Action Speaks Louder than Words: “The Mission” Director Johnnie To Returns With “Fulltime Killer”
by Ryan Mottesheard
Before 1998, Johnnie To warranted little more than a sidebar mention in any discussion of Hong Kong filmmaking. Sure, he’d directed the high-profile “Heroic Trio” movies (starring Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui), as well as an appropriately gonzo Cops-and-Triads pic, “The Big Heat” (1988). But when compared to compatriots John Woo, Tsui Hark, and others, these films came up a bit short.
But then six years ago, To formed Milkyway Image Co. with Wai Kai-Fa and the duo started churning out hit after hit. More importantly, it bought To enough creative freedom to go out and make “The Mission,” the best action film to come out of Hong Kong since “Hard-Boiled.” Eschewing frenetic action and lightning-fast cutting, To reduced the action film to deliberate rhythms — both character and editing — and was able to make, say, five hired bodyguards kicking around a paper-wad in boredom as memorable as a dialogue-less shootout in an empty mall. Even more remarkable is the fact that the budget for “The Mission” was only slightly more than $300,000.
To (pronounced Doe) primed himself for this crime film masterwork with two earlier crime films, “A Hero Never Dies” and “Running Out of Time,” each notable in its own way and both completed less than a year before “The Mission.” After winning the best director prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards, he switched gears, made a couple of “commercial” movies and then took the cool, crime film aesthetic even further with “Fulltime Killer,” which Palm Pictures opened in New York on Friday and opens in L.A. later this week. Ambitious almost to a fault, the film concerns two hired killers, the girl they’re both in love with, and a cop who doggedly pursues them. Yet what makes “Fulltime Killer” more than another riff on “Running out of Time”‘s cat-and-mouse playfulness is a sense of loneliness and displacement that would make Wong Kar-Wai proud. And while To’s non-action films (such as the HK hit comedy “My Left Eye Sees Ghosts”) are maddeningly straight-forward, his action films like “The Mission” and “Fulltime Killer” prove that he is virtually without peer on either side of the Pacific.
indieWIRE: Would you agree that your films have become more idiosyncratic since you formed Milkyway Image Company?
Johnnie To: I think so. In 1995, I made a film called “Loving You,” which is where I felt like there was a break in my career. Before that, I’d made more commercial pictures and after that, I went in a more personal direction. When I started Milkyway with Wai Ka-Fai in 1996, Hong Kong movies basically just followed one big trend after another. There were gangster movies for a while, there were gambling movies for a while. We felt like creativity was really lacking in the industry. So one of Milkyway’s major goals was to do something different and put an emphasis on character-driven movies rather than formulas.
iW: There was a lull in the HK film industry leading up to the 1997 changeover and Milky Way has been largely credited with its resurgence since then. Did the company’s formation just happen to coincide with the changeover or was it planned?
To: (Laughs) Pure coincidence. I did not anticipate the recession and it hit right AFTER we formed Milkyway, right after the making of “Too Many Ways to Be No. 1.” It became very difficult to find financing for our movies until late 1998 or 1999. For example, “The Odd One Dies,” starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, we financed it ourselves. Still, I was very persistent about making movies that I wanted to make until 1999 but it was difficult (financially). That’s why in 2000, Milkyway changed its direction somewhat and started making more commercial pictures.
iW: Recently, you’ve worked in the romantic comedy genre as much as the action genre. Is this a creative decision or a commercial one?
To: When we decided to start making more commercial movies, we felt like there was a real need to bring Hong Kong audiences back into the theatres. This is not anything admirable, it’s just the reality of filmmakers in Hong Kong. If you don’t get audiences back in theatres, then filmmakers have no way to make a living. But our approach to all these different genres, even if they’re “commercial” pictures, is not to repeat ourselves. We’re very aggressive about that.
iW: In the States, your action films are more widely respected. But in Hong Kong it’s the opposite, isn’t it?
To: Cineastes in Hong Kong know my “personal” films. But most of the general audience, certainly in terms of box office, know more of my comedies like “Love on a Diet.” Right before coming here, I was giving interviews to some campus newspapers in Hong Kong, and it was obvious that they’d seen all my “personal” like “The Longest Nite,” “A Hero Never Dies,” and “Fulltime Killer.”
iW: What goes into constructing a Johnnie To action sequence?
To: When I design an action scene, it always comes from character. I try and figure out how the action sequence illuminates the character’s qualities and personality. For example, in “Fulltime Killer,” the scene with Andy Lau wearing a Bill Clinton mask that’s set to opera — that scene is there to communicate Andy Lau’s personality. He’s shooting people and he’s dancing around He’s a flamboyant character, he wants you to notice him. That’s why that action sequence is shot in that way. My action scenes are created to give the audience more information about character.
iW: Do you storyboard your action sequences?
To: No. It’s quite difficult for me to storyboard. It always has been. I have a difficult time visualizing the shots before I’m actually there on location with the camera and the actors.
iW: What about your most famous action sequence, the mall scene in “The Mission”? How did that scene come about?
To: “The Mission” was made in the course of 18 shooting days. And the mall scene was shot in two parts, the first part coming very early on in shooting. I’d had the idea for “The Mission” for a number of years, so I’d already spent quite a lot of time thinking about it. For that particular scene, it was about those five characters acting as one. When we did costume fittings for each actor, I made the other four actors accompany him and while they waited, they would just chat away and get to know each other. Technically speaking, in that mall scene, I asked the director of photography not to use any tracking shots, because I’m known for moving my camera a lot. I didn’t want the camerawork to distract from the solidarity of that group of five characters.
iW: Unlike many Hong Kong action filmmakers, you place a great deal of emphasis on quieter scenes. For example, the scene in “Fulltime Killer” when O stares at his apartment across the street is as memorable as the shootout on the street where Andy Lau is wearing a Bill Clinton mask.
To: All these scenes of stillness are as important as action scenes as they tell you more about the characters. I don’t like to communicate these ideas with dialogue and so I try and find a visual approach to characters. With “Fulltime Killer,” the scene where O stares through his telescope, the telescope works to show how far and yet so close O is from the object of his affection. Even though she works for him, there is still a great distance between them.
iW: In “Fulltime Killer,” there are references to other films including “El Mariachi” and “Point Break.” Were these homages or were they borne out of Andy Lau’s character?
To: “Fulltime Killer” originates from a very popular Hong Kong novel by the same name. The book itself didn’t pay homage, but literally stole these scenes from popular action movies and claimed them as its own. So when Wai Ka-Fai began writing the screenplay, we had to figure out how to treat these scenes and ultimately decided upon the self-referencing of the original films.
iW: Did the book also have multiple narrators?
To: No. The book is not as complete as a story as the movie. The selling point of the novel when it came out was that the author has a lot of contacts inside the secret world of hit men. And he’s collected all these authentic details of how hit men go about their business. The book itself reads more like a diary than a story and Wai had to add a lot of elements to make a cohesive story out of it.
iW: I know you’ve been approached about coming to Hollywood. Do you have any interest in making a Hollywood movie?
To: I can’t find a good script. If you look at the Hong Kong directors who have made American movies, Ringo Lam or Tsui Hark, they make very good movies in Hong Kong but their American movies are not so good. There has been only one success and that is John Woo. I saw all the movies that Hong Kong directors have made [in Hollywood] and the problem is the script. To do a good film here, it’s not about having a name star, you have to have a good script.
iW: But the support system isn’t as good either. If you look at Corey Yuen, he’s done some good work with Luc Besson because Besson seems to have a better understanding of his talents.
To: You have to be very careful. Hollywood has a system of making movies and I wonder how I could fit into this system in a smooth way. It’s not about whether Johnnie To can shoot a movie or not. It’s a matter of how I can handle the moviemaking system. On “Turn Left Turn Right,” it was sort of the best of both worlds because even though it is funded by an American studio (Warner Bros), it was made in Hong Kong and I had complete creative control of the picture.
iW: Is it an action picture?
To: No, it’s a romance. “PTU” (which opens in Hong Kong in April) is kind of an action film. I think there’s the possibility of making another picture (with Warner Bros) but first I wanted to make a successful movie.
iW: Do the comparisons with John Woo annoy you? Your films are closer to say, Melville or Takeshi Kitano.
To: (Laughs) Too many people compare me to John Woo! The comparisons have always been made because we both come out of the Hong Kong action genre. And our movies always tend to be about men. But the biggest difference between me and John Woo is the worlds that we like to explore are very different. John Woo’s movies are about the honor amongst guys, whereas mine are closer to Beat Takeshi’s, as my movies are about fate and the unpredictable relationship between people.
[DISCLOSURE: indieWIRE Managing Member and Co-Founder Karol Martesko-Fenster is part of the executive management team of Palm Pictures.]