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Date: 22 June 2015
Location: London (Princess Theatre, British Academy of Film and Television Arts)
Guest: Johnnie To
Moderator: Ian Hayden Smith
Partners: British Academy of Film and Television Arts
Founded in 2013 by the three major international film festivals in Asia, that is Busan, Hong Kong and Tokyo, the Asian Film Awards Academy (AFAA)’s objective is to promote and develop Asian cinema, its talents and audiences. With the financial support from Create Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Film Development Fund, the AFAA present year-round initiatives such as professional exchanges, mentorship and development programs for young filmmakers, and strategies for regional and international audience development.
With the support of Brand Hong Kong and Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, London, the AFAA collaborates with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) for the first time and kicked off the AFAA’s year-round initiatives with talks by renowned Hong Kong director Johnnie To Kei Fung. The two events BAFTA A Life in Pictures: Johnnie To and In Person: Johnnie To respectively took place on June 22, 2015 (Monday) in London (UK) and on June 24, 2015 (Wednesday) in Edinburgh (UK) with resounding success. The occasions provided the UK audience with the rare opportunities to meet a Hong Kong director face to face to have a deeper understanding of Hong Kong film, meeting the events co-presenters’ and supporters shared aim to encourage creative and cultural exchanges between the film talents of Hong Kong and the UK.
Johnnie To is the first Hong Kong director to participate in the BAFTA A Life in Pictures series. Over the years, the series’ speakers have included top-notch international film professionals, including Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese, Kenneth Branagh, Cate Blanchett, David Fincher, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Ethan Hawke, Helen Mirren, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman and Quentin Tarantino.
During the talk, To discussed the relationship between everyday life and film, his creative journey and the power of Hong Kong as a character in his films. The screening and the talks were met with enthusiastic audiences. To’s sense of humor triggered hearty laughter from the audiences.
The completed interview in the Masterclass
Announcer: Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this evening’s Life In Pictures with Johnnie To. As the event is taking place in both English and Cantonese we are providing simultaneous translation for you on the headsets and packs you will find next to your seats. If you would like to experience the event in English please turn your sets to Channel One, and if you would like to experience the event in Cantonese please turn your packs to Channel Two. This evening’s event is being filmed for the BAFTA Guru website, so please ensure that all mobile phones are switched off and you refrain from taking any photos during this evening’s event. At the end of the event there will be a short Q&A session, and should you wish to ask a question, please raise your hand and wait for the mic to get to you before you speak. Now please join me in welcoming to the stage Duncan Kenworthy.
Duncan Kenworthy: Good evening, and it is a pleasure to welcome you to this BAFTA Life in Pictures event. Tonight marks a historic first collaboration with the Hong Kong-based Asian Film Awards Academy. Together with them, BAFTA is delighted to present one of the most versatile and respected filmmakers in Asia, Mr. Johnnie To. Mr. To is one of Hong Kong’s leading and busiest filmmakers with an enviable number of films to his name. He’s worked in a range of genres but is best known internationally for his action and crime movies such as The Mission, Election and Vengeance which have earned him cult status and critical acclaim, as well as commercial success and recognition at major film festivals around the world including Berlin, Cannes and Venice. He’s also served on the jury in Cannes and Venice, and in 2012 he received lifetime achievement awards at the Locarno International Film Festival and the Udine Far East Film Festival. Mr. To also plays an active role in the development of film culture in Hong Kong, previously through the Arts Development Council and currently as Vice Chairman of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society. The Academy, BAFTA I should say to distinguish between academies, would like to thank our partners who have helped to make tonight possible. In London we’re grateful to Taittinger, in Hong Kong we thank Create Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Film Development Fund, Brand Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, that’s the Trade Office, London. Thanks also to Mr. To’s production company Milkyway Image. I’d also like to recognise and thank Roger Garcia who is the Executive Director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival who helped make tonight possible, and in particular Dr. Wilfred Wong, Chairman of the Asian Film Awards Academy and the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society for his support, and for making a special trip from Hong Kong to be here tonight. So I’d now like you to welcome Dr. Wilfred Wong, Chairman of the Asian Film Awards Academy to say a few words.
Wilfred Wong: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a pleasure to be here tonight to support one of Hong Kong’s most loved director, Johnnie To. The Asian Film Awards Academy was established two years ago. It was a new initiative between the Busan International Film Festival, the Tokyo International Film Festival, and the Hong Kong International Film Festival. We aim to promote Asian films to the world, promote collaboration between Asian countries, nurture young filmmakers and the audience. So hopefully we will be an organisation that could serve the diverse movie industry in Asia. The collaboration tonight started a couple of years ago when BAFTA visited Hong Kong, and looking into Hong Kong as a base for BAFTA in Asia, and we felt that this kind of collaboration, introducing leading filmmakers to the world through BAFTA, it’s a very important step in the work of the Asian Film Awards Academy. A big thank to all of you for coming tonight to support this historic event for us, because we’re a very young organisation. And to thank all the supporting organisations including the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, led by Erica Ng, the Create Hong Kong and Brand Hong Kong, and a very important gesture has to go to Johnnie To and his company because Johnnie is in the middle of making a movie. He has to take a break and come here because he I think somehow he has went over time and the set was there waiting for him to go back. And that’s the Hong Kong movie style, you know. You add scenes and you subtract scenes, and this is not a very typical Hollywood style of production, but that’s why Hong Kong films are special. So really Hong Kong has been in the forefront of introducing Asian films to the world. The Hong Kong International Film Festival has done this since the 1970s, and this step taken by the Asian Film Awards Academy is yet another important step for Hong Kong and the other Asian movie industries. I hope that we would do this more often, and not just Hong Kong directors or actors and actresses, but from Japan, from Korea, from China, hopefully we will let the world know the latest development in Asia, and hopefully our collaboration with BAFTA would grow day by day. And thank you again for coming tonight and I hope you have a great time with Johnnie To. Thank you.
Ian Haydn Smith: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name’s Ian Haydn Smith and I would like to welcome you to this Life in Pictures with Johnnie To. Johnnie To’s Life in Pictures is a remarkable body of work that is as diverse as it is prolific, as artful as it is entertaining. It’s quite astonishing to see that since his feature debut in 1980 with The Enigmatic Case, he has directed a remarkable 50 films. 50 films in 35 years. In 2003 alone four Johnnie To films were released. I should say it’s incredibly hard work to prepare for this event, but to sit down and watch most of the 50 Johnnie To films has been one of the great pleasures of this year so far. He’s also a producer. In 1996 he set up Milkyway Image, his production company, that has allowed him to continue making commercial films, but also the artful films that are much closer to his heart, and these are the films that have broke out internationally. First of all in 1999 with The Mission, which really was his international breakthrough. Since then he’s been at festivals and awards ceremonies, not just in Asia, but also in Europe and around the world, such prestigious festivals as Venice and Berlin and Cannes. And like the great crime directors, because crime is this film that he’s known for around the world, like these great directors from the past and also the present that have had a huge influence over him, he’s understood one thing, particularly when it comes to the action sequences that Johnnie To is most famous for. It’s not just a case of visceral entertainment, about the wham bam, the action moment, it’s also understanding that that needs to be tempered with silence. It’s the calm before the storm that we see exploding across the screen, and this is one of the reasons why I think the cinema of Johnnie To is so exciting. Let’s see some examples of his cinema.
IHS: Can you please welcome Johnnie To. Welcome to London and BAFTA.
Johnnie To: Sorry.
IHS: Put the big one, I think the big one goes in. Okay, let’s have a look.
IHS: I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s terrible with technology. You started in cinema in the 1970s, which is regarded as the golden age of Hong Kong cinema. What was it like working during that period?
JT: In those days Hong Kong TV broadcast was very strong, so a lot of talent came from the TV broadcasters, TV channels, and they developed, started going into film industry, so it was a strong time for Hong Kong film and TV.
IHS: And was there a lot of movement between television and film? Was it easy to move from one area to the other?
JT: Back then TV directors were already starting to move into the film industry so it wasn’t that difficult, as long as you had the chance to do it you would take it.
IHS: And let’s look at your first film, The Enigmatic Case, which you directed in 1980. Did you always know you wanted to be a director?
JT: No I didn’t know. After I made the first film I realised I didn’t know how to make films. After the film I didn’t make a film for seven years. A lot of companies asked me and I didn’t, I refused.
IHS: And then in 1988 you directed The Big Heat, which is sort of first action crime film. Is this a genre that you’ve sort of always loved?
JT: Not really, I wasn’t really interested in making action film, it was Tsui Hark’s fault, he told me to do it. I always used to do wuxia films on TV, so when I went to make cinema I didn’t want to make action film at all.
IHS: And in terms of the early part of your career over the first decade or so leading up to the creation of Milkyway Image, did you just want to try every genre just to see, to gain experience to perfect your style of directing?
JT: Honestly I, romantic comedies were actually for commercial gain. Largely speaking my personal films are my own labour of love.
IHS: And with Milkyway Image being set up in 1996, did you do this because you wanted to have more artistic freedom?
JT: When we made Milkyway in 1996 the main purpose was to become a real director.
IHS: And was it quite a challenge to try and create this, and what were the first few years like?
JT: Very, very difficult. Back then this Hong Kong film industry was very weak. Up until 1999 nobody would sponsor Hong Kong cinema. So back then when we made Milkyway Image it was pretty much, we didn’t have any money, we were almost bankrupt. But when we got to 2000 we started to see a turnaround and we could start getting investors.
IHS: And let’s actually look at 1999 because this is the year that a lot of critics have written about being your breakthrough year. And this was the year that The Mission came out, which was such an international success, and really brought you to the attention of a larger audience. And we’re going to see a clip from the film. For those who haven’t seen it, The Mission is about a gang boss, and at the start of the film there’s an assassination attempt on his life. He survives but has lost many of his bodyguards, so he brings together a group of tough guys to look after him. These tough guys don’t all know each other and so what we see in the first stages of the film is a bonding exercise, an attempt to get to know each other because they realise they’re going to have to be like brothers, not just to look after their boss, but to ensure that they survive. The sequence that we’re going to see is an attempt on their part to sort of further this bonding process.
They’re pretty cool guys. I’m curious that in so many of your films you feature pairs of central characters, or even a whole group of characters. It’s very different to an American crime film where you have one person fighting against the system. Is that a cultural thing in terms of a difference between Chinese cinematic culture and American cinematic culture?
JT: I don’t think so. I’m quite influenced by Western cinema. I think the main issue is that whatever you like, whatever you’re interested in, you end up making films about that, so I’m interested in a big group of people against the enemy, so-called enemy, so it’s my choice to do that.
IHS: And you mentioned influences. Having looked at so many of your films over the last few weeks there are many directors I could mention. Sergio Leone seemed to crop up now and again. Could you talk about some of the directors that you feel have been so important to you?
JT: My favourite… Yes, Kurosawa is a big influence of mine.
IHS: What I like about your work is that when you do have a sequence that pays homage to a director that you may love, you seem to incorporate it into the character, you’re not just repeating a scene that you’ve seen before, you always add a twist to it to make it very much your own. Is this sort of a love of certain sequences that you want to incorporate them and you want to sort of do your own version?
JT: I don’t really know what influences me or why I use those scenes. Like when I made The Mission I didn’t have a script. It was 1999 and I didn’t have any money so we went to Taiwan and they gave us very little money to hurry up and make a film, so without any script we just started making it. And after 19 days we made the film. So whether or not I deliberately pay homage to these directors I can’t answer that because I don’t think it is. After I’ve run out of money the film is finished and that’s all I know. So perhaps they did influence me and I do choose those homages, to do those homages, but I don’t actually know that deliberately.
IHS: There’s a story that apparently Alfred Hitchcock used to include a certain shot in his films, and people asked him, ‘why do you go for this style of shot?’ And he would say, ‘that’s one for the critics to talk about for hours and hours and hours.’
JT: Yeah this is true, this is exactly right, this is exactly what I would say. Critics and journalists can invent for you, you don’t need to say anything, they will tell you what you’re thinking, so much that I agree with them and I think they’re right. Maybe they want to show how well they could be a director, a film director themselves. And they like to show that they’ve understood your psychology, yeah this is how film critics work.
IHS: Let’s move onto another clip. This is from PTU, Police Tactical Unit, in 2003. It’s a multi-perspective police drama, a crime drama that unfolds over one night and we see lots of different stories intersecting. And it really opens with an encounter between different characters in a restaurant. First of all we have Police Sergeant Lo Sa, played by Lam Suet, one of
Johnnie To’s regular actors. And he’s left the restaurant and is in pursuit of a gang member. You’ll see him run inside and see a guy pouring paint over a car, that’s actually the Police Sergeant’s own car but he’s now in pursuit so he can’t tell the guy to stop. There’s also the gang’s boss Ponytail who’s left alone in the restaurant and he’s about to have a nasty encounter with someone from another gang. And all these sequences are seamlessly intercut until we reach the end of this sequence with quite possibly the worst advert that I’ve seen for smoking when under duress.
I’ve noticed in your films that your characters smoke a lot, and your characters also eat a lot, and then you expect your actors to run around an awful lot. I think if your films were made in Britain you would have so many health and safety people lingering around saying, ‘you can’t do that.’
JT: Sorry, could you repeat the question. Was there a question?
IHS: There wasn’t a question, it’s just a comment.
JT: [Jokingly] Ask me a question. I can tell you that I actually like smoking myself, and I love eating as well, so everything that I like I put into my films.
IHS: You mentioned about the fact that you don’t take very long to shoot many of your films, and you may start with a script that is quite basic, yet so many sequences are incredibly complex. Do you ever storyboard?
JT: I don’t even have a script, how do I make a storyboard from that? It’s not always that quick. PTU took me three years to make, but within those three years I made seven other films. So for me this kind of film is like a toy, a project, every now and then I’ll go and tinker with it, and sometimes I tinker with it a lot and it’s very quickly done. And other times I pick it up and put it down, pick it up and put it down, and after three years PTU’s Lam Suet had already lost a lot of weight so I had to ask him to get fat again after three years.
IHS: But when it comes to action sequences they are so complex. Do you have any, when you go in, do you prepare a great deal in advance, particularly with your cinematographer, discussions of how you want a specific scene to be set up?
JT: I don’t really think about anything until I’m on set. Once I’m on set and the camera’s rolling I can start thinking about what it looks like, so before then nobody really knows what they’re doing. And once I’m on set then the inspiration comes and the action scenes start coming out. Before that I couldn’t tell you what I’m going to do. Nobody really knows what I’m doing until I get there, and I don’t know when the inspiration comes either. Sometimes it just doesn’t come at all and sometimes it comes on cue.
IHS: In the case of PTU, you really feel like you enter quite deeply the world of cops on patrol and investigating gang activity. How much research do you actually do in preparation? Obviously I know you do a lot on set, and shooting on set, but how much preparation in advance do you do?
JT: A lot of the things in PTU are actually real. I didn’t just do research for this film, it’s just normal everyday life. Also in making other films, getting research for those other films I would find out facts which I would then put into PTU. I collected them all together over the years and put them into PTU. Everything from the police side on PTU is real.
IHS: So what inspires you, with each new project what’s the thing? Is it a new story that attracts you and then you work on that and expand it?
JT: Normally it’s just everyday life inspires me. Everything that I come across in my daily life, some surprises, things that I don’t expect. Like Election for example, I felt that Hong Kong should have an election, so I made a film about an election. And for example Life Without Principle, I got cheated by a bank so I made Life Without Principle.
IHS: Let’s stay with Election. Again, a film that I’m assuming you started off with no script and developed, but there’s a sense that you really enter quite fully into this world of the triads. Did you have any problems in advance of preparing for this film from the various organisations in Hong Kong?
JT: When we made Election I did ask a lot of triad bosses and gangs, the older triads and also the newer triads, I asked them about the problems they face within the triads, so a lot of the problems in the film are real. Of course there’s poetic license and it’s fiction but a lot of it is real.
IHS: And the actual election every two years itself, is that a fiction on your part?
JT: Yes there is, every two years.
IHS: And what was their response, after talking to these people, what was their response to Election?
JT: They thought it was a horrible film. They said, ‘that’s not what we’re like.’ They thought it would be more heroic, but there’s no heroes in it.
IHS: We’re going to see a sequence from Election now. Election is, as the title suggests, about an election within one triad gang that takes place every two years, and in the case of the film there are two frontrunners, and we’re going to see one of them, Big D, approaching a potential voter and trying to win him over. And we also see one of his henchmen, played by the wonderful Nick Cheung.
When you made Election did you know that you were going to follow it with not so much a sequel, but just a continuation of this story?
JT: It was actually both films were made at the same time.
IHS: And were you surprised, first of all the film screened In Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, but were you surprised by the international response to this film?
JT: Every time we go to Cannes it’s a surprise. I think the opportunity to attend a film festival is already a very happy business.
IHS: And in this film you see so many actors, if you were to watch Mr. To’s body of work as a whole you see actors returning time and time again to play. Can you talk about your relationship with your actors, and why you do keep coming back to the same group?
JT: Because I’m lazy. When you have to take on new actors you have to get to know them and understand them and see if they understand your style of filmmaking, and it takes time. but using actors which know you it’s easier to control them.
IHS: Okay, I’m going to disagree with you at this point because when I watch a film like The Mission and you see the scene where they’re playing with the paper football, you create with your actors a camaraderie that’s quite remarkable and I can’t believe that you’re so lazy they just turn up on set and turn on and that’s it. How much preparation do you have and how much of a conversation do you have about the characters that they’re playing?
JT: But they really don’t know what I’m going to do when they arrive on set, I don’t tell them anything. Even when we finish filming, especially that clip in The Mission, we completely improvised it, I just gave them a paper ball and told them to play around with it. They didn’t know I was going to do that, I didn’t even know I was going to do that. Once we’d finished filming they asked me, ‘have we finished filming?’, because they didn’t even know, they don’t know that we’ve finished filming, they don’t know when we’d finished the script.
IHS: And the other interesting element with having the same actors is that you will get them to play against type, and I’m just curious again from your own development of a story no matter how basic, do you often sit down and think it would be interesting now for them to be here and play a different kind of character?
JT: Yeah, normally I do think about it beforehand because they do need to know what their character is before we shoot. Otherwise they would lose confidence in you.
IHS: And obviously these actors, these stars, they have their own screen persona, and it strikes me watching your films, you’re not looking at black and white, good and bad, you’re looking at the grey in-between. Is that perhaps another element of why you work with these actors, and have them playing good and bad characters?
JT: Yes, I always, I personally believe there are no absolutely good people or bad people. All we can know is our relationship between each other. I sometimes am good, sometimes I’m bad, and you have to understand yourself, and once you understand who you are as a person you know how grey we are, most of us are all grey.
IHS: So you’ve got this system of working with the actors, and then in 2009 you cast Johnny Hallyday in Vengeance. You cast a French icon who is already cool and you make him cooler. What was the situation with Johnny Hallyday in terms of the way that you approach making films? And the script, and not having a script.
JT: This one had a script. Working with Johnny Hallyday wasn’t particularly different. We were still making that same style of film, the only difference was that he was speaking English, everything else was more or less the same.
IHS: And are there any other European, American, English-language actors that you would love to work with?
JT: Yes, I always want to, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen. There are lots of Western actors who I’d love to work with, if the chance happens it will.
IHS: That was a very diplomatic answer. Any names at all?
JT: But if I tell you the name and they say no I’ll be very embarrassed.
IHS: Okay, I give up. We’re going to move on now to Exiled, which is one of my favourite films by Mr. To. And again if you watch his films you see the return of a number of familiar faces. Anthony Wong is a wonderful actor, Simon Yam, Nick Cheung again. And we’re going to see the brilliant climactic sequence from the film, and I mentioned earlier about the calm before the storm, this is what you have in this lead up to the climax. There’s a stunning use of slow-motion, and there’s the choreography of this whole scene that not only accentuates the gun fight, but also the chaos, the increasing sense of chaos that we see unfolding before us. And we have quite possibly the most surreal product placement I’ve ever seen in any film.
The climax to Exiled is one of my favourite sequences in any of your films, it’s also one of the most astonishing action sequences I’ve seen. I know you like to improvise on set, but with a sequence like this that’s so complex, would you just shoot an enormous amount of coverage and then just hope that everything comes together in editing?
JT: No we didn’t really shoot that much. No because I didn’t have enough money to get that much footage. When I set out to make this film I did intend always to have this kind of scene as its climax, so I already knew, and we put a lot of money into making that scene. But now when I watch it back I don’t like it.
IHS: What is it you don’t like about it?
JT: I don’t know, I just don’t find it… Maybe time passing, it just seems unsatisfactory.
IHS: One of the interesting aspects of the way that you film violence is, and I don’t know any other director who does this, you have these clouds of blood that slowly fog up the action. When did you come up with this idea, and why did you think it would look so good?
JT: I think it’s because of Kurosawa. That kind of feeling I think I got from his films. I can’t really explain it, but I feel like I’ve seen the clouds already in his films, I can’t really explain where.
IHS: Now let’s move on to the other element of the climactic sequence which is the Red Bull can. Did you sit down one day and have a can of Red Bull, a can of Pepsi, and a can of Coke, and just ask who will pay the most?
JT: I deliberately didn’t choose Coca-Cola, and I deliberately didn’t choose Pepsi. And when we were shooting the film in the street there was a girl promoting Red Bull. She was working so hard promoting Red Bull, we thought actually it tastes alright, so she gave me a can and I took it over to make that scene, and that’s how it happened. Just by chance she was on the street. So I’m not sure if she got lucky or the company got lucky.
IHS: I always imagine a bunch of Red Bull company executives sitting down and watching this film, and the look of horror on their face. Too much energy caused this violence! Let’s talk about music. It’s something we’ve not touched on yet, and to hear the music in the final sequence of Exiled was to take me back to Ennio Morricone and his western scores. But the music in all of your films is unique and works so well, how early do you bring a composer on board to sort of get an idea of what you want?
JT: When I first start making the film I already know what kind of mood the music has to have, and once I’ve got that then I start making the film.
IHS: Both Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa used to play music on set. Is that something you do during any sequences?
JT: While I’m shooting I don’t play music, but before while I’m thinking and when we’re editing I do play a lot of music. When I’m shooting I don’t play music because otherwise it will distract people.
IHS: And do you enjoy the editing process?
JT: Yes I do enjoy it. This is the most important stage of the film, the editing.
IHS: And does it tend to take a long time to edit your films, or does it just depend with each film?
JT: Now it takes less time, in the past it took a long, long time, but now I just tell the concept to the editor. Back in the day when it was film and I cut it myself it took a long time. I didn’t used to use an editor, I did it myself.
IHS: And in terms of speed, I’m not sure if this is correct and perhaps your can confirm this, that you made a film called Help!!!, and from the moment that you developed the idea through to its release in the cinema it took something like 26 days?
JT: Yes that’s true. Back then the boss told me to hurry up to make a summer movie, so he said ‘it’s already June and I want a summer movie, in July it has to be released.’ So I asked Wai Ka-Fai, and he said, ‘sure, let’s start work now.’ And in three days we started working, and we shot for 26 days consecutively without a script and finished it.
IHS: And can you talk about your working relationship with Wai Ka-Fai, because if I’m not mistaken you started with him in 1990, and then obviously set up Milkyway with him.
JT: The first time that we started working together was actually on TV channel, but we never collaborated, but I knew him.We didn’t collaborate until we started making film. And once we made Milkyway it was entirely because of Wai Ka-Fai. Even though he’s not really a company worker, he doesn’t like being a boss of a company, but he completely influenced Milkyway. He is basically the big boss, the brain behind the project.
IHS: And in terms of your working process, what is it that you enjoy working with him? Is it the bouncing ideas off each other?
JT: When I work with him we actually see each other very little. While he’s writing I’m actually shooting, and once he’s finished writing an idea then he’ll take it straight on set. So I’m constantly following what he wants to do by chasing his ideas, and try and think of a whole film just based on his ideas, and I think about the ways in which we can make it, but I don’t actually know what he’s going to write. So our relationship is very calm and peaceful and silent, we don’t talk much. After we’ve finished the film then we’ll get together and we’ll edit together, but before we’re completely separated, and never see each other.
IHS: And what about a film such as Mad Detective, which seems like a closer collaboration compared to what you normally have together. Is he on set much more on a film like that?
JT: Not it was the same, same, we weren’t really any much closer for Mad Detective. Very, very rarely do we get together until it’s finished, but while it’s shooting we never meet.
IHS: We’re going to move on to another film now. This is a beautifully choreographed sequence from the 2006 film Sparrow, which is slang for pickpocket. But in the case of this film it’s also a woman who’s metaphorically caged up by an older man. A beautiful, mysterious woman approaches Simon Yam’s pickpocket. She needs his help because she wants to leave this man, but he’s holding her passport, and she needs the pickpocket and his amiable team to go out and find it. And the climax of the film is a showdown in the rain, which for my money outdoes the recent Wong Kar-Wai film no end, it’s an absolutely exquisite, glorious sequence, both in terms of its choreography and in the use of the light. And we see a battle between the old man who is a former pickpocket, and Simon Yam’s younger hero.
This is a very good example of one of the things I find pleasurable about your films, the pleasure of the films sometimes lies in the smallest of details. The razor blades that the men carry in their mouths, again is this something that you found out from pickpockets, or is it invention on your part?
JT: This is true, and pickpockets really do carry razor blades on their tongue in Hong Kong. We asked a man to show us and he came and performed.
IHS: And just in terms of the choreography of this sequence, how long did it take to film this?
JT: A long time. It was over a week filming that scene.
IHS: And the film itself I gather took quite a long time from the original idea through to completing.
JT: Three years altogether. Because it just took long because I couldn’t think of any ideas and the money kept running out, and so we decided to just film this scene in the road. We didn’t really mean to film it in the road, but by the end of the film we’d ran out of money and time so we had to do it.
IHS: And do you, on a regular basis do you find yourself juggling say four, five different projects? And is that part of your pleasure of working?
JT: These last few years no, I’ve stopped doing that, because I’m old, more serious. In the past I used to make two or three at a time, but I can’t do that any more, I’m too old. I get really sleepy, like now.
IHS: And do you find, I’m just curious about this film in the way, it’s a very romantic film, and it’s not something I’ve touched on before, your films have a very romantic worldview at times. And it struck me that this film is a love letter to Hong Kong, did you intend it to sort of be like this?
JT: Sparrow, when I first started filming I had lots of different feelings and ideas. But at the end there’s a Star Ferry port, and it’s a ferry port with lots and lots of history, and the government want to take it down. So one night a lot of people gathered and they decided to protest, and the police moved them. So all night long when the police were moving people, and that night I didn’t sleep, I was just watching. And after watching that happen I realised that the times were changing, everything’s changing, and so I felt a responsibility to show Hong Kong’s past. And because everything has changed I wanted to show a slice of Hong Kong before it changed, and so you can see a lot of old Hong Kong in that film. And Hong Kong’s a strange place. A lot of people come to Hong Kong, a lot of mainland Chinese come to Hong Kong and then they move on, it’s a transitory place. People come and go, and nobody really stays permanently, so I personally feel like this film is a cultural memory of Hong Kong.
IHS: What is interesting about your films, you say people come and go, but the one thing that’s permanent in your films, even if it changes, is Hong Kong. And Hong Kong really is a character in almost all of your films. It’s almost as important a character in the films, the streets you choose to film on, the various buildings the action takes place in or outside of, is almost as important as the characters that the actors are playing.
JT: Yes, Hong Kong as a character is a very important idea, because I’m not from another place, I’m from Hong Kong. So for me Hong Kong is particularly different. My father’s generation came from mainland China, and a lot of people swam to Hong Kong from China, and then they emigrated elsewhere. So it’s that sort of island, but I was born in Hong Kong so I don’t need to leave, so I think differently to that generation. So in these 50, 60 years, Hong Kong has become a character, and for me it’s a character in a film where you can decide to leave it or stay and love it. It’s a very special place, Hong Kong.
IHS: Do you have favourite places to film?
JT: I like Gong Do [Hong Kong Island].
IHS: I just wonder if, like in Hollywood you can get a tour around the different places in Los Angeles, whether there’s a Johnnie To bus tour around Hong Kong, and you just spot all the different movies made in different locations across the city?
JT: I think they’d go and find it themselves, there’s no bus tour. A lot of people know certain areas of Hong Kong very well so they can recognise it, and they know that a lot of films are made in Hong Kong, because it’s a very small place Hong Kong. So a lot of people already know.
IHS: And coming back to Vengeance from 2009, I wonder with the idea of Hong Kong as a character, did you ever think about Johnny Hallyday’s foreign character being someone that you could look at Hong Kong through different eyes, through an outsider’s eyes? Or is that just me being a critic saying another one of these things?
JT: Not really, I didn’t really think of it in that way. I mainly just wanted to see what it felt like to work with a foreigner.
IHS: Let’s move on to our final clip. This is Life Without Principle from 2011, which even though it was made in 2011, the filming period I know took quite some time. And it’s about the 2008 global economic crisis. It’s in many ways a very different film to the films that we’ve seen so far. I saw it at a film festival in Poland and two English-speaking women were walking out of the cinema in front of me at the end of the film and one turned to the other and said, ‘I only thought he made crime films.’ And yet this ranks as one of the best films that Mr. To has made. The sequence we’re about to see is one of the central female characters who is in investment banking, and she’s trying to convince an elderly woman to plough all of her savings into a very risky venture. And like many of the different narrative strands of this film it deals with the idea of morality and ethics, not necessarily as fixed things but as very movable, malleable concepts.
You mentioned a little earlier about one of the reasons for making Life Without Principle. Was that the main reason, because of your own personal experience of what happened?
JT: Yes, I did have a bit of a loss when the bank cheated me, but it wasn’t just that simple. I just found the banks were just terribly over the top, that every bank was trying to cheat every single person out of pocket, out of trouser, out of underwear. So of course I was angry that I got cheated by a bank, but it was bigger than that. I just couldn’t bear the fact that everyday people were getting treated so badly by the banks.
IHS: It is a very angry film, but what I found fascinating with it, and what it has in common with so many of your other films is that you don’t point fingers and you don’t judge the characters, you just see them as a small part in a chain of events.
JT: Yes I don’t judge the characters because for me they will definitely do something wrong. Each person is out for an advance for themselves, and that’s when they start to turn bad. So one has a cigar at the end, one has an ice cream at the end, and you know that they have poison in it. They will slowly change over time.
IHS: I think we’ll take some questions from the audience now. We have some roving microphones. If you could raise your hand please, there’s a gentleman there. That microphone’s just coming over.
Q: Thank you for your films Mr. To. I’d like to ask if stylistically every time you make a film, do you work long-term with the same cinematographer?
JT: I tend to use the same group of people, so I do have the same cinematographers, and lighting and cameramen. So over ten, 20 years it’s more or less the same people.
IHS: And in terms of the colours you go for, your films seem to have very specific colour schemes. In talking in advance with designers and cinematographers, do you talk much about the colour, the look of the film in relation to the mood that you want to create?
JT: I don’t really have designers. For example, the clips that you’ve showed tonight, there was very little design in all of them. I don’t really have the ability to invite a quality production designer, I can’t do that, so I don’t really plan it that much in advance.
IHS: There’s a woman there, yes.
Q: I’d like to ask about old Hong Kong. So since Drug War, I would consider that as the most successful co-production, and now the most recent film being shot in Guangzhou, I’d like to ask what the difference is co-producing with China now and then? Is the time more sensitive now? Could you make an Exiled now?
JT: Co-productions normally have a boundary that you have to stay within, and you have less freedom. But if you want to continue on the road of co-production you do have to compromise a little. The best thing to do is to not make a co-production, so I just use less money to make my film. If you tell me that I need to go to a certain place to make a film I will do it, but the best situation would be if I could have utter freedom and not do what I’m told.
IHS: Do you worry about the culture of Hong Kong cinema, and the specific identity it’s had, that perhaps there is a danger that it’s disappearing? In terms of the cinematic output.
JT: Hong Kong cinema has slowly been taken over by China, mainland Chinese cinema, but at the same time Hong Kong cinema still exists, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be in the same way, it will continue to exist but in a different form. A lot of Hong Kong directors have now gone over to China to make films, so they’re making Hong Kong cinema in China. We’re very adaptable and very smart, and we know how to take advantage of certain situations, so we know how to collaborate with mainland Chinese directors and learn from each other. I think luckily we still have a lot of young Hong Kong directors who are able to work in Hong Kong and maintain hat Hong Kong cinema ethic. I don’t think we’re in danger of losing Hong Kong cinema, I just think it’s changing, that’s how I feel personally.
IHS: And how about in front of the camera, because there’s so many actors that you work with. Do you see a new generation of actors coming up?
JT: There are a lot of talent from mainland China, so we have a lot greater choice. But in comparison I think Hong Kong actors and Hong Kong talent are very sturdy and know how to adapt and change and take smaller parts or change their budget. They’re very sturdy, and for example Andy Lau and other artists like him haven’t been taken down by the fact that the market is moving to China. They’re very resilient and able and adaptable.
IHS: A gentleman did have his hand up, yes we’ll go there. And then someone, if you can keep your hand up and we’ll pass the mic across there afterwards.
Q: First of all, thank you so much for a very exciting interview, I’m a huge fan of your films, especially Election, and I was wondering whether you could tell us a bit more about the making of Election, about the greatest challenges of making the film, and how in the world did you actually approach the Hong Kong triads? How was it working with them, and how did you survive?
JT: There weren’t that many challenges when I was making Election. I guess the biggest challenge was how to fit all of it into one film. I spent a lot of time watching and researching Hong Kong triad history, and a lot of time interviewing people. And there are lots of different, different tribes in the Hong Kong triads, so each one tells their own version of certain stories, and everyone thinks they’re the best, and everyone tells you they’re the best. And so you have to decide yourself how much to put in and who’s telling the truth, and it’s very painful deciding what to cut out and to make it fit into 100 minutes, and that was a big challenge because you want to fit all of it in, all of the history. The other biggest challenge was when we made Election 2 [Triad Election], I feel like I hadn’t finished, the story hadn’t finished yet. I think a lot of people ask me whether or not I’m going to make number three, and I feel personally that there will definitely be part three. I haven’t made it yet, I don’t know what it’s going to be about, but it will exist. I have to think about it. Yes, still haven’t got the idea but we’ll think about it.
Q: I’ve seen a lot of your films, and I find a lot of Hong Kong stars have started to go over… Which Hong Kong stars are better at listening to you and obeying your orders?
JT: So I really respect Anthony Wong as an actor, I think he’s one of the best in Hong Kong, but I communicate better with Lau Ching Wan. He’s a very calm actor, very often his performance, he’s very in-depth, he goes in deep in his performance, and in his own world he’s a very sensitive and careful person. So those two, Anthony Wong and Lau Ching Wan are my favourite.
IHS: Is your process of filmmaking partly a desire to be surprised by what an actor can do with a character that you give them?
JT: If we’re talking about surprises they very rarely surprise me in this way because I don’t give them a script, so there’s nothing to surprise me from. They’re surprised, not me, it’s the other way round. Yeah, very rarely, because they don’t have enough time really to turn it around and give me a surprise. It’s more difficult.
Q: First of all thank you very much for sharing with us very invaluable information. I’m now going to do it in Cantonese. You were talking about Kurosawa and his influence. Other than Kurosawa, when you were working in TVB, can you talk about what influences you had once you left TV, and the influence Wong Tin-Lam had on you.
JT: When I was learning to make films he was a very, very important person. Wong Tin Lam’s very adaptable and he knows, he’s made over 300 films, he knows the industry very well, I’ll never catch up to him. Other than the knowledge that he can give me and the experience, he’s very trusting and he lets you do and carry forward your own ideas, and giving you that freedom and the space to be who you are. His early influence on me was very big, and then afterwards when we made The Mission it was different, everyone know him when we made The Mission. After we were halfway through making The Mission he called me over and he said, ‘what are we doing here? What film are you making? I’ve been here for a fortnight and I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And I just told him, ‘don’t worry, don’t worry, once we’re finished you’ll see.’ So the relationship has changed a lot over the years.
Q: Would you say he was a master and you were a student?
JT: Yes, definitely, I feel like I was his student, he was the master. In fact, like father and son.
IHS: One of the great pleasures of a body of work such as Mr. To’s is not just the ability to return to it time and time again, but you can return to a film that you might have seen before and it feels fresh in light of the many, many films that he’s made since. It’s a remarkable achievement over the course of just 35 years to produce, to direct over 50 films and produce over 70 films. Can you please join me in thanking Johnnie To.