collection of thoughts, still adding notes and seeing more films.
loving you, 1995
to calls this 1995 drama his second first film, and that seems appropriate in many ways – it is his first collaboration with longtime camera man cheng siu keung and favorite leading man lau ching wan. it is also, especially in an opening half hour that sees lau’s bad detective on a self-destructive path towards a (wholly redemptive) bullet in the head, a sign of a truly individual sensibility for to – softer, more impressionistic, mining both gun fights (the sequence in which lau is shot is a career stand-out, even still) and quiet moments (a seedy bar, lau falling asleep at a traffic light after a bender) for expressive, even lyrical set-pieces. the material that follows – a long interlude of domestic melodrama centered on lau rebuilding his life, a third act shoot-out that reaches for john woo grandiosity – is not quite as strong, but the sometimes schizophrenic tone shows the sheer breadth of to’s range.
a hero never dies, 1998
the first film to would (officially) direct for his milkyway production company is perhaps the apex, if not quite the end, of what we might call his early style. the most extravagantly violent and emotionally brutal film in to’s body of work, this film takes a simple setup (two friendly rival hit men, working for dueling crime bosses, are betrayed by their bosses and seek revenge) and spins it through increasingly baroque variations of tone and style. mirrored/repeated actions, simple set pieces (a shootout on a deserted road, a game played with wine glasses) turned extravagant through baroque filmmaking and editing choices, a plot that tends towards extremes of physical suffering a mutilation, the film if nothing else represents an extreme limit in to’s cinema; he would never venture this far in this direction again.
where a good man goes, 1998
with a hero never dies being a critical and financial failure at the time of its release, milkway quickly backed away from the excessive bleakness of its early films, most notably with a pair of hits featuring andy lau and an increased creative role for to’s partner wai ka fai. this film, which slightly predates those measures, is an unexpected, if modest, marvel in to’s body of work. starting with the simplest of premises – lau ching wan’s violent crook gets out of jail, is hounded by crooked lawman lam suet, creates a surrogate family unit with kindly innkeeper ruby wong – and slows it down, avoiding the expected violent confrontations and allowing the film to be carried by the excellent actors and the expressive space of the inn itself.
while sammi cheng would later occupy an extremely important space in to’s work, ruby wong, in this film most of all, brought a kind of grounding to to’s melodrama that he would never quite find again, and in many moments, most notably an attempted rape by lau’s character, finds a genuinely harrowing emotional depth that to would never approach so directly again.
the mission, 1999
with the mission to assembled a personal film on an extremely limited budget (money was so scarce they had to count each bullet spent), no finished script , only 18 working days of filming, and avoiding stars for a deep bench of character actors and milkyway regulars, this established both a production method to would use for his ‘personal’ films throughout the next decade, and put him before the eyes of a cultish western audience as a figure to watch amongst the ruins of the hong kong film scene. it is also the first major step towards what we think of as to’s mature style – a cleaner, more distanced aesthetic that replaces the ‘hot’ lighting, stylized color schemes, and tendency to ‘fill’ the negative space with emptier, more composed frames, cooler tones, and steadier pacing.
after several years of wai ka fai’s aesthetic dominating milkyway’s productions, to shot this odd miniature over nights and weekends with a cast and crew of regulars. marred only by the most irritating musical score in a career not lacking in irritating musical scores, this film moves a staggeringly unsympathetic cast of characters through deserted hong kong streets in pursuit of crooked cop lam suet’s gun, with the clockwork precision of a farce. from the brilliantly executed series of errors that kicks off the narrative to the perversely anti-climactic resolution of the dueling gangs subplot, this is basically a shaggy dog story (the crisis is both caused and solved by a fat man slipping on a banana peel) that skirts the moral depths of the longest nite without ever quite passing judgement on its cast of characters. ruby wong and lam suet provide humanity, but simon yam and his unit become an almost geometrical unity within to’s distant, negative space heavy compositions.
throw down, 2004
to’s homage to kurosawa’s sanshiro sugata is one of the strangest films of his career, even if (or especially because?) the often staggering parts seem to swirl around an undefinable center (in an interview, to states the inspiration for the film was to “present an encouraging world”). if nothing else, in the nightclub we have one of the most intoxicating spaces in to’s work, a hawksian way-station where all action feels a little like music.
election 2, 2006
if i were asked to name one film that encapsulates everything unique and vital about to and his filmmaking it would be, without a doubt, sparrow, a near unclassifiable labor of love (like ptu it was filmed over a long period of time, using cast and crew from other productions) following a group of pickpockets ensnared in a complicated scheme due to the usual matters of the heart. but rarely has plot mattered less in a narrative film; everything is timed for poise and grace, as if to were choreographing his whole film in rhythm with the city. the umbrellas, lighting that cigarette in the car in the dark. on a bike with a camera, photographing the city. grace as a spiritual pursuit.
life without principle, 2011
to’s financial recession film, on the face of it a state-of-the-nation network narrative, is perhaps the most perfect example thus far of to’s increasingly stripped down later style. rather than intercut the intersecting segments as has been the rule of thumb for this sort of thing, to arranges the game pieces in large, airless blocks, the characters stranded in ugly urban spaces until the weight of their choices breaks down on top of them. anyone looking for a truly contemporary noir look may find it here – clean images, impersonal urban spaces, at the base of it all the same fear and loathing desire that animated older films like de toth’s pitfall.
this is a strange film – more than any of to’s personal movies, this one feels difficult to read (the images, and the rhythm of the images, seem to consistently be hinting at something just out of view). when i saw it alone i thought it was a devastating film; i watched it later with a cantonese friend, and she was laughing throughout. spend some time in china these days, she said, and you’ll understand.
romancing in thin air II, 2012
an increasingly popular choice for to’s masterpiece to date, this seems almost hand crafted for mvp actress sammi cheng, who had retreated from stardom after a much rumored bout with severe depression. that this film, set almost entirely at a remote ski-lodge called ‘shangri-la,’ centers around two deeply broken individuals (cheng mourns the death of her husband, lost in the woods, whose return she still prays for; louis koo’s heartbroken movie star starts out as a funny alcoholic, then his alcoholism becomes less ‘funny’ the more the reality sinks in) in love with images (or ghosts) and hiding from the outside world seems to strike a deep chord, and her performance is one of the strongest in recent years.
comedy relief side kicks aside, the mood is one of almost unrelenting darkness, the tortuous meta-fictional twists in the third act subdued by to’s aesthetic, wintry in ways that go far beyond the surface imagery. a great film, thoughtful about matters of the heart in ways we hardly see these days.
blind detective, 2013
the most recent masterpiece from to/wai has been a divisive item; an enormous hit in the chinese market, even longtime to boosters like david bordwell have declared this film, the longest milkyway production yet at two hours and eight minutes, as a disappointment. those reservations aren’t surprising – the film swerves violently from tone to tone and genre to genre in classic hong kong style, like back when they broke structures down into eleven minute mini events, tonal coherency be damned, and to allows andy lau (and much of the supporting cast) to overplay in ways that have always been hard for western audiences to take.
this is a shame, because it is one of to’s most beautiful and considered films – a young police officer mourning the childhood friend who disappeared decades past and enlists a nervous, lonely blind detective to hunt her down; he solves crimes by obsessively re-staging the crimes in his minds eye, and he trains her in a kind of method performance style to actively stage these crimes in a set-up that so blatantly evokes the blocking of a film shoot you almost don’t want to believe the ‘in’ to the film could be that simple. and of course it’s not; like all of to’s romances, loneliness is a default way of life, rebirth can only come after suffering and sacrifice (like loving you this ends in a birth that characters only earn after being critically wounded). to pushes his late style here further even than life without principle; there is an abundance of darkness and empty spaces, and a peculiar hint of green in the color balance not seen before in to’s work.
some of the best physical comedy work of the young decade too (the acid avoiding meet cute dance is one of the year’s highlights).
far side of paradise
the enigmatic case, 1980
to’s first film was a complicated new-wave wuxia, the critical and commercial failure of which set back his career for almost a decade (he spent the ‘80s making television and franchise comedies). while you could certainly argue that the themes and tropes of the wuxia tradition inform much of to’s later work, it’s quite clear that he is not entirely at home in a period setting, nor does he have much interest in the extended, choreographed scenes of physical confrontation that are more or less required by the genre (both the climactic fight scenes here are bizarrely rendered in extreme, step-printed slow motion, at durations approaching the ending of fassbinder’s american soldier).
in fact the film almost resembles a western more than a wuxia proper, down to a synth and vocals score that nods heavily in the direction of the italian westerns, and the dozens of shots of horses charging up dusty hills and so on. it’s a strong film, with fragments of striking image work here and there (especially in the night scenes), the work of an engaged cinephile who has not yet found his voice. worth watching for fans of to or the genre in general (it makes for an interesting comparison with tsui hark’s much more confident debut, the butterfly murders), but not quite the rosetta stone one might hope for.
all about ah long, 1989
to broke out of the comedy/tv ghetto with the commercial success of his 1988 hit the eight happiness, and the studio agreed to greenlit this prestige project, based on a scenario suggested by female lead sylvia chang. a substantial critical and commercial hit for to, chang, and star chow yun-fat, i’ve been told that this film is still considered one of the highlights of to’s career by many in hong kong. a stronger film than its reputation suggests, this film has an appealingly modest sense of place, awkward ’80s hairstyles, thoughtful if unfussy mise en scene, and a tragic motorcycle race finale that suggests a number of directions to would take in the future.
the fun, the luck & the tycoon, 1990
broad comedy with chow yun fat playing the spoiled tycoon of the title, fleeing a fortune (and an arranged marriage) to fall in love with his ah long co-star sylvia chang, as he takes a menial position at her brother’s fast food restaurant. it’s the most precisely designed film of to’s career, at least until the airless turn left, turn right, a tashlinesque series of intricately designed sight gags, full of music and charming performances. it’s also a film about finding meaning and companionship through vocation, a thread running through much of to’s work and a testament to the work ethic that, after a decade of making his way through the industry, gifted him with a confident virtuosity rare since the demise of the studio era.
casino raiders II, 1991
an in-name-only sequel (actually the third in the series) to an undistinguished wong jing action film, to’s movie is an almost unbelievably lurid action film in the early-90s hong kong tradition – there is a little girl chained to radiator, self-dismemberment, forced blinding, aggressively blue night scenes, tons of mist diffusion, birds flying past the camera, a match cut from falling playing cards to falling leaves, crazy shit with boats, a winner takes all one on one gambling climax, and johnnie to throwing up a peckinpah quoting “if they move kill ’em” banner on a wall just because he could. this is a young man making an entirely commercial assignment with an enormous excess of the required skill, drunk on the possibilities of this kind of film making. the result is kind of stunning, in the same way that hawks’ scarface is stunning, but like that film it seems in context just one step on the path to a career with a very different focus.
a side note – writer kan-cheung tsang, who collaborated with to on several stephen chow films, would be one of the first people to brought on board when he founded milkyway; his first and only credit as writer-director would be for to’s company, the notoriously sleazy and nihilistic (and category III) thriller intruder in 1997.
to’s last non-milkyway production was this day-in-the-life ensemble drama, with lau ching wan and ruby wong returning from loving you. cheng siu-keung is back as director of photography (he would shoot every to movie from this point on), this is perhaps the point where to really falls into a personal rhythm as a director. the first two thirds of the film are taken up with typical dramas and disappointments, the usual struggle of the hot-headed young man who wishes to risk his life for his job, and the superior who stresses caution. the last half hour is one enormous set piece, as lau and his team descend into a burning building, and to goes wild with the formal options presented by smoke, hallways, and roaring walls of fire; it’s easily one of the most striking sustained set-pieces of to’s career.
as a side note, this is the only to film david bordwell mentioned in his initial draft of ‘planet hong kong;’ he makes the important observation that though the human drama precedes the action set-piece, the action neither comments upon nor resolves the tensions and story-lines presented at the start of the film. the characters may have engaged in a heroic act, but it is still just one more day on the job.
the longest nite, 1998
one of three films allegedly ghost directed by to, but officially credited to his formed assistant director, tat-chi yau. the story seems to be that to did all the pre-production work on these films, sent yau out to direct them, decided early on that he wasn’t ready for the challenge, and took over directing himself, leading yau to quit the company, returning to tv work (he hasn’t directed anything of note since). while it’s impossible to know exactly how large a role to took on in these productions, it is probably wise to read the film with the assumption that he was the guiding hand behind it; certainly, all of the early milkyway productions, including the films to has no claim to directing, are cut from a similar cloth – bleak to the point of nihilism (in the swaggering, genre-cool sense, not the genuine despair found in something like life without principle), structurally perverse, and aggressive in visual technique.
this film, set in macau, places tony leung as a brutal police officer against lau ching wan as a bald (and tattooed) assassin in the middle of a three way gang war. nearly as violent as a hero never dies and utterly lacking that film’s romantic air, this is the closest thing to has done to straight up film noir – all the characters are corrupt or doomed, the game is more or less rigged from the start, and human life is treated like a disposable commodity.
while the neo-noir tendency in the 1990s was often a hollow posture, this film is instantly elevated by its peculiar, restless form – from the jittery narration and photo sequence to the eerie night drive credit sequence and glaring, too hot spots of light and grimy, saturated color schemes, the film almost seems like to’s reaction to the stylistic excesses of wong’s fallen angels. several set pieces stand out – a rigged interrogation in a jail cell (seemingly lit by a single, covered practical) that takes to’s early tendency to fill negative space with moving particles to its most elegant conclusion, using only a cloud of dust; lau ching wan commandeering a car in the most flamboyant way possible; and a climactic shootout between leung and lau that ramps up the sliding down the roof move from the beginning of loving you and adds a lady from shanghai like mirror sequence to the pot.
this is in many ways a transitional work – to would either grow out of many of the tendencies he’s working with here, or simply tone them down in response to milkyway’s commercial difficulties. but it is not an outlier in to’s body of work – it clearly looks back to techniques explored in casino raiders II, looks forward to the apex of this style in a hero never dies, and introduces narrative elements that would be re-worked in later films (most obviously in ptu).
expect the unexpected, 1998
far more uneven than the longest nite, this ghost directed feature seems to show its seems a little more apparently. the character work is terrific throughout, with strong ensemble work in the precinct scenes and lam suet entering the front ranks of milkyway stardom with a spectacular interrogation scene; there are a number of striking sequences, with special attention clearly given to the opening and finale; the circular structure is ingenious in itself; and there is a fascinating subtext involving the 1997 handover and the influx of chinese migrants into hong kong.
but the film doesn’t quite work. part of the problem seems to be a certain uneven attention – with a much more neutral visual approach than the more baroque work directly surrounding it, the film relies almost entirely on staging, which here ranges from technical virtuosity to mere functionality.
the other problem is that the viciousness of the crimes being committed – the killers are basically home invading serial rapists baby killers – demands a level of attention the film does not quite sustain, and the massive shifts in tone (which to’s films can usually handle) come close to snapping the whole thing in half.
running out of time, 1999
one of two andy lau starring hits for milkyway in 1999, this is a high concept crime film that really shouldn’t work at all – terminally ill super thief andy lau plays cat and mouse games with bored super cop lau ching wan, on his road to some kind of revenge or something. the film works almost astonishingly well though – this is to in a clean-lined, quick style, with room for both extended procedural heist sequences and jokey, lived in comedy featuring a cast of milkyway regulars (it’s especially nice to see ruby wong in her brief appearance).
the film really comes into its own, though, with two brief, wordless scenes between andy lau and yoyo mung on a bus – to slows the narrative down, and almost like a musical sequence in a minnelli film the smallest gesture expands until a single moment, a glance, seems like the heart of everything. it’s there that the film most fully expresses an idea that has haunted all of to’s work – the importance of how you do what it is that you do (in the how of his filmmaking it’s the perfection of gesture) in the face of life’s fragility in the hands of karma.
from concept to theaters in only 27 days, this hospital set dark comedy is the first manifestation of co-director wai’s perverse, elastic comedic sensibility in one of to’s movies. structurally this is almost a comedic answer to the earlier lifeline – two thirds day in the life business ensemble business, with an enormous crisis set-piece at the end. here wai brings a number of recurring comedic motifs and a sophisticated, ironic take on relationships that had been more or less lacking in to’s earlier work; even more importantly, we have the appearance of a female lead in the form of cecilia cheung’s idealistic doctor, something that would become important for to’s work in the following decade. to mostly brings his sense of rhythm and easy visual control, keeping the whole thing from (entirely) spinning off into lunacy (as is the case in some of wai’s solo work, as in wai’s 2004 comedy fantasia).
wu yen, 2001
the most purely enjoyable of the to/wai collaborations and a generous tribute to an ensemble of extraordinary actresses, to’s highly theatrical period comedy sketches out a love triangle between anita mui (cross-dressing to play an emperor, and wearing a beard to play her ancestor’s ghost), sammi cheng (as the cursed, jilted heroine), and cecilia cheung (as a gender ambiguous spirit). simple in structure and staging but rhythmically and linguistically complex, the film is also (as should not be surprising from wai) nuanced in its treatment of love and heartbreak. the highly artificial effects work is a joy in and of itself.
my left eye sees ghosts, 2002
another to/wai collaboration. at one point to cited this as his favorite of his comedies, and it’s easy to see why – the film, about newly rich widow sammi cheng lifted from alcohol fueled depression by the intervention of friendly ghost lau ching wan, has a constant melancholy undercurrent that finally erupts in grief and despair. that said, the film doesn’t quite work – the manic comedy and mugging performances, a constant element of the first run of milkyway comedies, here actually feel like a distraction, and seems less engaged with image and texture than usual. still well worth seeing, especially considering the peculiar plot similarities to tsui hark’s unjustly maligned masterpiece missing, from 2008.
love for all seasons, 2003
a strange comedy where professional heart-breaker louis koo flees to a distant resort for recuperation, where he meets kung fu scholar sammi cheng, who needs koo to break her heart to unlock a secret sword technique she can use to defend her school. if the plot sounds not unlike to’s later romancing in thin air II that’s because it is indeed quite similar, at least until they leave the monastery and spill out into the real world. but where to’s film subdues its wild tonal shifts with a careful, wintry misce en scene, this more wai-driven project creates depth through layers of verbal and conceptual irony. it’s a hard judgement to make but my gut feeling is that to’s presence is more purely functional here than in many of his collaborations with wai, but the filmmaking is never less than sharp and confident. needless to say sammi cheng and louis koo are impressive as the leads, each playing off very different parts of their star-personas than they would in romancing.
running on karma, 2003
never been as fond of this high-concept andy lau vehicle from the to/wai directing team as some other folks, many of whom hold it as one of to’s masterpeices. lau plays a body-building former monk escaping from his karma only to meet-cute with cecilia cheung’s police woman, who has a bleak karma over her own. it is certainly one of the most idiosyncratic popular films ever made, using lau’s bizarre muscle suit as merely the first volley in a film that cycles through a half dozen genres to arrive at a genuinely moving conclusion that prays for grace in the face of inevitable loss. like many of the wai-driven projects, however, the film seems to dance in rings around its own ideas, with to’s sensibility never quite given enough breathing room. definitely a film that deserves reconsideration.
breaking news, 2004
one of my earliest to experiences was this 2004 policier, an engaging genre effort in which a botched police sting (perfectly rendered, in the opening scene, as a single take crane shot) leads to a hostage situation in a large apartment building. the film then divides its attention between the criminals and the police, as they use internet video and news reports to wage a war for public sympathy. this is crisp mid-2000s to, all clearly delineated space and clean lines, simple color palettes and mostly functional lighting. besides the famous opening the film does best in the mid-section, where the action slows down and luxuriates in the procedural behavior of the police and the criminals, who take time to cook a lovely meal with the family they are holding hostage.
despite the often stunning craftsmanship on display here, this film falls somewhat flat for me; the lack of milkyway’s usual crew of stars in the key roles is a real problem, to seems to lose interest in the third act (which devolves into a series of chase scenes as they leave the building), and neither the formal nor narrative possibilities of the ‘war of images’ plot line are carried through to their fullest. the elastic use of downtime, the clarity and precision of staging, and the offbeat humanism of the supporting cast make this an engaging film, and a good entryway into what makes to so unique as a director; for anyone else this would be a career highlight.
yesterday once more, 2004
the first non-action to film i saw, this 2004 andy lau/sammi cheng romantic comedy is one of the more slippery entries in to’s body of work; it’s a kind of perverse comedy of remarriage focused on two super-thief ex lovers as they spar through dazzling theft and conspicuous consumption, leading to a frankly bizarre narrative conclusion that casts the entire film in a more troubling, emotionally (and morally) conflicted light. touching on the swinging crime/action comedies of hong kong’s ‘80s golden age, as well as classic hollywood (’60s spy films, to catch a thief, lubitsch’s trouble in paradise), and playing off the star power of its two leads, this film is a perfect first stop for anyone looking at to as a master of genre subversion. the style is similar to breaking news – clean lines, functional lighting, fast moving editing rhythms – until it’s not, growing hazier and more impressionistic in both image and rhythm as it approaches the end. highly recommended; this just misses being placed in the highest ranks of to’s work for me.
it’s something of a cliche that hong kong cinema, in the years folllowing its downfall, is obsessed with its past; generalizations aside, this macau set wild bunch riff by to is a straight period piece set in 1997, the exile of the title referring both to the characters estrangement from their own home, and to to’s own goodbye to the filmmaking tradition of his youth.
this is one of to’s personal favorites, and the first to i ever saw, urged on by the enthusiasm of my roommate of many years, who grew up near hong kong idolizing anthony wong. the ensemble here is pure milkyway deep bench (think the mission and ptu); the consequences, especially violent consequences, seem hazy and removed, the whole thing boiling down to a dream of camaraderie, virtuosity, high times now gone.
south-east asian friends of mine have told me the buddhist symbolism in this film is so aggressive that anyone clued in can’t possibly miss it (check cut to the statue, for sure), but having no authority to speak on that subject, i’ll simply say the puzzling chain of cause and effect in the third act may not be the flaw but the point…
mad detective, 2007
extremely high concept and nearly unclassifiable genre piece (but what genre?) from to/wai, focusing on lau ching wan as the mad detective of the title, fired from the police force after giving his superior the gift of an ear, able to see the hidden essence of human beings as a kind of hallucination. the clarity with which to stages this concept is stunning – an abstract, even writerly concept rendered indelibly cinematic through confident, thoughtful editing and staging. a handful of stunning scenes aside, what pushes this film to completely unexpected depths is a combination of lau ching wan’s performance, and a reveal partway through (relating to lau’s wife) that, in a scene on a motorcycle, actually had me thinking of the ford of long grey line and donovan’s reef.
filmed more or less simultaneously with sparrow, this film also sees to looking forward to the denser, heavily shadowed work of the next few years, and (in hall of mirrors finale) backwards to the longest nite, almost a decade in his past.
a european co-production that was initially pitched to star alain delon (but ended up with johnny halliday instead), this macau set revenge thriller is the first film i remember receiving significant attention from the mainstream critical press, with a theatrical release by ifc in new york and a glowing review in the new york times. to has called this an ‘exiled production,’ due to the fact that his french producers didn’t want him to deviate from the accepted shooting script (as he usually does with his more personal films); as such there is an intangible quality missing from this film, despite the fact that it includes some of the most stunning sequences of to’s career. a shootout in a picnic area that becomes a kind of rhythmic play with darkness and light as the moon is obscured by moving clouds; a killing reconstructed in the past tense while the passage of time is reflected in a kitchen full of spoiled food; a utopian sea-side idyll that registers as the only thing that matters before the heroic bloodshed finale.
don’t go breaking my heart, 2011
one of to’s largest commercial succeses, this to/wai romantic comedy was milkyway’s first major attempt to enter the mainland chinese market, in light of new financing and censorship rules for hong kong films, and the increasingly limited power of the local hong kong marketplace. i know chinese speaking to fans who’ve told me the strange interplay between mandarin and cantonese voices makes the film all but unwatchable for them; narratively this is far closer to a standard mainland romantic comedy (at least a more upscale one; think zhang ziyi’s dreadful sophie’s revenge from 2009 as a comparison) than it is to the more conceptually extravagant milkyway comedies of the previous decade.
the interest then is all in the form; this is implicitly a financial crisis film, and a reserved, even sombre tone hangs over the proceedings, the characters seem numbed with loss or paralyzed by indecision, the grand romantic ‘choice’ at the end undermined by the knowledge that, by choosing, you will be damaging the other party, whether you like it or not. many of the more formally striking moments in this film have been discussed elsewhere (her shadow on the wall, the cross-cut death of the frog, the strangely disquieting finale); perhaps best considered as a companion piece to life without principle.
drug war, 2012
i seem to be in the minority in not loving this 2012 crime film, to’s attempt see how far he could stretch out in his crime format within the restrictions of the mainland chinese environment (the result was successful; it was a substantial hit in the prc, and also received far more attention in the us than the otherwise superior blind detective and romancing in thin air, neither of which received theatrical releases). as a work of craftsmanship it is unimpeachable; as a film it strikes me as less engaged than the work surrounding it, but that may just be me recoiling a bit from the utter bleakness at the core of this work.
the heroic trio, 1993
this collaboration with action director siu-tung ching (most famous for the chinese ghost story films) attained cult status long before to’s name was known in the west, not least due to an atrocious mirimax dub and a conspicuous name-check in olivier assayas’ irma vep. loosely about a trio of super-powered women (anita mui, maggie cheung, and michelle yeoh) combating advances from a subterranean kingdom that has been busy kidnapping babies. to has alluded to satirical intentions buried somewhere in this scenario, but by the time you get to the part where the kidnapped babies have been turned into cannibals so the girls have no choice but to kill all the babies satirical intent has more or less gone out the window.
there are some great scenes though – to really pulls out all the stops on a level of pure design, the effects are ingenious and practical in the same vein as the chinese ghost story films, and there’s a great scene where anita mui flies through the air to catch a falling kitten. if i place this near the bottom of to’s work it’s not because it’s a weak film, but because i have the feeling that out of everyone involved, to brought the least sensibility to the table.
the bare-footed kid, 1993
by 1993 the wuxia was entering its last bloom of wire assisted glory, with tsui hark’s final once upon a time in china and green snake, benny chan’s the magic crane, swordsman III: the east is red and sammo hung’s underrated blades of fury, with ashes of time, the blade, and moon warriors close behind. in that context to’s shaw produced action film seems less like a modest curiosity than an artist playing in a league he wasn’t quite ready for yet. that’s a little harsh for a film that has it’s own goofy charm and a careful sense of design; there is certainly more of to’s personality in this film than in the stephen chow comedies he was making at the same time. this film (as well as the ‘heroic trio’ movies) really seems to bring out the literalist in him; the barefooted kid has no shoes when he comes to town, so to makes sure to shoot his feet first thing, and when he kicks people there is a bare footprint left behind. as he moves up in life he gets newer shoes, each one fancier than the last; renouncing the new life, the shoes come off. the first time i saw heroic trio the subtitles cut out in the last 20 minutes; each point of resolution was so clearly delineated by object, setting, staging that the film was perfectly intelligible without the benefit of dialogue.
what’s interesting is that to doesn’t quite outgrow this tendency – instead the tendency grows with him, so that the more abstract symbols floating through later films (that bottle of wine in a hero never dies, that frog in don’t go breaking my heart, the broken piano in romancing in thin air II) are distant cousins to the telegraphed foot-based visual metaphors here.
the lesser known sequel to the heroic trio finds siu-tung ching taking a full co-director credit, the series moving into a post-apocalyptic future, the overall tone darker and more subdued. there is a ‘direct to video’ feel to the whole enterprise, and while the actresses are still a lot of fun to watch (there is a daughter figure now, so they resemble a surrogate family even more), and lau ching wan makes what i believe is his first appearance in a johnnie to film, the convoluted plot eventually drags the whole thing down, to the point it feels slightly tedious to get through.
a moment of romance III, 1996
‘good plane take-offs and landings;’ that was manny farber raving about hawks’ thing from another world, but i’ll quote it here to damn with faint praise. coming between two very strong milestones in the filmmaker’s career, this world war II era romance is not only a step-back for to, but probably the least interesting film he ever made. andy lau’s richboy aviator crash lands in a tiny farming village and predictably falls in love with illiterate farm girl jacklyn wu, who follows him back to the city where things get complicated, and the film becomes nearly interesting, with the threat of abandonment and one beautifully filmed smoky bar scene lifting things up a bit.
there are also a lot of cows – the beloved village cows that lift the plane from where it has crashed, making this the rare johnnie to movie that extensively features livestock. probably for completists only; in grand hong kong tradition it has no relation to the two films it is allegedly a sequel to.
running out of time II, 2001
another film that to was going to let his assistant direct, but which he stepped into sometime during the early production. it is the only johnnie to film to date that features an incredibly unconvincing cgi eagle, and the only johnnie to film that earns a place in the bad cgi canon.
eagle aside, the entire film falls curiously flat; some engaging ensemble work from the milkyway regulars and a few lovely sequences aside (the end is actually one of to’s best, a new year’s miracle that seems like a prayer for a better world, score that quotes the internationale and all) the film just sort of doggedly refuses to work.
turn left, turn right, 2003
a rare co-production with a major studio, this film takes the iconic picture book, drains the airy charm from its images, and chains it to an over designed fated lovers plot that brings wai ka fai’s love of obsessive doubling to the point where it ceases to be engaging and becomes merely schematic. one could imagine sammi cheng bringing some life into this film, but pop-star non-actress gig leung doesn’t seem to have it in her.