Johnnie To, the director of such Hong Kong classics as The Heroic Trio and The Mission, has been on a roll the last few years with a steady succession of masterful films, including Election (see review here), Election 2 (see capsule review here), PTU, Running on Karma, Breaking News, and Exiled (see review here). His Milkyway production company has become a sign of excellence and creativity in cinema.
In preparation for the US release of Election and Election 2 (retitled Triad Election) at the Film Forum in New York (see link here), and with Magnolia Pictures plans to do the same with Exiled, CSB’s David Austin had an opportunity to sit down with Mr. To (in a hotel courtyard so that Mr. To could enjoy his stogie) and discuss the Election films, along with some of his other recent work.
CSB: One question I have to ask before we talk about the Election films – I heard Simon Yam says he wants to do some more PTU movies. Are you going to be involved?
JT: Yes, it’s our company. It will be a four-part television feature shot in 35mm. The name is not PTU – it will be called Tactical Unit instead. Basically, the same characters from PTU return – Simon, Lam Suet, and Maggie Siu come back. I am the producer. Each of the four parts will be directed by good directors - next generation directors. For instance, Law Wing-cheong, who did “2 Become 1,” and Larry Lau [Lawrence Ah Mon], who did the recent Lau Ching-wan movie where he plays an actor who’s out of love with film [My Name is Fame], and he did “Spacked Out” for Milkyway, and “Gimme Gimme.” Universe financed it; it’s supposed to be something for the cable channel.
CSB: How closely involved are you?
JT: I try to stay out of it as much as I can. I’ll give a free hand to the other directors to do their work. I’ll give some comments on the scripts and, of course, budgeting.
CSB: You mentioned that Lam Suet will be involved. Turning to the second Election movie, why so little Lam Suet?
JT: There were extra scenes of Lam Suet that we shot, but I decided not to use them for two reasons. One, if we have more of these characters, it takes the attention away from the main focus of the film, which is about China, about Hong Kong since 1997 – that’s what I want to talk about. And also, of course, I tried to keep a balance in terms of how much of a part each actor has in the film, and if Lam Suet gets more than it’s unfair to the other people.
CSB: Speaking of the focus on China and Hong Kong relations after 1997, when I saw the ending of Election 2, my first thought was, “this will never play in mainland China.” And I was wondering what your thoughts were about that, and if you think it is going to be a problem for you doing business there and sending movies there in the future?
JT: When I set out to do the movie, I never received any pressure or complaints or anything from any authorities. Since the movie has been completed, also, I don’t think I’m in trouble in any way, or under any pressure from anybody. In terms of filming this type of subject matter, I feel that I have gone to the extreme of what is tolerated. If I go overboard - obviously this movie involves real people in real jobs doing whatever they do, like the security bureau people, so if I go overboard, I think I will be troubled. Now, I think I have pushed the envelope to the extreme, just a little bit beyond the tolerance level.
CSB: How much of the second movie had you thought about when you made the first movie? I know, for example, Louis Koo’s character [Jimmy] is set up in the first movie and becomes much more important in the second movie. How much was the second one planned when you did the first one?
JT: For me, it’s been clear all along what I wanted for the first film and what I wanted for the second film. For me there was a clear-cut distinction when I conceived them. The first one is really about the history and the tradition of the Triad gangsters; it’s also about how these traditional values have disappeared over time, how these people care more about money than they care about their brothers, and how the Triads now are more about business and money than before. The second one is completely different. It’s about what could happen in these Triads after 1997. We know that there is pressure coming from China, we know that there are people they are trying to appease to lead the Triads. So in terms of the themes of both films, I had a very clear idea when I conceived them.
CSB: In the first movie, and to some extent in the Louis Koo character in the second movie, I saw parallels to the Godfather films, at least in the sense that they are about tradition becoming more about business. For example, there is the character played by Pacino who is less colorful than his predecessor and more similar to the Louis Koo character than to Simon Yam or Tony Leung Ka-fai. Was that intentional?
JT: If I was to do a movie, why would I want to repeat what has already been done in Godfather? When I set out to shoot these two films, I told my people we want this film to be close to HK, we don’t want to imitate what other gangster movies have done. If there is any resemblance between the two films, the characters or situations, first of all it’s not intended, but it may also be because all gangsters behave similarly. Jimmy’s character is based on an actual gangster in Mongkok who made a living selling pirated porn VCDs, who is very rich and also somebody who goes to school to study and who tried to distance himself from the Triad as his business empire grew. So Jimmy is based on an actual person who we knew through our research.
CSB: Who is this person?
JT: Billy is his name. This Billy guy is a real businessman. He was selling all the pirate discs - that includes movies, porn, computer software, everything. He owned the entire Mongkok territory and he would share some of his shops with other rival gangs. And if somebody tried to start a price war, he had enough backup to sell everything at a really dirt-cheap price so nobody could compete with him. So he’s a real businessman.
CSB: Is he still in business?
JT: The Tsang government has been trying really hard to crack down on all these pirate businesses, so his activity is not as elaborate as before.
CSB: One other thing I wanted to ask you about the second Election film. My favorite performance in the movie was Mark Cheng Ho-Nam [Bo]. I know he’s been in some older movies but how did you bring him in?
JT: I worked with Mark Cheng in the late 1980s and early 90s in a lot of television stuff and, of course, in some of my movies later. I thought a long time about who would be best to play this character. I wanted someone who could bring out this character’s sense of confidence, of toughness. Somebody who could “get the job done.” And, Mark, he’s now actually living in Malaysia permanently but I thought he was the best person for that role, so I asked him to come to HK to help me with the shoot.
CSB: Are you planning to work with him any more in the future?
JT: It seems like he’s moved back to HK now, so …
CSB: Now that he’s a big success?
JT: That role is so popular – everybody’s talking about him in Election 2. Many people like him. His “more money” line has become a catchphrase in HK. “More money, more money!”
CSB: Are you planning to do any more Election films?
JT: I wanted to shoot Election 1 and 2 not because of characters but really because it’s part of HK history, of how HK has transformed itself over the last few years. In a way, I wanted to document that, and in the second film what I wanted to show was really just the uncertain future of the Triad society, whether the Triad society’s whole concept is coming to an end because of the handover. We know the mainland government has really sent people down to HK to exert some control over these people, they’re watching them. So right now, this is what is happening in HK. What is going to be the future? Maybe 10 years from now, maybe 8 years from now, this Triad society in HK will change or evolve into something else – that we don’t know. And if it does, if it doesn’t end, and if it’s something interesting, I will write something more about gangsters but I think that will be a long time from now.
CSB: Knowing the films involve a lot of history, I’m curious what kind of research did you do into the signs and the rituals, and also into the more recent events like the mainland coming in and getting involved. Were you working with reporters or historians? How did you get that information to work with?
JT: We consulted with actual gangsters – what we call the uncles in the organization, who are old, in their seventies or eighties, because the younger generation in their thirties and forties no longer really know how these rituals and ceremonies should be performed. And we also consulted with a few gangster bosses who were very open in sharing information with us. When we were shooting the Triad ceremony, because it’s something that exists for so long but has been forgotten, we had them on our set to consult, to make sure that we did everything correctly. Triad society, this whole notion, came from China, but in China all these ceremonies are no longer practiced because, obviously, having gone through the Cultural Revolution and everything, a lot of things have been forgotten. In HK, our only source is really the old people. Of course, there are also some books on these topics that we would refer to as well.
CSB: On another subject, one of my favorite movies of yours in the last couple years was Running on Karma. I just had to know, how did you come up with that idea, where did it come from, and are you planning to do anything more along those lines, more personal and different?
JT: For Running on Karma, we wanted to do something really different. Obviously, for Andy Lau, we designed his makeup so that it would be different. But also it was a way to really get the audience more interested in this Buddhist philosophy of Karma, this feeling of cause and effect, meaning that what you do today will have a result, some sort of consequence, in the future. These are the kinds of philosophy we wanted to do, and having Andy Lau in special makeup made the film more acceptable for audiences in HK.
CSB: Thank you so much – it was a pleasure meeting you.
Thanks to Johnnie To for his time, his assistant Shan Ding for graciously interpreting, and to Susan Norget and Eric Hynes for arranging this interview.
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie News and Movie News: Hong Kong and Contributors: David and Movies: Election (2005) and People: Johnnie To and Movie News: Interviews and Movies: Election 2 (2006) and Movies: Exiled (2006)