In this thread I’d like to analyze the films of Johnnie To—in the hopes of identifying recurring themes and concerns and a personal style of filmmaking (if it exists). In other words, I want to understand To as an artist—or more specifically, an auteur. I’ve seen a few of his films, but I plan to see a few more before I dive into the thread. But I wanted to post this as a head’s up to others who might be interested in participating in it—hopefully encouraging people to watch or re-watch the movies for this discussion. My plan is to watch a few more films (Exiled and Street of Violence) and then jump into the discussion.
Oh, I should say a little about To to give people some idea of his films. He seems to be mostly an action director, but I think he’s more thoughtful—think of how Kiyoshi Kurosawa makes thoughtful horror films. So I don’t think you have to like action films to like To. Also, I suspect fans of Michael Mann or Tony Scott would also appreciate these films.
Here are some threads of discussing some of his specific films:
Breaking NewsElectionTriad Election
I’ll gladly participate, but I’m not on a proper computer right now so typing long winded replies would get tedious. So I’ll start with a generalization: I think To is one of the greatest working. A very classical filmmaker. I highly recommend Sparrow, my favorite of his, which he directs almost musically.
There are some good articles I’ll link to later as well ( don’t know how to link on this damn thing).
FWIW, Jack, I definitely thought of you when I started this thread. (Who’s the other guy that likes McTiernan?)
One of the more interesting things about To is that he isn’t really “mostly” an action director – he’s probably directed as many rom coms during his career as he’s done action films. I wonder what the through-line is between, hell, [b]The Mission[/b], [b]Running on Karma[/b] and [b]Don’t Go Breaking My Heart![/b]…
Right . . . and he’s done stuff like My Left Eye Sees Ghosts which defies genre categorization.
Well, thanks for the pointing that out, Roujin. (I’m glad I didn’t go with the subtitle—“a Thoughtful Action Director!”)
What Roujin and Matt are saying is entirely true, and even some of the films you mentioned aren’t really “action” films as such. To try and label something like Election as an “action” film, even if that were typical for To, is a little like saying Scorsese is primarily an action director, which wouldn’t generally be how he is referenced. To’s career is more noted for how he doesn’t stick to genre formulas, or how he mixes them, than it is for fitting normative expectations of genre or story. His films tend to draw from the whole of popular cinema, but he’ll mix the elements unexpectedly to create something unique. So he keeps his films feeling accessible or familiar to those whose appreciation tends to stay in the popular cinema realm, they push towards a different feeling as he adopts tones, characters, plots, or situations from wide stylistic palette. This also means he is ignoring or shifting the meaning of other elements typical to more standard examples of genre fare all of which is what helps to build a unity of personal style to his films when combined with his more formal skills. Personally, my favorite To films aren’t one’s like Election, which does sort of live in a similar area to the movies of Beat Takeshi, but those which are farther afield or are harder to categorize. like Running on Karma, Yesterday Once More, Wu Yen, and Mad Detective, and when added to all the movies like My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Love on a Diet, Running Out of Time and so on, that is where my appreciation of To comes from; his disinterest in following expected form or his interest in subverting it.
To try and label something like Election as an “action” film, even if that were typical for To, is a little like saying Scorsese is primarily an action director, which wouldn’t generally be how he is referenced.
Yeah, you’re right. In fairness to myself, I’ve only seen a handful of films—most of the them action oriented (although I wouldn’t describe the Election films that way). I had no idea he made romantic comedies or other non-action films, though.
To’s career is more noted for how he doesn’t stick to genre formulas, or how he mixes them, than it is for fitting normative expectations of genre or story. His films tend to draw from the whole of popular cinema, but he’ll mix the elements unexpectedly to create something unique. So he keeps his films feeling accessible or familiar to those whose appreciation tends to stay in the popular cinema realm, they push towards a different feeling as he adopts tones, characters, plots, or situations from wide stylistic palette. This also means he is ignoring or shifting the meaning of other elements typical to more standard examples of genre fare all of which is what helps to build a unity of personal style to his films when combined with his more formal skills.
That’s the sense I’m getting with the few films I’ve seen, and it’s the aspect of his films that I really like.
Yeah, It’s understandable Jazz given which of his films have attracted the most notice here, and To is somewhat unusual in how one can think of him a being more categorizable in different ways depending on which of his films you’ve seen. It’s only after you see a number of them that it becomes clear such categories aren’t likely to hold very well well when his larger body of work is taken into account. Again, that isn’t to say that his body of work doesn’t have unity, it just isn’t quite in the areas one might initially expect.
Yeah, and we starting talking about To in the course of a discussion of action films, so I steered Jazz toward the more-actiony end of the spectrum of his work.
Sure, and that’s probably a good place to start with To as starting with some of his more unusual films might be somewhat offputting.
Yeah, it’s his fault. ;)
As promised, some links:
The Blood and the Beauty
Also, I’ll jump on board of the “he’s not just an action filmmaker” train. He’s adept at most genres. I think comparisons to Hawks are warranted, as he crosses genres effortlessly like an Old Hollywood auteur. His formal precision is just about unmatched as well.
Jazz, I think you should check out Sparrow soon. I think it reveals a good deal of To’s strengths.
Thanks, Jack. I’ll put it on my list.
Btw, I recently watched Exiled; still processing it, though.
Any Exiled thoughts, Jazz?
I’m thinking about starting a separate thread for that, Jack, but I must say that I don’t have a good handle on the movie—i.e., I don’t really know what it’s about and what’s it’s trying to do. (See thread. I want to keep discussions about specific To films in threads dedicated to them—partly for organizational purposes—making it easier for people to find comments about specific films. Of course, we can discuss specific films in this thread, too, but I hope we can do so in an effort to understand To as a filmmaker.)
Just watched Mad Detective, which might be the film I enjoyed the most (I was bit disappointed by the ending, but loved the premise). I should start a thread on that film, but I’m not sure I have a lot of comments and questions. (I’m curious to hear what people thought of the last scene where the detective can’t decide how to place the guns.)
I’m ready for some of his more unusual films, so if you guys have any recommendations, fire away.
Btw, apropos of what Greg mentioned earlier, I’m having a hard time identifying a style (beyond a few general qualities) or recurring themes and ideas, not off the top of my head anyway.
I haven’t gotten to the essays, but I’ll try to soon.
More thoughts on To:
If I started the thread now, I might use the phrase, “un-self-conscious post-modern filmmaker.” I say that because To seems to use tweak genres in a way that he’s aware of them, but not in a self-conscious or ironic way. (Would that constitute post-post-modernism?) Anyway, I really like this aspect of his films. I think To is very thoughtful and not someone content on making films in the same way. There’s always something fresh and interesting about his films, even if they’re not entirely successful. Because of this quality, I think I would be interested in seeing any and all of his films.
I recently saw Romancing in Thin Air and had the most random deja vu experience with one of his shots in that film. I don’t quite know (as of right now) if it is more than just a visual parallel, but well look for yourself:
I recently got started on To and have only watched a handful of his films (Election, Breaking News, Sparrow, The Mission). Amongst many things the highlight for me has been his spectacular understanding of urban space. I’ve seen few directors that manage to integrate cityscape into a prominent and integral element of a film like To does. I just read Ignaty’s essay that Jack posted above and seems to takle this exactly… what he says on Sparrow is spot-on, as I watched I felt like this was To’s personal love letter to Hong Kong.
I haven’t seen Romancing in Thin Air_, but your post makes me wonder if To has a thing for cooking. (It’s also featured in at least one other films of his—_Vengeance, I think.)
Amongst many things the highlight for me has been his spectacular understanding of urban space.
Dang, all of his films are a blur to me right now, so I can’t remember if Sparrow was the one I liked with regard to this. (I think it was.) This is one of those issues where some screen caps and commentary would be great.
Here’s a link for Johnnie To’s The Mission (1999):
don’t post links in the forum please ^
I knew there was a reason why I stopped posting here.
unless u want that person to be flagged for copyright violation
thank you tho, i haven’t seen that one yet
sparrow was fun and looked wonderful
the story just seemed to me like not much of anything though. maybe it’s not about the plot? enlighten me
These kinda explain what I mean.
This is clearly not Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong of food joints, escalators and overcrowded spaces.
Also, I love how he uses wide angle lenses for everything.
@T.J.:“Amongst many things the highlight for me has been his spectacular understanding of urban space.”
Right. I’ve recently re-watched Breaking News and, although I still found that media angle to be hit or miss for me, I was fascinated by how he used “spaces” in this film. Especially in the first half of the film when the cops search for the hideout of the criminals, the way he paints this urban landscape was stunning. Same as what he did with the spaces when the film moved to this house where the rest of the film took place.
@Jazz: “I haven’t seen Romancing in Thin Air_, but your post makes me wonder if To has a thing for cooking. (It’s also featured in at least one other films of his—_Vengeance, I think.)”
Well I don’t know him personally but he does often feature scenes of people cooking or eating. And they always are of some significance. In Exiled (at the beginning of the film) for example he uses it (as far as i can remember) to put the assassination of one of the characters on hold and to signal a camaraderie and sort of deep seated friendship between the characters. And in Breaking News there is also this one scene where the criminals eat with their hostages and post a video of it to the press which then makes the police do the same thing. Then there are a lot of “dinner table” scenes in the first Election (which I actually analyzed a bit on my blog).
So yeah, I would say he likes it. :)