The Reeler


June 20, 2007

Exiled on Sixth Avenue

Catching up with Hong Kong legend Johnnie To in advance of new film's NYAFF showcase

(L-R) Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Francis Ng and Roy Cheung in Exiled, director Johnnie To's entry in this year's New York Asian Film Festival (Photo: Magnolia Picturess)

Hong Kong director Johnnie To is easily the technical equal of his contemporaries Brian de Palma or Michael Mann at their best. So why haven't more Americans heard of him? For starters, To had the misfortune of finding his own voice in the late '90s, when he created his own production company at a time when Hong Kong cinema had fallen out of favor in the West. Such masterful films as A Hero Never Dies, Running out of Time and Where a Good Man Goes were never distributed in the Unites States.

In the past two years, however, To has hit a winning streak comparable to his most productive period. The raw, politically conscious gangster sagas Election and Election 2 (retitled Triad Election for American consumption) came out here earlier this year; his excellent Exiled, which combines stunning action sequences with a spaghetti Western influence, screens June 23 at the New York Asian Film Festival and will be released Aug. 31 by Magnolia Pictures. One of the world's most prolific directors, To works seven days a week and will no doubt have at least one more film in the can by the time you read this.

THE REELER: Are you attracted to multi-part structures, as in The Mission and Exiled and the Election films? Does it give you a certain freedom you don't have in other films?

Exiled is really not a sequel to The Mission. They're separate films. It was great to work with the same cast again, but that's the only connection. With Election, you're right. Making Election, I realized that a single film didn't allow me room to incorporate all the situations I wanted to put in. The second film allowed me to explore that further.

R: Will there be a third film in the Election series?

JT: Election is really about the changes in Hong Kong. So the third movie will come about if 10 or 15 years from now, Hong Kong undergoes another transformation -- if something new happens to the triad (the Chinese mob) people. Not necessarily the same characters. It won't be the same as The Godfather trilogy, following the same people. If there's something new about the society and the situations that triad people will face, I'll make another film. I'm interested in telling the history of Hong Kong triads.

R: Some of your films, like Breaking News and Exiled, are notable for really dazzling set pieces. When you read a script, is it imemdiately apparent that some scenes would lend themselves to that kind of treatment?

JT: I really believe that filmmaking is an improvised experience. Often, I don't have a completed script, just a concept or idea that I want to film. I will know how to approach it visually. The set pieces exist in my head, but they're not really laid out in a script.

R: Has the changing production environment in Hong Kong over the past 10 years affected the way you make films?

JT: In terms of freedom, it hasn't changed at all. The industry itself has gone into a slump in the past few years, but otherwise, it's the same.

R: What film is your most personal?

JT: I'd say that Throw Down, made in 2004, is my most personal film. For me, it's personal in three ways. First, it's my view of the way Hong Kong was after SARS. Second, it contained memories of myself in my younger days. Third, I really shared the characters' sense of enthusiasm.

R: Were you surprised that the mainland Chinese government confiscated your press kits for Triad Election in response to your director's statement?

JT: This story was really a fabrication by the Hong Kong press. The flyers were there at Cannes. My director's statement was never controversial. It was actually published already during the Hong Kong Film Festival. Unfortunately, it's an Internet rumor.

R: Did you or your screenwriters on Election research triad involvement with mainland Chinese business?

JT: We did a lot of research. We consulted important figures in triad society, but we also had access to a couple security bureau chiefs in various provinces of China.

R: You've often used some of the same actors in minor parts film after film. Do you do this to create a "family" feeling? Do you like constantly working with the same actors?

JT: I don't like to explain the way I work to actors over and over again. If I work with a new actor, it takes time to figure out how to work together. I'm a little bit lazy about that. Also, there are a lot of actors in Hong Kong that I don t have a lot of respect for. I want to work with people I like.

R: Are you frustrated that most of your audience in the West is only interested in your genre films and pretty much ignores your comedies?

JT: I have confidence that sooner or later, the audience will understand my work as a whole. For instance, I'm a big fan of Akira Kurosawa. I don't like every single film he made, but I'll watch all of them. Over time, the audience will gradually become open to other works I've done. For me, it's OK if right now, they don't see everything.

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Comments (2)

To's "Throwdown" is a tribute to Kurosawa's "Sanshiro Sugata." It's one of his best, in my opinion.

"The Mission" features the same actors as "Exiled" but not as the same characters. There is only reference to "The Mission" in "Exiled," in the scene where they shoot up a soda can like when in "The Mission" they played a similar game of soccer together.

Also, he got some informal research material for the "Election" movies from some friends of his that are involved in the triads.

Oh and another reason why nobody knows who Johnny To is that Tai Seng was the distributor for the majority of his films but they shuttle them off to dvd rather than release them in theaters ("Throwdown" was released on dvd by Tai Seng).

The rest of the films were only exposed to American audiences through festivals like the New York Asian Film Festival, who showed "Running on Karma" at their 2004 festival (still one of my favorite films of his).

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