Thanks to director/writer/producer Johnnie To, the commercial cinema of Hong Kong has entered a golden age. Since forming Milkyway Image Ltd. in 1996, To has helped produce over fifty films, and has directed or co-directed over half of them himself. While other Hong Kong filmmakers were being exported to America or devoting themselves to the arthouse scene, To commited himself to rehabilitating Hong Kong’s film industry with a synthesis of commercial filmmaking, expert craft, storytelling, and poetry. Largely inspired by European art cinema and classical Hollywood technique, To has imbued his action and crime films with uncommon artistry, establishing himself as one of contemporary movie culture’s greatest genre filmmakers.
Milkyway also employs at least two other great artists: frequent To collaborator Wai Ka-Fai and director Soi Cheang, whose new film “Motorway,” produced by To, screened in competition at this year’s Locarno Film Festival. To’s own films were also featured at Locarno in honor of his receiving the “Pardo alla carriera” award for lifetime achievement. Thus, the 65th Locarno Film Festival acted as a sort of reminder — as if we needed one — of Milkyway Image’s enormous role in the last fifteen years of world cinema.
With “Motorway,” Soi Cheang continues to implicitly make the argument that he deserves the spotlight just as much as To. Their styles are comparable, but Cheang’s is distinct; he often shows us scenarios in which an individual must come to terms with a reality he doesn’t understand. To, on the other hand, prefers brotherhoods and teams — creating an interesting existential dichotomy of individualism and collectivism.
Cheang also knows how to craft a coherent action sequence, a precious and rare thing in modern action cinema. Like To, Cheang’s versatility makes each of his films surprising. After the blunt, physically intensified continuity style of “Dog Bite Dog,” Cheang’s masterpiece, “Accident” fit more along the lines of what may be the best Milkyway Image film, “Sparrow,’ directed by To in 2008. Each of these films contains sequences so delicate and beautiful they leave you gasping for breath — because how could something so lovely and so suspenseful exist in an “action” film? I’m thinking of the pickpocketing scene in the rain in “Sparrow,” and from Cheang’s film, the drawn out attempt to murder someone — again in the rain — with a well-coordinated “accident” that goes wrong.
At a Q&A session held in Locarno, Johnnie To took questions from the audience as well as from moderator Julien Gester of Liberation. Gester tried several times to convince To to speak about his themes and ideas as an auteur, but it was clear that To was much more comfortable discussing his movies as the product of a team working together, an appropriate sentiment given the subjects of his films. When asked for his favorite modern directors, To said no names came to mind; he likes many films, he explained, but simply enjoys them as he watches them, and doesn’t remember who made them. Eventually, Gester got To to open up about the worldview in his movies, remarking that, like his characters, we all exist inside a frame, subject to the will of God.
To also spoke about his plans to foster the next generation of Hong Kong filmmakers with a Milkyway Image initiative known as “Fresh Wave.” It would be difficult to think of a better person for the job. Like the great Hollywood directors of old, To and Cheang remind us that commercial cinema can be home to some of the greatest artists, and both of them continue to exemplify this with thoughtful and personal works. With To at the helm of Milkyway, it goes without saying that the future of Hong Kong cinema is bright indeed.
Adam Cook is a freelance film critic and editor for MUBI, based in Vancouver, BC. You also can follow him at his blog, Cinémezzo. This piece is part of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.