Q&A: Johnnie To


CANNES -- While it is common wisdom to suggest that the Hong Kong film industry is no longer what it was in the days when Shaw Bros. and Golden Harvest ruled the roost, or that the sector is becoming swamped by the influence of mainland China, Johnnie To remains an archetypically Hong Kong director whose star is still on the rise. To is old school Hong Kong in that he is prolific, frequently uses improvised locations and minimalist screenplays, often works on multiple productions at the same time and collaborates again and again with the same cluster of actors and technicians. But To's greatest skill is his ability to add extra layers of meaning or impact while working within commercial genres, particularly gangster and comedy films. Although he has been directing for nearly 30 years, it is only in the past five that he has become a darling of the international festival circuit, with "Breaking News," "Election," "Exiled" and "Sparrow" receiving berths in Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Another To strength is an unwillingness to stand still. His Cannes film this year, "Vengeance," is his first co-produced with a French company, while one of his next, a remake of Melville's "Red Circle," will be his first English-language studio project. The helmer recently sat down with The Hollywood Reporter contributing editor Patrick Frater about revenge, French cinema's influence on his work and making films the Hong Kong way.

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The Hollywood Reporter: How and where did "Vengeance" come from?

Johnnie To: So many people I've met at film festivals have promised to set me up with a meeting with Alain Delon, who I've long admired. But when (French distributor) ARP actually delivered, I got together with my writer (and producing partner Wai Ka-fai) to come up with a concept. We presented the script to Delon, but he backed off. We still liked the script and so did ARP so we decided to proceed, but there was a year of hiatus in which I made "Mad Detective" and "Sparrow." Then in February last year during Berlin, Michele (Halberstat, head of ARP) told me she would set up a meeting between me and Johnny Hallyday the following month. I knew nothing of him, but when I met him I was fascinated by his presence and thought he'd work well for the project.

THR: So you've done an international movie, but in the Hong Kong way?

To: Yes. The director has full control over all creative and production aspects of the movie. We can add things or change things as we like. Here, except for the two French actors and the editor, the entire crew was from Hong Kong.

THR: Is it in English, French or Cantonese?

To: None of my movies have a lot of dialogue (laughs). When you have French interacting with (HK) locals they speak English and when the locals speak amongst themselves they speak Cantonese.

THR: Is the sense of place as important in this movie as it often is in your pictures?

To: The story is actually set in Macau, but most of it was shot in Hong Kong. The parts of Macau we shot have a colonial European look, whereas Hong Kong is more modern. We've chosen to mix them up here. This is a story of vengeance that could happen anywhere. But what we choose is the local colors that bring it out.

THR: And what is this "revenge movie" actually about?
To: Revenge is an act. It is ingrained in one's head. Something you have to do. But what this film is trying to examine is what is the role of revenge if memory does not play a part.

THR: How do you think this film will work in France, where Johnny Hallyday is the biggest singing star?

To: I shot the movie my way, with an actor who was right for the part, ignoring his reputation in France. I had not seen his previous outings as an actor, only some stills from "The Man On the Train" and some of his concert footage.

THR: Studiocanal seems to be recruiting a band of top Asian directors to remake films from its library. Is there a natural connection between the French and Hong Kong film industries?

To: HK cinema and French cinema have influenced each other at times in the past 40 years. The cycle may now be turning so that French people are again interested in working with Asian talent. But not every film will work, they need to be stylish. Maybe, too, the rise of China as a great power is having an influence on the way people view Asian culture.

THR: So which French films influenced you?

To: I grew up watching a lot of French thrillers, but at the time I was too young to pay attention to director's names. A lot of people compare my movies to Jean-Pierre Melville, and, thinking back, I saw a lot of films starring Alain Delon, so I guess it would be Melville.

THR: Though you've been making movies for far longer, Cannes has screened four of your films in the past five years. Have they seen something new in your latest films?

To: Difficult to say. I'm too involved. Every festival is looking for something new and different. And I'm always trying to do something different. Maybe I just fit.

THR: Since then, your films also have screened in Berlin and Venice. Do you now have a different audience to the one where you started?

To: Festivals and the work we do at them are very helpful at enlarging the audience. Where once my movies were only seen by some people on DVD, now they may be seen in theaters. I'm assuming that much of the audience for "Vengeance" may never have seen my previous movies, but may go and seek out some of the earlier films.

THR: You have a reputation for working with the same actors again and again. What does this help?

To: Many are old collaborators. First they trust my vision, second I don't have to explain everything. It makes my filmmaking more convenient. Anthony Wong is a very solid performer and I know that if he improvises a line it is because it comes from his understanding of the character, not just for his own enjoyment.

THR: You are also known for working on many projects at the same time. Yet quite recently there was a year when you didn't have a camera in your hands. What happened?
To: Reputations linger. I haven't really been like that in the past three years and I don't want to work on multiple projects. I will aim to set my schedule better in the future. Actually, after completing "Sparrow," there was a 12-month period before I started "Vengeance." In that time I was very busy developing the script for "Red Circle."

THR: Early preparations started on "Red Circle" and then stopped. Is the picture ever going to happen?

To: It needs time. I'm not satisfied with the script and if I'm not satisfied nobody else is going to be. But it is absolutely one of my priorities as you can see (points to the wall where script notes are plastered.) "Death of a Hostage," which is a Hong Kong production through Media Asia, is probably what I'll shoot next. Then, hopefully, "Red Circle."

THR: Other top Hong Kong directors such as John Woo, Tsui Hark and Peter Chan have recently set themselves up in Beijing. Are you planning to quit Hong Kong?
To: The mainland market is only going to continue to grow. I make films according to the projects I have. I won't go to China because everyone else is going to China. If I have a project that should be done in China and is best done in China, then it will be.