Hong Kong director and producer Johnnie To Kei-Fung is an industry icon. After honing his craft and experimenting with various styles during the boom period of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s, To has been entertaining and engaging audiences for over 30 years.
Although best known for his gritty Triad-centric crime dramas (Election, Vengeance), the filmmaker is respected for his genre-jumping versatility. He’s proven himself equally adept at helming slapstick farce (The Mad Monk), romantic comedy (Love on a Diet, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart) or fantasy epics (The Heroic Trio.)
In 1996, To and his frequent collaborator, director Wai Ka Fai, launched Milkyway Image, a production house specializing in independent films.
To is a three-time Best Director recipient at the Hong Kong Film Awards and earned three Best Director statuettes at the prestigious Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s answer to the Academy Awards. His lauded dramas Exiled and Mad Detective were shown in competition at the Venice Film Festival and five of his films have been featured at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2009, the French Minister of Culture acknowledged To’s contribution to world cinema and named him an officer of the French Order of Arts and Literature.
Versatility, thy name is Johnnie To. The prolific Hong Kong director is equally adept at helming ice-cool thrillers as he is filming searing dramas or warm-hearted comedies. “Creativity really flourishes when boundaries are broken,” he explains. “The biggest challenge when starting a new film comes from within. You need passion and a clear vision otherwise you resort to old patterns.”
The challenge facing first-time Asian directors today, however, is forfeiting cultural relevance for box office receipts. “Asian movies are now global commodities, earning positive reviews and healthy box office returns. But to ensure the industry stays dynamic and competitive, filmmakers need to avoid replicating Western sensibilities and styles. Big budgets can’t buy authentic emotions.”
To illustrate his point, the director names his two all-time favorite Chinese films: Spring in a Small Town and Not One Less, both available on DVD with English subtitles.
“The next generation of Chinese filmmakers need to appreciate the subtle simplicity of these low-budget films,” adds To. “Although they were made decades apart, both are small-scale dramas set in rural China yet deal with universal themes of loss and loyalty.”
Directed by renowned auteur Fei Mu, the romantic Spring in a Small Town chronicles the relationship between a married woman in rural post-war China, her invalid husband and a visiting doctor who threatens to derail the marriage. “Spring in a Small Town was released in 1948 and is nostalgic without being sentimental,” notes To.
Not One Less is a contemporary slice-of-life drama from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who first gained international acclaim lensing such historical epics as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern. For 1999’s Not One Less, Zhang Yimou scaled back the budget to tell the poignant tale of a teenage substitute teacher who goes in search of a wandering student.
“Not One Less is a masterpiece,” enthuses To. “It touches me every time I see it. It’s made all the more remarkable when you consider that [director Zhang Yimou] was working with amateur actors. This decision gives the film a documentary feel that adds to the realism.”
Alongside Zhang Yimou, To counts Jia Zhangke (Still Life) and Wang Xiaoshuai (Shanghai Dreams) as other Chinese directors he admires. “These filmmakers convey a deeply personal vision, they reflect truths about life in contemporary China and embrace their cultural heritage.”