Cannes: Johnnie To on the 'Anxiety' of Censors, Challenges of Making a Film in Mainland China (Q&A)

Johnnie To - P 2013
Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

Johnnie To - P 2013

The famed Hong Kong auteur, at Cannes with "Blind Detective," talks about the challenges of working with Chinese "bureaucrats," how to game their censorship rules and why he can "count on one hand" the films he actually enjoyed making.

While his latest film, Blind Detective, which centers around a missing person’s case, is scheduled for an official midnight screening slot May 19, Johnnie To, 58,  has not been able to put all of his energy into finishing the movie. Instead, the Hong Kong auteur also has been touring China’s second- and third-tier cities to promote his previous movie, the police thriller Drug War.  His first-ever full-fledged mainland Chinese production, the project was a chastening experience for To — from preproduction through promotion.

In his office in Hong Kong, he spoke with THR about the battle to film Drug War, how that affected Blind Detective (which is repped at Cannes by Media Asia), his hopes of making a third film in his Hong Kong underworld franchise Election and his intention to shed his managerial responsibilities at his Milkyway Image shingle when he hits 65.

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The Hollywood Reporter: So what was your “theater run” for Drug War about?

Johnnie To: It’s when a film’s cast and crew go and greet audiences in cinemas one district after another, one city after another. I think sometimes it’s all about the cineplex operators trying to make themselves look good, having the director and stars to visit their venue ­­­— and if you said you wouldn’t do it, they would say, “Well then maybe the berths for your films won’t be that good?…” What they want is to boost their cinema chains so as to compete with their rivals. What good will that do to the box office?

THR: What were the challenges of making a film backed by mainland Chinese financiers and set on the mainland?

To: We wanted to make a cops-and-robbers film on the mainland. It’s a genre which could touch on sensitive issues [with the authorities], but we thought it was worth a stab as our investors [Hairun Media] are well-known for making TV serials and they did have experience in giving us pointers. But what was most brain-racking was whether what we’ve done could pass the censors — so we shot two versions for quite a few scenes, so that if there’s a problem with one cut, we can just replace it. That anxiety about getting approval from the censors was more stressful than the actual production. But the actual engagement with the censors was not that difficult, as we put much thought about what to put into the film. They said there were too many gunfights, and too many detectives dying; they said nothing like that ever happened in the history of the [People’s Republic]. So we just trimmed the film along those lines. We thought the final scene, in which a death penalty by lethal injection is shown, wouldn’t get the green light — but that passed. The only thing they objected to was Huang Yi’s character, a policewoman, watching the execution through a one-way mirror; they said this simply couldn’t happen, as there is a distinct separation between officials upholding the law and acting on it.

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THR: Apart from the censorship, what is the most difficult thing you had to deal with making a film there?

To: The most difficult thing you have to deal with are the people. The country itself is really great for filmmakers — the contrasting landscapes of glimmering skyscrapers sitting atop debris-laden neighborhoods speak volumes about the sweeping changes China’s going through. It’s a great backdrop to illustrate stories. But I could never dedicate all my attention to such beauty as I had to deal with the bureaucrats — I had to meet the senior ones before making a film, and then their underlings when production began. And then there were all these local officials and people who came with them.

THR: Did all that affect how you made Blind Detective?

To: Yes — after all that palaver on Drug War I said to [my long-running screenwriter collaborator] Wai Ka-fai, “Well, let’s not be so tough on ourselves this time round.” So in a way I think there are various ways that Blind Detective could be seen as a cheaper outing from us. We cheated here and there, and shot some mainland China-set scenes in Hong Kong, such as when [Andy Lau’s titular character] heads to the mainland to solve a case.

THR: What is the future for Hong Kong filmmakers in the face of these difficulties on the mainland?

To: Hong Kong could serve as a base for directors to make films with ideas which would run into problems with the censors on the mainland. But from a commercial point of view you can’t not cooperate with the mainland — and if seasoned directors like us sometimes hit problems how would younger filmmakers overcome this?

THR: How about your own creative trajectory? You’ve made films like the French-backed production Vengeance and mainland-Hong Kong co-productions like Don’t Go Breaking My Heart as well as Drug War and Blind Detective.

To: Most of the films are made for the industry, and to sustain my company. I can count on one hand the films I really enjoyed making: The Mission, PTU, Exiled, Sparrow and Life Without Principle. That’s just five! And the rest are, shall I say, business projects. The next personal project I want to begin will be a third installment of the Election series [which revolves around power struggles in Hong Kong’s underworld]. I want to
do this in 2015, 10 years after the first one, so that it can be driven by [social] changes I observe here. I have set this line that when I am 65, I’ll just leave the management of Milkyway Image’s operations to others. I won’t be of the right age anyway — it should be the next generation taking?over.