Johnnie To Capsule Reviews

Johnnie To Capsule Reviews

A Moment of Romance (1990) — February 22, 2016

As Tears Go By told in the style of the last five minutes of All About Ah-long. Directed by Benny Chan, produced by Johnnie To, Ringo Lam, and Wong Jing (among others), but To claims much of the authorship credit, and he’ll return to the romance of the motorcyclist again and again throughout his career (most notably in Needing You... and Romancing in Thin Air). Every moment is huge, every light dramatic (neon pinks and greens and the electric blue of the Hong Kong night), every explosion gorgeous, every moment of violence an anguished outburst of teenage rage. Andy Lau is beautiful, Jacklyn Wu is sweet. But she’s not Maggie Cheung and the pop songs aren’t “Take My Breath Away”.

The Royal Scoundrel (1991) – April 21, 2023

Tony Leung is such a great actor, you can’t really ever say he’s miscast. But Stephen Chow could have made this movie really weird and a lot more funny.

A Moment of Romance II (1993) – April 24, 2023

Inverts everything about the first film and Jacklyn Wu is the only one who emerges unscathed, but even she is forgotten about as the film's true climax is in the motorcycle love triangle between Aaron Kwok (even more flaccid than usual), his one-footed buddy (Roger Kwok), and bald-headed Anthony Wong (under-developed: sometimes he's a respectable rival, others an outright villain).

Shout out to veteran actor Kwan Hoi-san (the kindly gang boss from Hard-Boiled, the most recognizable role of a career that started in 1949) for being almost 70 years old and still beating the hell out of Aaron Kwok.

Executioners (1993) — March 8, 2013

Sequel to The Heroic Trio, except with more nuclear apocalypse, good guys dying left and right and Takeshi Kaneshiro and Lau Ching-wan joining the all-star cast. Still feels like Ching Siu-tung is the driving force here, though the editing is more restrained allowing more time to take in Johnnie To’s visual abstractions, though they are mostly confined to playing with colored lights shot through with white.

Loving You (1995) – February 12, 2024

I really did not remember this one correctly at all. I'd thought it was a Regarding Henry kind of thing where the brain damage changed Lau Ching-wan's personality, but it's much more nuanced than that, more like the moment where he hits rock bottom and begins trying to become a better person. But not all at once: he has a lot to change and he doesn't always succeed. Great work from Lau and Carman Lee, plus a bunch of shootouts and musical montages (including covers of The Bee Gee's "To Love Somebody" and Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy").

In retrospect, this was the perfect film to kick off the second half of To's career, combining all the parts of what would come after–dark crime procedurals, cynical comedy, and unabashed romance–into one 80 minute package.

The Odd One Dies (1997) — March 13, 2013

Ghost-directed by Johnnie To, which is evident in the color scheme, where the suffusion of red and blue lighting from that one scene in The Big Heat is taken to the extreme. Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a variation on his Fallen Angels character in a hitman movie that threatens to turn into a romance at every turn, like Wong Kar-wai bursting out of Ringo Lam’s chest.

The Longest Nite (1998) — February 16, 2013

Johnnie To and Tony Leung can make us sympathize with anyone, believe anything.

Expect the Unexpected (1998) – February 12, 2024

Holds up really well even when you're expecting the unexpected because you've seen it before.

This was Simon Yam's first Johnnie To film. How those two made it 20 years without making a movie together before this I don't know.

Where a Good Man Goes (1999) — February 25, 2013

A precursor to some of the odder Johnnie To movies, the ones that mix a whimsical romanticism with the Triad genre, like Sparrow or Throw Down. The opening sequence, awash in blue, is a wonder. Features Lau Ching-wan in one of his most badass roles and Lam Suet at his most vile.

Needing You... (2000) — February 25, 2013

Sammi Cheng wears a red knit sweater with no sleeves, but matching arm warmers. Must be seen to be believed.

Love and capitalism are explored more thoroughly in last year’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, but this is much funnier and almost as charming.

Added February 15, 2018:
Such a slight romantic comedy, enlivened a bit by side-swipes at office culture, but essentially plotless. It’s terrific largely thanks to the charm of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng and the frenetic camera movements of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, more Wai than To though, I’d guess, based on their previous and later work. It’s not the boring hand-held sloppiness of sitcoms or mumblecore, but rather the camera moves in and around with a purpose, bringing dynamism to a generic plot that’s mostly about waiting around for Andy to realize he loves Sammi. The in-jokes about A Moment of Romance (with the ghost of Andy Lau rescuing Andy Lau, or the fact that Sammi is obsessed with Andy’s character from that movie, which perplexes the Andy in this movie) hint at a self-awareness of the artifice of the Lunar New Year romcom, keying us into the fact that the primary purpose of this is just hanging around with its beautiful, silly leads. And as always, Sammi Cheng’s sweater game is on point.

Help!!! (2000) — March 9, 2013

Of all the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai collaborations I’ve seen, this is the most purely funny: a dark farce set at the world’s most incompetent hospital. I did not see the twist at the end coming, but I probably should have, knowing Wai. Recommended for all fans of ER.

Fulltime Killer (2001) — February 23, 2013

A more active camera than I recall seeing from Johnnie To, it swoops and cranes and pans more or less without reason. The Wai Ka-fai patented meta-twist in the last quarter of the film makes it all worth it, Simon Yam transforms from a cop obsessed with a killer to a writer obsessed with an ending to his book.

Wu Yen (2001) — February 16, 2018

Probably the closest Johnnie To will ever come to directing a huangmei musical, and that’s too bad. Anita Mui plays the Emperor, dumb and cowardly, Cecilia Cheung plays a fairy enchantress, accidentally freed in the woods, and Sammi Cheng plays Wu Yen, a bandit leader who becomes the center of the love triangle. She’s destined to marry the Emperor, but the fairy loves her and curses her with a red splotch over her eye. Her resulting ugliness causes the Emperor to recoil from her in horror and into the arms of the fairy. The plot is a series of variations on the same premise: the Emperor gets into trouble, goaded by the fairy, and Wu Yen rescues them. Then, when all is going well, the Emperor banishes Wu Yen for her ugliness. The troubles are increasingly dire, from an Olympic games parody to insurrections and full-scale invasions, but the pattern is always the same. It would be more wearying if the leads weren’t so relentlessly charming.

Mui’s performance (as both the Emperor and the Emperor’s ancestor, a friendly but incompetent ghost) is firmly in the huangmei tradition of women playing men’s roles, though she doesn’t do any singing (the only diegetic songs are sung in chorus, during interstitial shadow puppet sequences which mostly serve to relate battle sequences which take place away from the film’s few studio sets), and Cheung plays both male and female versions of herself (as a fairy she doesn’t have a human gender: in fact she’s basically just a giant anthropomorphic fox). She’s a man when pursuing Wu Yen, and a woman when pursuing the Emperor. Sammi Cheng only plays one character, but Wu Yen, as the best warrior (and athlete) in the kingdom as well as the prettiest woman, presents a kind of synthesis of the best stereotypical traits of “men” and “women”, opposed to the negative traits embodied in the fairy (deceit) and the emperor (lustiness). (Lam Suet’s mincing Prime Minister is another matter altogether).

There’s probably something to the fact that Sammi Cheng is still obviously gorgeous despite the mark on her face, something about how we tend to over-exaggerate minor blemishes in even the most ideal people. An even more pessimistic truth comes with the film’s indecisive conclusion. Rather than choosing one or the other, the three remain locked in their unresolvable triangle in perpetuity: it will always be the fairy when things are good and Wu Yen when things are bad.

Love on a Diet (2001) — February 28, 2013

Wai Ka-fai is Charlie Kaufman without the self-loathing

Narrative games as a reflection of fractured Chinese identity. Hong Kong split between Britain, China, and itself; Taiwan as China/Not China (see also Hou Hsiao-hsien’s blurring of fact and fiction in The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women). There’s the official story and there’s reality and they are not the same though they interact and are inseparable. Wai’s characters move freely between the two, they’re not oppressed by unreality.

Wai gives postmodernism a happy face, as opposed to the nihilism of Kaufman, or even (at times) Tarantino or the Coens. The lack of a stable reality creates a free space for play. Allows contradiction, paradox to achieve the impossible (for example: Written By, where the creation of multiple narratives allows the characters to transcend death).

Game-playing is essential in Johnnie To’s films, his characters are always in conflict with “the rules”. In his Triad films, it’s the ideals of honor, nobility among thieves (in conversation with Kurosawa’s critiques of the samurai ethos, as well as Buddhism (but not John Woo’s Christianity), and the films tend to end tragically. In the comedies, mostly in collaboration with Wai, the rules are the very structure of reality itself. It bends, allowing the characters their happy endings. Some films lie in-between and their endings are mixed (Running Out of Time 1 and 2, Running on Karma), some start as one kind of movie but end up as the other (Throw Down, Life Without Principle).

Fat Choi Spirit (2002) — February 16, 2018

The only sports movie that really believes and fully understands the idea that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It doesn’t even matter that I have no idea how to play the game.

Thinking that this and Running on Karma are together the key works in the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai collaboration. Karma the serious drama compliment to the sunny good cheer of the New Year comedies. Both are about letting go of personal attachment and understanding that we are not in control. In Karma, we’re governed by fate, in Spirit, it’s chance. The combination of the two, fate expressing itself through chance, is the essence of To and Wai’s work.

Running on Karma (2003) — April 22, 2014

I’m still hung up on that list that called this a romantic comedy. I don’t think it’s either. There are some funny bits, but that doesn’t make it a comedy. In fact, it’s one of the most serious examinations of faith, and what it means to believe, of this century. And I am certain it is not a romance. Can’t we allow Andy Lau’s ex-monk and Cecilia Cheung’s earnest cop to just be friends? Must romance be a necessary motivator for plot? I don’t know why this irritates me so much. It seems like such a knee-jerk reaction, a failure to take the film seriously and deal with it on its own terms. Andy Lau in a muscle suit must mean that this is a wacky comedy. A man and a woman protagonist pair must mean this is a romance. Bleh.

It’s hard. The film, more than even most To/Wai products, defies generic classification. And it is so ingrained in Western culture that realism = seriousness and vice versa, that any hint of fantasy or the supernatural tells us to read “comedy” or fluffiness. And to be fair, To and Lau set us up for this the last time they put him in a big suit, for 2001’s Love on a Diet, which is most definitely a romantic comedy (albeit one with a darker tone than that label implies). But this film is not that film, and Lau’s suit here, certainly non-realistic, does not serve as a punchline. It’s a signifier of his moral state, the monk trying hard to believe but unable to get past the death of his friend, unable to let go the physical world. At his turning point, he decides to accept the demands of karma, he sees the logic in the philosophy, but he can’t believe in it. He rejects the life of the monk and enters the real world and so his physical form becomes inflated, pumped up by the desire, the need for revenge and his inability, his religious unwillingness to take action.

This conflict is at the heart of so much Hong Kong genre cinema: the demands of loyalty and duty versus the commandments to withdraw from the world, to let go of material things. Running on Karma is one of the most deeply felt, most dense works on the subject, the culmination of Wai Ka-fai’s mystical explorations, perfectly melded to Johnnie To’s moody genre exercises. I know the intention behind including it on the romantic comedy list is good, and nothing said in the description of the film is completely wrong (well, other than framing their relationship as romantic, which, arrghh) but it still drives me nuts. I need to let it go.

PTU (2003) — March 19, 2013

You ever watch a movie for the fourth time and suddenly a major plot point that had confused you every time before becomes blindingly obvious and you can’t understand how you could have been so stupid before?

Well, I just this time realized that Eyeball is the name of the rival gang leader, not the assassin who kills Ponytail and now the end of this film, which I’ve loved for years without totally following, makes sense.

It’s not Johnnie To’s most perfect film, that would be The Mission or Sparrow. But it’s his most complete portrait of the city, of the cops and gangsters who run it, and of the dual nature of the bonds of loyalty that bind them all together. It’s also his most stylized visually, not in terms of wild camera movements and editing (Wai Ka-fai is much looser in that respect than To is by himself) but in lighting and composition, the bright street lamps serving as spotlights against black space highlighting the main characters on the empty streets as if on a theatrical stage. Also, it’s his Vietnam movie.

Turn Left, Turn Right (2003) — March 10, 2013

The platonic ideal of a To/Wai romance. Double sets of doubles, fate and chance. Is it just too straightforward to have as much of a following as their weirder, more meta- films?

Yesterday Once More (2004) — June 6, 2021

The Thomas Crown Affair reimagined as a comedy/tragedy of remarriage resting almost entirely on Sammi and Andy vibes.

Throw Down (2004) — June 6, 2021

My wife watched this with me. Afterwards, she said she didn’t like judo. I said it wasn’t really about judo, that it’s about getting back up again after you get thrown down. She said it’s also about money and how it flies out of your hands when you run. And I said it’s also about how sometimes you need someone to pick up your shoes for you.

Election (2005) — March 12, 2013

The symbolic reality is what’s important. You can break all the rules you want, as long as you maintain the form of the ritual.

Added July 6, 2022:
The casting is so great in this. Literally cannot imagine anyone but Simon Yam, The Other Tony Leung, Louis Koo, or Wong Tin-lam in these parts. I suppose that's what happens when a director and writers and performers of this caliber work together so many times over so many years: they all just mesh into one perfect whole.

Election 2 (2006) — March 12, 2013

More powerful than the most ruthless mafia godfathers, the state sees and knows all.

Added July 6, 2022:
If this is an allegory for the Hong Kong film industry, and I think it is, at least in part, then it should be literally impossible to make an Election 3. Louis Koo's Jimmy, a successful Hong Konger, agrees to work for the Chinese state (under a degree of duress, it must be said) in order to access the massive Chinese market for his business. He does what they ask of him, but then finds himself bound to them forever. He gave into the state and found he'd sold not just his soul, but his entire future (and his family's future in perpetuity) as well. There can't be a sequel, because the state won't allow it. The story is over, Jimmy is doomed (just as much as Koo's Timmy, another Hong Kong businessman trying to make it on the Mainland, will be in Drug War).

In this sense, I suppose the only way an Election 3 can exist is as an idea. The long-simmering rumors about it, about To's desire to make it and about his difficulty in doing so are as close as it can ever be to reality. If the first Election is about the savage violence underlying the forms of ritual that turn power into what we call government, and Election 2 is about how the quest for power only puts one in bondage to an ever greater authority, then the third is about how the only freedom is in unreality, in an idea that can't ever take tangible form, and thus can't be corrupted by power.

Mad Detective (2007) — February 17, 2013

Merging Running on Karma with Running Out of Time, To and Wai take the doubling of cop and killer to its extreme literalization. Mirrors don’t just reflect, they refract.

Triangle (2007) — March 9, 2013

Predictably enough, Johnnie To’s section of this three-director film was my favorite, but it's a fun experiment and shows the distinctness of To, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark. If you’re the least be familiar with their work, it’s shockingly easy to tell who directed which parts of the movie, an experiment in proving the Auteur Theory if ever there was.

I watched the version on Amazon Instant and it is dubbed. Be warned and stay away. The only reason I can think of for the persistence of dubbing Hong Kong movies is racism on the part of American film distributors. If Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, and Luc Besson collaborated on a noir thriller, there’s no way it would have been released in a dubbed version in the US. It would have been treated as the high art event of the year.

Linger (2008) — March 11, 2013

Maybe the oddest Johnnie To film I’ve seen, but not in the usual sense. Rather it doesn’t quite seem to fit in with the rest of his work. The elements of a To film are there: the lovely compositions, contrasts of deep blacks and bright whites, the supernatural element, the disabled protagonists, the elegant camera movements and relatively restrained editing. But something about the film just feels off. It’s tempting to blame screenwriter Ivy Ho, but she wrote Comrades, Almost a Love Story and that movie is amazing. Maybe it's the leads, Vic Chou and Li Bingbing, who don’t have the spark of To’s regulars. Or maybe its the fact that the film was shot in Mandarin instead of Cantonese (for the sake of the leads, from Taiwan and the Mainland, respectively).

It’s a solid romantic melodrama, but mostly it’s just a less fun, less interesting version of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011) — February 19, 2013

Manic pixie dream boys duel in a mythical pre-and post-crash China. Buildings and businesses rise and fall for the love of a cute girl.

Romancing in Thin Air (2012) — February 25, 2014

I’ve long maintained that Romancing is To’s 2046, a recombination of and grand statement about all his romance films, especially the Sammi Cheng ones. In addition to the Needing You.../A Moment of Romance motorcycle, there’s also the mountain location (Love for all Seasons), the piano music and lost boyfriend (Love on a Diet), and the choreography trick of two people destined to meet occupying the same frame and yet not seeing each other (Turn Left, Turn Right).

Added December 11, 2019:
Hong Kong movie star Louis Koo is jilted at the altar by Gao Yuanyuan, his longtime on- and off-screen partner. He drinks his way to the top of the world, somewhere high in the mountains of China called Shangri-La, the name of James Hilton’s Orientalist no-place in Lost Horizon. There he is reluctantly nursed back to sobriety by Sammi Cheng, a hotelier whose husband disappeared in the woods seven years earlier. Koo’s response to loss is alcohol: the obliteration of consciousness; Cheng’s is stasis — she keeps everything exactly the way it was when her husband left, machines, decor, liquor, everything. Koo eventually learns the story of her husband’s disappearance. To try to help her, he decides to make a movie about it: her, her husband, himself, basically the movie we’ve been watching. But he changes the ending. Cheng watches the movie but almost runs out of the theatre as the husband character is about to die, but she’s drawn back in as he’s saved at the last minute. She watches in tears as the movie version of her is reunited with the movie version of her husband. Only through cinema is she able to break through her self-imposed stasis and achieve catharsis. Romancing in Thin Air is Johnnie To’s ultimate statement on the power of movies. It cycles through references to much of his previous work (the motorcycle from A Moment of Romance, the mountain location of Love for All Seasons, the spatial dance of two people destined to meet occupying the same frame yet not seeing each other of Turn Left, Turn Right). Grand gestures abound in To’s romances, from a race to a departing boat in Needing You… to a whole skyscraper in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. In Romancing in Thin Air, the gift is the movie itself, and we get to share it right along with Sammi Cheng.

Office (2015) — September 18, 2015

One thing I forgot to mention in the discussion on The George Sanders Show: the resemblance between Office and the play within the film of Clouds of Sils Maria. The set designs are very similar, as is the idea of a love story gone wrong amid corporate intrigue. But where I thought the play in Clouds seemed insufferable, almost a parody of European modernist angsty nonsense, Sylvia Chang’s version of the melodrama has a sense of its own genericness, a willingness to let melodrama be melodrama. And also music.

Fascinated by the recurring nightmare Eason Chan has in Office. An elevator (recurring location of danger in To’s films), but not falling. Instead he dreams of the elevator falling on him, of being crushed by the vehicle for his rise to the executive floor. Killed by collapsing aspiration. It inverts the Mad Men image. The fear in Office is of a failure to rise up, in Mad Men it’s of losing what you’ve achieved.

One class driven by aspiration, the dream of social mobility. The other terrified of the loss of its economic (gender, racial) privileges.

In Chan and Tang’s duet they say their hometowns are paradises because there’s no ambition there. Freedom from desire. Aspiration destroys them.

The children’s choir: “The heart of the most brilliant pig is in turmoil. The one who doesn’t stop eating ends up in the wolf’s entrails.”

It’s the movie Daniel Wu’s character would have made at the end of his post-Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 bender.

Obviousness is its weakness, a certain lack of complexity in character, in theme (apparently Chang’s play is more nuanced, but concessions have to be made to the shorter running time of a film). I do think at least half the performances are very good, and I really like most of the music as well. Watching it a second time, they worked a lot better as I focused less on keeping up with the subtitles. Similarly, the melodrama worked better when I wasn’t trying to keep up with the plot. I think this is a film that’ll grow in the memory, with obvious, glorious strengths that will last while the weaknesses fade away, or at least come to seem less important.

Added February 15, 2016:
Really glad I got a chance to see this in 3D, it makes the already wondrous set design work even better, all those lines receding into the frame. To does great work with crowds as well, the depth of field goes out, rather than towards the audience, so the young protagonists are constantly getting lost in the shifting levels of the corporate hierarchy. So many of the songs are good, the Tang Wei-Eason Chan duet at the center of the film might simply be the best musical number of the 21st century, and the single shot children’s chorus explanation of the financial crisis (the pigs and wolves song) is better than all of The Big Short. But there’s an unsteadiness to the drama, the kids’ romance isn’t developed enough, and Sylvia Chang’s relationship with Lee Xiang is too left to implication. I love the stillness of Chow Yun-fat’s performance (contrast to his work in the From Vegas to Macau movies and it’s hard to believe it’s the same guy, but that’s the story of Chow Yun-fat, I guess), so I don’t think we need more of him (because when he finally lets on all he’s done at the end it’s a killer). It feels like the best two hours of a three hour movie.

Chasing Dream (2019) — December 29, 2019

Johnnie To just remade the first four Rocky movies and threw in a season of American Idol and a couple of classical musical numbers and did it all in less than two hours. In case there was any doubt that he is one of the greatest of all-time.

A perfect 2019 double feature partner with Miike’s First Love.

There’s so much energy here, as frenetic as To has been at least since the early 2000s, if not all the way back to his work with Ching Siu-tung on the Heroic Trio films. But it’s exuberant and joyful rather than chaotic or dizzying. A film overflowing with life.