HK's Johnnie To Shoots Second Romance Aimed at China Market

The director of 'Vengeance' goes for softer fare to avoid censorship.

HONG KONG—Stepping up his push into the China market, Hong Kong director Johnnie To is now shooting his second romance in a row, in a break from the stylish crime thrillers that helped him win international acclaim.

The veteran filmmaker is regarded as one of the last holdouts of Hong Kong-style action cinema as his fellow directors flock to China to make crowd-pleasing historical and kung fu epics. But even To now acknowledges the need to balance his artistic aspirations and commercial pressures.

On Thursday, the maker of films like PTU, Election, Sparrow and Vengeance was shooting a wedding banquet scene at a Hong Kong hotel for his new romantic comedy starring Hong Kong heartthrob Louis Koo, actress-singer Sammi Cheng and Chinese actors Gao Yuanyuan and Wang Baoqiang. The film, called High Altitude Romance II in Chinese, doesn't have an English title yet.

It's his second straight romance in a row geared at audiences in China after Don't Go Breaking My Heart, which also starred Koo and Gao and will be released in March. To said he sees an opening for light comedies in China amid a spate of big-budget costume dramas and that it's also a genre that's easier to clear by Chinese censors wary of sex, violence and political undertones.

"This is intentional. We need to cultivate that  market. It's difficult to do that with the kind of movies we typically make. In order to avoid problems and excessive edits with the censors, we are making softer movies like love stories and comedies," To told reporters. "If we make a crime movie or one of our more personal films, there will be more obstacles."

The Hong Kong director also added that he felt an obligation to investors who backed his more artistic productions.

"The kind of movies we truly like may not be the kind of movies we are making now. But in view of your investors,   you can't only make your own stuff. You need to return the favor to the company. Otherwise why should it support you? That is a deal you have to make," he said.

To also revealed that he will start shooting a third movie geared at the Chinese market in July or August -- a comedy starring Cheng and superstar Andy Lau.

To's frequent directing and screenwriting partner Wai Ka-fai, however, said that the duo will still try to infuse their personal style and messages in their more commercial productions. Wai, who wrote High Altitude Romance II,  said while Don't Go Breaking My Heart is a straightforward story, their new movie is more philosophical.

High Altitude Romance I stars Koo as an actor who escapes to a rural Chinese tourist getaway in Yunnan provine after being abandoned at the altar by his girlfriend, played by Gao.

Referring to the name of the production company that he and Wai run, Wai said, "There will still be Milkyway Image DNA in the movies."

As is common with prolific Hong Kong directors, besides High Altitude Romance II and the upcoming Andy Lau movie, To is juggling a third project, a thriller starring veteran Hong Kong actor Lau Ching-wan and Taiwan actor-singer Richie Jen. To said that movie, called Lethal Gold in Chinese, has been delayed because the actors have other commitments, but he still aims to finish it by the end of the year.