Archive for the 'Directors: Johnnie To Kei-fung' Category
DB here, still at the Vancouver International Film Festival:
The Milkyway films of Johnnie To Kei-fung have resisted some of the fancier tactics of contemporary cinema, such as self-correcting flashbacks and forays into what-if universes. It’s true that he has played a little with disorienting subjectivity (The Mad Detective), and his intricate plotting in films like The Mission have something of the feel of converging-fates stories. But his chief devices, I tried to argue in Planet Hong Kong and occasionally on this site, have been laconicism and ellipsis.
Hollywood dramaturgy tells you something important three times, but To’s films often just mention a key story point in passing. If you miss it, you’ll have to try to recall it later, even after the film is over. Likewise, in Hollywood films, any time periods that are skipped over are assumed to be irrelevant to the plot. But To’s films (like Lang’s) omit showing us intervals that later prove to be quite important. Taken together, the laconic and elliptical approaches to storytelling make The Mission, Running Out of Time, The Longest Nite, The Mad Detective, and the last episode of Triangle into narrative games–games of wits among the characters, but also between the filmic narration and the audience.
With Life without Principle, fresh from screenings at Venice and Toronto, To embarks on a full-blown network narrative. The film follows three clusters of characters across three days, with the last day showing the collapse in world stock markets caused by the Greek debt crisis. All the characters are tied to this macro-event. Police officer Cheung and his wife Connie are about to buy an apartment, the bank investment advisor Teresa sees her customers lose thousands, and the triad Panther partners with his old friend Lung just before Lung’s market maneuvers crash.
Each character has more personal concerns as well. Cheung has learned that his dying father has taken a Mainland mistress, and he and Connie must decide whether to adopt the woman’s child. Teresa’s sales record is poor, and she’ll lose her job if she doesn’t generate more business. Panther needs money to bail out an errant triad colleague. Tying together all three strands is the gloating moneylender Yuen, who scoffs at the stock market and points out that he offers better terms than credit-card companies.
Designing a network plot offers you essentially two options. You can intercut all the strands as the protagonists move through time together (as in Nashville) or you can segregate the plotlines into blocks, as in the “chapters” of Pulp Fiction or the character-tagged chunks of Go. In the block pattern, some chronological fiddling will be necessary. We follow one character or group through story events and then hop back to an earlier period in order to follow another strand.
Mild spoilers start here.
Life without Principle takes the block option. A prologue shows Cheung investigating a murder and Connie trying to buy an apartment for them. The bulk of the film starts by following Teresa through the days leading up to the financial crisis. The narration then glides back to the evening of the first day and we meet Panther, an obsequious but loyal triad working for a self-centered boss. Panther eventually joins his pal Lung in an internet stock swindle. The two plotlines converge at a murder in the bank’s parking ramp, involving HK $10 million in cash. In its final stretch the film starts crosscutting among Teresa, Panther, Lung, Cheung, and Connie. Each line of action comes to a distinct climax, only tangentially related to the others but still tied together by the fluctuations of the stock market.
Still, Johnnie To offers a network narrative on his own terms. Where a Hollywood film is careful to tell us when it skips back in time, usually by use of titles, To’s playfully laconic narration eliminates titles. Instead, the transitional marker is a rightward tracking shot of Hong Kong Island accompanied by jaunty a capella music in Swingle Singer style. More generally, To doesn’t mark the three days overtly within Teresa’s and Panther’s tales. To is more interested in creating a flow across each story rather than that sense of modular architecture we get with modern day-by-day plotting.
Moreover, the tonal shifts that we find in many Milkyway films help keep the stories distinct. Teresa’s and officer Cheung’s plots are straightforwardly dramatic and suspenseful, while Panther’s is grotesquely comic—a quality underscored by Lau Ching-wan’s blinking portrayal of a dense but compulsively earnest company man. The spaces are at variance too. Teresa is never seen outside the bank building (until the last shot), and so the action in her story is built around enclosure and small details, especially a crucial key. Panther’s story is expansive, roaming from a triad banquet to the streets and cafes of Kowloon.
The film relieson classic suspense techniques to an unusual degree , especially the passages in Teresa’s office. Moreover, we always like a drama that forces sympathetic characters to make bad decisions. Cheung, who impassively does his duty as a good cop, ponders disowning the half-sister he never knew he had. Panther, abused by his boss and his pals, remains naively loyal to them.
Our keenest investment, I think, is in Teresa’s situation. Rapacious bank policies make her sell chancy investments to people who can’t understand them. Her scenes with the aged Hi Kun, blindly buying into a high-risk fund, consume an agonizing ten minutes, and throughout you sense Teresa’s qualms about the scam she’s pulling. When she goes to fetch Hi Kun coffee, she pauses meditatively over the cup: laconic To again. Later, when Teresa is confronted by massive temptation, all our instincts urge her to succumb, even though it would be a crime.
Will these basically decent people come through the financial crisis unscathed? The Milkyway universe can be harsh and capricious. Expect the unexpected.
So Hang-shuen, Denise Ho, and Johnnie To on the set of Life without Principle.
A modest display at Filmart, Hong Kong Convention Centre.
DB here, channeling an apparently apocryphal Soupy Sales line:
Kids, what starts with f and ends in art? No, not that. It’s Filmart, the annual trade gathering that kicks off the Hong Kong Film Festival. Add a space and a capital, and you have the main title of one of our books. Sometimes accidental cross-promotion can work out pretty well, as you see above.
Seriously, though, Filmart is a wonderful event. It includes an opening ceremony to launch the festival, the Asian financing forum known as HAF, the Asian Film Awards (covered a bit here), and a teeming meet-and-greet that sponsors panels, lunches, and hundreds of booths that allow media buyers and sellers to get together. I’ve covered Filmart in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. Here are some comments and images from last week’s edition.
The shebang started with the ceremony introducing some of the opening films and their stars. Here the Filmart’s official hostess, Miriam Yeung, is about to go onstage to greet the audience.
And here at the ceremony are the three stars of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Gao Yuanyuan, Daniel Wu, and Louis Koo.
Ho Yuhang’s clever neo-noir Open Verdict was a highlight of the shorts collection Quattro Hong Kong 2. Here he is with his star, the radiant Kara Wai Ying-hung, Shaw Brothers action queen and star of both Open Verdict and Ho’s earlier feature Daybreak.
Filmart’s main business takes place in a vast hall, with companies’ displays lined up in rows and along aisles. Most firms have fairly modest stalls, but others are flamboyant, like these big boys for Mei Ah and Universe, two long-established Hong Kong production/ distribution companies.
But the place isn’t so big that you can’t run into old friends, like Margaret Pu (far right) and her colleagues Jack Lee and Dan Zhu from the Shanghai Film Festival.
More movers and shakers: Patrick Frater, CEO of Film Business Asia, and Peggy Chiao, producer (Trigram Films) and doyenne of Taiwanese New Cinema.
At Filmart one can always find some unclassifiable items, as witness the project pictured at the very end of this entry.
New Action on the Mainland
Most panels ran opposite film screenings, so I usually plumped for the movies. But I did attend an intriguing session on “Beyond Box Office: China: The World’s Largest Developing Market.” Sponsored by the Hong Kong Film New Action committee and moderated by Shanghai media executive Bill Zhang Ming, the panel included many Chinese figures and the American Ted Perkins, who has worked for both Warners and Universal and is now serving as executive VP of production for IDG China Media.
Some of the themes discussed echo things I talked about in the added chapters of Planet Hong Kong, but I garnered some new information as well.
*Several panelists pointed out that the stupendous growth in the Chinese box office, over 50% each year, demands that many new cinemas be built. The major cities have now got a good supply of screens, but now the third- and fourth-tier cities need to have more screens. Some commentators spoke of a “new five-year plan” aiming to upgrade and increase the nation’s screens.
*As in America and other countries, a few films typically garner the lion’s share of receipts; one panelist estimated that 80% of income stems from 20% of the films. For the foreseeable future, the big films, from China or the US, will drive the market.
*The growth of the market is even more remarkable given the comparatively small audience (around 20 million, one panelist surmised). Average ticket price is 32 renminbi, or about US$4.88.
*Hong Kong remains essential to the mainland market but also vulnerable. Films with local stars and directors can succeed, and Hong Kong is a key site for financing and packaging projects. But purely local films will remain low-budget items; the bigger films will be mainland co-productions, with some PRC talent and scenery on the screen.
*The popular audience, according to screenwriter-producer Qi Hai, is driven by female tastes: date movies are chosen by the woman, and family films are picked by mothers.
*Ted Perkins pointed out that although recent growth is good for all players, in any film industry there are always more funds in production than can be recouped overall. There will be winners and losers, especially if there’s an overabundance of production, as there currently is on the mainland. Although about 500 films were produced last year, more than half did not find theatrical release or screen in the best cinemas. (Panelists’ estimates of unseen or underseen titles varied from 250 to 400.) Marcus Lim provides a comparable set of figures.
*Some panelists opined that the market lacks directors and stars who are likely to provide success. One panelist estimated that only half a dozen directors have strong track records, and only one star, Ge You, can guarantee an audience.
*Most panelists agreed that 3D was not viable for most films, but in China the new format can help the business in an unusual way. Historically, most mainlanders couldn’t afford going to films, so they aren’t in the habit of attending theatres. They watch films on video or on the Net. Curiosity about 3D may attract new cinemagoers, “educating” spectators to the pleasures of seeing movies on the big screen.
*Most big countries have a well-structured pattern of “windows,” whereby a film moves from the theatre to video, cable, and online. But in China, the expansion of screens is occurring simultaneously with the growth of online distribution, with the danger of piracy. The Chinese will have to come to grips with decisions about pricing and more stable windows.
Seldom do we have a chance to realize that we’re witnessing a historic change in the global film industry. The rise of China is such an event, and film historians should be watching the unfolding process closely.
Changing the film ecology
The Jockey Club Cine Academy, formed last summer, is an educational enterprise guided by the HKIFF Society and funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust. It’s a three-year program aiming to increase film literacy among young people. The Academy held a major event during Filmart, a nearly three-hour master class with Jia Zhangke, director of Platform, The World, Still Life, and most recently I Wish I Knew. High school students made up a large part of the audience.
Researcher and editor Wong Ain-ling (above, with Jia) interviewed him about his career and then opened things up for questions. Here are a few points Jia made.
*His recent turn toward documentary filmmaking isn’t a new development for him. When he was starting out, documentaries were the most dynamic part of the PRC film scene. Although the films captured aspects of contemporary life ignored by mainstream movies, they were seldom watched by audiences. So the question for Jia became: “How to change our film ecology?”
He has used a documentary project to spark a fiction feature. In Public (2001) became a draft for Unknown Pleasures. Jia enjoyed eliminating dialogue and narration from his documentaries, relying on peoples’ faces and situations to convey ideas. Critics complained that documentarists couldn’t tell stories, but he wanted mainland audiences to learn to find the latent emotions in the scenes, the “poetic” side of realistic cinema.
*His early films incorporated popular music, including Taiwanese tunes sung by Teresa Teng. Why? During the 1980s and 1990s, mounted loudspeakers broadcast a lot of Mandarin pop songs, making this music just part of a city’s ambience. This was something he exploited in his first feature, Xiao Wu.
*Jia had arguments with censors on his first three features, and those films weren’t widely seen. But in 2004, the censorship system changed, mostly for the better. Yet distributors still block films shot on video from being shown in cinemas, creating what Jia called a “technical censorship.”
*The reports are true: He is making a martial arts film with Johnnie To’s Milkyway firm. Jia wants to examine the imperial system in the period around 1900. He would like to follow it with another historical film, this one about Hong Kong in 1949, centering on two characters, a Communist and a KMT Nationalist.
Like Hong Kong itself, Filmart has a pulsating energy and offers an overwhelming array of choices: you can watch movies, attend events, and just gawk. You must run to keep up. That’s as it should be.
For more coverage of industry doings at Filmart, see Liz Shackleton’s rundown at Screen International (may be proprietary). Another story in Screen International mulls over the prospect that China could fairly soon become the world’s biggest market. See as well several items at Film Business Asia, particularly Stephen Cremin’s article on Chinese coproductions. For our takes on some Jia Zhangke films, you can go to this category.
PS 31 March (HK time): I should have mentioned what the New Action panel did not: Piracy. The LA Times has a good recent article on DVD bootlegging in the PRC, raising the crucial factor I’ve heard mentioned as well: the role of the People’s Liberation Army.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.
DB here, from the Hong Kong Film Festival:
First, news. The Asian Film Awards, presented in a glitzy ceremony Monday, held some surprises. Confessions from Japan and Let the Bullets Fly from the Mainland (discussed in my previous entry), each had six nominations going in. But Confessions nabbed no prizes and Bullets won only for Best Costume Design, the award going to William Chang Suk-ping, probably best known as a versatile collaborator with Wong Kar-wai.
Best Picture winner was festival favorite Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by Apichatpang Weerasethakul (right, in remarkable suit). The Best Director and Best Screenplay awards went to Lee Chang-dong for Poetry (which Kristin and I had liked very much at Vancouver). The winners are picked not by a mass of voters, as with the Oscars, but by a jury drawn from industry figures, critics, and festival executives. The first year’s awards in 2007 was dominated by the crowd-pleasing monster film The Host, which garnered four prizes, but this time two top honors went to arthouse/ festival titles. Still, it was very nice that local industry mainstay Sammo Hung got the Best Supporting Actor kudo for Ip Man 2.
As ever, there were special awards too: one to veteran Busan director Kim Dong-ho, one for Lifetime Achievement to Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest, one to Fortissimo Films for promotion of Asian cinema, and a prize to the top-grossing Asian film. That last was one of the three that went to Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock (which we wrote about here). For a full listing go here. At Filmbiz Asia Patrick Frater suggests that the catastrophe in Japan gave the ceremony a sombre cast.
Milkyway on the move
Source: South China Morning Post.
When I arrived last week, I was greeted by a long story in the South China Morning Post announcing that Johnnie To Kei-fung and Wai Ka-fai (above), the movers behind Milkyway films, were embarking on a new production strategy.
Although Milkyway movies had cracked the mainland Chinese market in the past, notably with Breaking News (2004), To had made several films that could not be exported. His most personal films, crime stories like The Mission and PTU, violated the PRC’s demands that movies treat the police with respect. Worse, his Election films, which surveyed the treacherous power plays at work in Triad societies, was unthinkable as an export item–especially since the second entry extended its vision to the role played by PRC forces in controlling the Hong Kong crime scene.
Today, however, everyone acknowledges that the primary market for any Hong Kong film with a substantial budget is the mainland. In the SCMP story To and Wai announce their plans to craft a cycle of films for that audience. Romantic comedies and dramas have shown strong legs there, and true to their prolific energies, To and Wai have committed to making three romances this year. The first, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, opened the festival on Sunday night. To is currently shooting the next one on the Mainland, and the third is set up to follow quickly.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which is better than the Kiki Dee/ Elton John song, is an office romance like Milkyway’s 2000 hit , Needing You. . . . But the creators have deliberately updated the milieu, which includes not only a mainland émigrée as the heroine but also many scenes shot in China, as required by the financing.
The action starts just before the 2008 financial crisis. Cheng Zixin (a charming Gao Yuanyuan) is a lowly staffer at an investment company, while Cheung Sun-yin (Louis Koo) is an executive at a rival firm who first spies her from his sportscar. Noticing that Zixin occupies a cubicle by the window in a building adjacent to his, the ingratiating rascal begins flirting with her through pantomime. The third corner of the triangle is Fong Kai-wang (Daniel Wu), an architect turned alcoholic bum. The affair between Zixin and Sun-yin falls apart because of his attraction to other women, and she develops a platonic affection for Kai-wang, whom she urges to return to his profession. Three years later, as the financial sector is recovering, the three meet on more equal terms and Kai-wang and Sun-yin begin a serious competition for the young woman.
The financial crisis is no more than a pretext for the meet-cutes, handy coincidences, running gags, and emotional ups and downs characteristic of this genre. (One hopes that the recession gets more sober treatment in To’s long-gestating bank suspense drama, currently known as Life without Principle.) We get the common tension between the world of selfish business operations and that of nobler artistic expression, seen in Kai-wang’s love-inspired architectural designs. There’s also the convention, common to Asian romances, that these grown-up lovers are actually childlike, enjoying pets and stuffed animals. (You find it even in Chungking Express.) Don’t Go Breaking My Heart handles these conventions adroitly, but adds the To/ Wai flavor in its plot geometry and its strict but surprising ways with visual technique.
An American movie would have added subsidiary romances, usually involving the friends of the main characters. Instead, as in many Milkyway films, Wai’s plot is built out of rhyming situations. Sun-yin twice glimpses Zixin on a bus, both suitors use Post-Its and magic acts to attract her attention, characters’ zones of knowledge shift symmetrically, and an engagement ring pops up unexpectedly. Most remarkably, much of the courtship is carried on through skyscraper windows, as the men communicate with Zixin across adjacent buildings.
This last strategy allows To to build wordless sequences that rely on precise point-of-view cutting. At key moments, reverse-shot breakdown yields to striking compositions of the anamorphic frame. First we get two characters framed in different windows, but eventually, when Kai-wang tries to win Zixin away from Sun-yin, the love triangle finds diagrammatic expression in a spread-out three-shot.
Were shots like these accomplished through CGI? I wouldn’t put it past To to set up a location-based shot like this.
While subjecting its love story to a playful rigor that few Hollywood directors could summon up, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart never dissipates its inherent appeal to our emotions. Those emotions are all the stronger because Wai’s script shrewdly puts the outcome in doubt. The movie is a second-tier Milkyway product, I guess, and I could do with one less twist in its rather long running time. But it’s still a treat. It shows that in a popular cinema, creative minds can turn market demands to their own ends. And once the trio of romances is finished, the SCMP story hints, To and Wai may well turn to another crime saga, this time with the blessing of the PRC. We can only hope.
Wai Ka-fai, writer/ producer/ director of many Milkyway projects, is the subject of this year’s HKIFF Filmmaker in Focus cycle. Several of his older films, including the engaging parallel-worlds yarn Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, are in the program. There is, as usual, an informative book about Wai and To; a pdf sampler is here.
PS 23 March: Thanks to Sean Axmaker for correcting my aging memory. The original entry attributed the song Don’t Go Breaking My Heart to the Captain and Tennille. Maybe I was subliminally wanting to see them again. No, wait, that can’t be it.
The target: Young mainland viewers of Avatar, China’s biggest box-office hit of 2010.
On Saturday 19 February, at 2:30, the Museum of Chinese in America will host a conversation with me. Ken Smith, the Asian arts critic for the Financial Times, and I will talk about Hong Kong film and my new online edition of Planet Hong Kong.
You can read more about the event here; you can find more background to PHK 2 on my blog entries of a couple weeks ago (starting here). The first edition’s preface, along with ordering information, can be found here.
I’d be happy to talk with any readers, HK fans or not, who follow our blog. Thanks to Ken, Joanna Lee, and the MoCA coordinators for arranging this event!
Coming up early next week: More about eyes and movies.
NB: An earlier draft of this post claimed, erroneously, that the session would take place on 19 March. Sorry for the lapse!