
The film was shot in 1978 and released in 1979. It's a martial arts suspense thriller and the first Hong Kong movie to be shot in China. Since it was my first film ever, it felt very different. In TV, each part is separated by departments - script, ideas, production - but in film I felt that the director was in charge of everything. Again, this was my first film and, coming from a TV background, I thought the film was not very successful as a film, so I went back to TV to get more training and I didn't shoot my second film until 1986.
The Big Heat (1988) is a gripping, action packed thriller and the first of your films to make waves here in the US. Was it your first action film? Was it successful in Hong Kong?
I had shot many action TV series before, but The Big Heat was my first action feature film. The film was produced by Tsui Hark; it was his concept and he used various directors to make this movie - not just me, but other directors as well. Under Tsui Hark's creative control I didn't think we were able to express our own concepts of the film.
Andrew Kam is listed in the credits as a co-director.
Yes, but I don't know him as Andrew. I only knew his Chinese name, Kam Yuen Wah. And after this movie he disappeared. I've never seen him again.
So Tsui Hark, the producer, was also guiding the project. How did that work, trying to bring someone else's vision to the screen, and how did you work with a co-director?
It's a complicated story. By the time I joined the project, Kam Yuen-wah had shot about half the movie and then left the project. Kam Yuen-wah was getting frustrated at the process because he didn't know what Tsui Hark wanted and Tsui Hark himself was frustrated because he didn't know what he wanted. I was working with Cinema City at the time and I was preparing to start my new film Eighth Happiness (1988). I had a month or two before I began the film so I joined the project, but it was difficult for me because Tsui Hark would give me one idea and then a few days later change his mind. It was frustrating. Later, when I left the project, Tsui Hark himself shot some scenes and then Ching Sui-Tung was brought in to shoot some scenes. So it was a mix. But it is was a big experience for me to shoot that kind of action movie. I'd shot action for TV many times, but this was the first time I was shooting it for a movie.
Most of your films at this time were comedies.
Comedies were bigger box office. All the producers of Cinema City, one of the most famous and successful Hong Kong film production houses, pushed the directors to make comedies.
You did a number of comedies with Chow Yun-fat, who is most famous here as an action star, but in Hong Kong had a whole career before making action movies.
I knew Chow Yun-fat from way back in our TV days. He was a popular TV star before he made his screen debut. His TV series were mostly drama shows and the roles he played were romantic or heroic characters. After the success of A Better Tomorrow, everyone knew that he would be successful with a gun in his hand, but I knew his range and it wasn't just playing gangsters. That's why, when we worked together, we made two comedies and one drama, All About Ah-Long (1989), because I knew that Chow Yun-fat could handle dramatic roles. And he would be a fresh actor for comedic roles because he had never done them before. The audiences enjoyed these movies; they were very successful back in the 1980s.
Chow Yun-fat and Sylvia Chang wrote the original story of All About Ah-Long, is that right?
They wrote the idea. Chow Yun-fat contributed some ideas to the story, but it was Sylvia Chang who really put everything together and turned it into a structured treatment. The screenplay was written by Ng Man-fai.
You had worked with both Sylvia Chang and Chow Yun-fat on previous projects. Did they bring the project to you, or did it come through Cinema City producers?
I wanted to do a project with Sylvia Chang and Chow Yun-fat at that time because I knew they were two of the best actors in Hong Kong and they were very mature actors. After the success of Eighth Happiness, Cinema City gave me the freedom to do a project of my own so I developed this with Sylvia and Chow Yun-fat. I also contributed some ideas to it.
And Chow Yun-fat won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor, his first for a non-action role.
Yes, but he had won the award twice before, for A Better Tomorrow and City On Fire.