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Johnnie To on researching triads and his new hospital-set action thriller 'Three'

"I’ve always thought of the triads as a product of Hong Kong – a very native and unique organisation that relates to the history of Hong Kong."

Photo by Calvin Sit

A Cantonese Spielberg, Johnnie To can genre-hop like the best of them. From works of serious art to blockbuster crowd pleasers, To almost singlehandedly keeps Hong Kong cinema relevant. Douglas Parkes talks to the director about his new award, working with the triads and whether or not he can get away with writing Election 3. Photography by Calvin Sit

Say hello to Johnnie To Kei-fung, Hong Kong’s best director. Certain hipster cineastes might be choking on their flat whites about now. After all, Wong Kar-wai is still making movies – though his recent output is slow and the quality arguable – and Ann Hui On-wah collects Best Director awards at the same rate CY Leung accrues negative headlines. But neither can match To’s record of consistency and variety. There’s barely a dud among the 50-odd movies he’s responsible for, a filmography that stretches from the heart wrenching drama of All About Ah Long to the masterful triad politics of Election by way of the chart-topping Chinese New Year flick Fat Choi Spirit and the Buddhist undertones of Running on Karma. This is a man who shot and edited one of the most masterful Hong Kong gangster movies ever, The Mission, in less than a month and out John Woo-ed John Woo with his tale of honour, revenge and male intimacy in A Hero Never Dies. If To had been making these sorts of movies during Hong Kong cinema’s 80s and early 90s heyday then there’s no doubt Hollywood would have welcomed him the same way it did the likes of Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam Ling-Tung.

Belatedly, critics outside of Asia are waking up to To’s quality. In 2011 the French Ministry for Culture and Communication anointed him Officier des Arts et des Lettres and last year the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) co-presented a career retrospective in London. Most recently, in June, To was the recipient of a Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award, an accolade previously awarded to the likes of The Prince of Wales, Italian architect Renzo Piano and Japanese artist Yoko Ono.

The award comes at a precipitous time for To as he prepares for the release of his latest movie, Three. A taught cops ‘n’ robbers tale that is To’s bread and butter, the film sees a captured gang member (Wallace Chung Hon-leung) force the police to take him to hospital to receive treatment for a self-inflicted wound so he can plot an escape. The detective in charge, Inspector Chen (Louis Koo Tin-lok), plays along in an attempt to draw in the remaining gang members and crush the criminal outfit for good. 

The Chinese title [三人行] for Three is a line taken from Confucius’ Analects [“Among three people walking, there’s bound to be a teacher”]. How does that relate to the characters in your new movie?
In the story, the three main characters all have their own particular “mistake” in their lives. Throughout the course of the film they all will relive their decisions and ‘learn’ something from each other.

Why the hospital setting?
I wanted to write the story with an enclosed setting. I was thinking of a train station originally. Eventually, though, I picked a hospital because in the end it’s more relevant to life and death.

Almost the entire movie is set indoors, within the hospital. Is there a reason why you wanted to make such a claustrophobic kind of movie?
It wasn’t about making a claustrophobic movie, as such. I’ve made crime films that have gun fights on the street, car chases, etc. I simply wanted everything to be more compact this time. And I wanted to challenge myself by limiting the action to one setting.

In Three you have the cast manually simulate slow motion, rather than use technology to achieve the same effect. Apparently it took three months to rehearse, so why go to all that effort?
I used this old way to film this scene because it meant I could control the shoot more. If I just used a computer to simulate the same effect, the action will end up all the same speed. I wanted to have the actors perform in ‘real’ slow motion so I could direct the “acting” in a more flexible manner.

How did it feel to win the prestigious Montblanc award?
This award is given to those who are committed to the development and promotion of the arts. I’m honoured to have been chosen for this award. It is approval of and recognition for my contribution to Hong Kong. But really, a lot of people from different sectors have contributed to the development and promotion of the arts in Hong Kong.

Milkyway Image is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Why did you feel
the need for your own production company in 1996?
The start of Milkyway Image was quite interesting. At the time, I’d just finished directing The Mad Monk, starring Steven Chow Sing-chi, when I had a sudden realisation that during my years of movie making I was always thinking in terms of commercial considerations. Commercial movies often require big name celebrities. I was thinking, what will happen if there were no big name celebrities. What will I be doing? And the movies I was making at that time weren’t movies I wanted to make. I was thinking what I should do? In 1996, I established Milkyway Image and was lucky enough to have the support of [writer and director] Wai Ka-fai. We share a vision to make original movies through our own efforts. That marks the start of Milkyway Image. 

Will you say your films now, like Election, are the films you wanted to create? 
Election is definitely a personal creation. It’s the way I see Hong Kong. In 2005, when Election was filmed, historical records about the triads were limited. ​Especially since the handover in 1997, society has changed and continues to change considerably. I filmed Election seven years after the [handover], so I wanted to capture the changes, such as in education, finance and a lot of other categories. Since a young age, I’ve always thought of the triads as a product of Hong Kong – a very native and unique organisation that relates to the history of Hong Kong. I did a lot of research and talked to the older members of the triads. What I want to demonstrate is that the triads are a part of Hong Kong history. Everyone has a different approach to explore this topic, but I think it’s intrinsic to Hong Kong.

Is it difficult to approach the triads?
It’s never too difficult to do something. You can always find other solutions. ​For example, there’s a good number of triad members from the 50s and 60s who are still here. The question is whether they actually remember things. Members arealways related to one another. Once you find a member, you can ask them to pave the way for you. Invite them for a chat or a meal, show them respect and they’ll take you to their leader’s leader’s leader or something like that. Some might not tell you the things you want, but it’s more important to blend in with their culture. It’s not that difficult to approach them, but the process takes up a lot of time.

But they’re willing to share?
Most of the time they talk about their best experiences. They only want to show their best sides. But whatever they say are their personal experiences. It then comes down to your personal vision, what you want to do with the material. Their experiences are yours to edit. 

As you mentioned, the triads are a product of Hong Kong. How do different groups stand out from the others?
First, most of them are from the lower class. Second, they take money from those in the lower stratum of society, then expand their power bit by bit. Many do not end up well, but they’ve yet to stop. Triads always stick together, they’re always in groups. There are a lot of similarities between gangs, but some of the main differences between them would be, for example, rituals. Initiation rites. Other gangs [like the mafia] don't have that. It used to be that one would have to drink a certain thing or kneel for a lengthy amount of time to test your mettle. But really, the background comes down to family, like the Italians. So and so’s son is with whoever and then they’ll become a group. The key is that they stick together. If someone makes a mistake, there’s accountability. In each gang, it’s about the boss and the hierarchy. They dabble in any kind of business, docker smuggling, taxis and whatnot, all for the boss. Triads these days have diversified immensely. As far as perspective, Hong Kong triads are quite modern.

Is a third Election movie on the horizon?
Many people have asked about this in recent years. And the answer is yes, I would like to begin writing it. However, I believe once it’s finished, I may face problems going back to mainland China, so it’s not a priority at the moment. 

Certain earlier movies of yours, like Needing You and Fat Choi Spirit, were more commercialised. Were they difficult to make?
It’s vital to strike a balance between commercial realities and your own creative imperatives. Even if Milkyway is producing commercial movies, we insist on having original movies too. There isn’t any problem with that. Commercial considerations are essential for the survival of the company. If you keep producing personal movies, the bosses won’t consider them the best use of funds even if they recognise they’re good films. Striking a balance between the commercial and our personal dreams is reasonable and necessary. That’s the way it’s been for us for the last 20 years and I think we’ve done okay.

You’ve worked in this industry for a long time, so what are the biggest changes you’ve experienced? 
There’s a noticeable lack of creativity and freedom. Hong Kong is a free place. But there is a big market in China which is prompting even Americans to find their way in. In different settings, Hong Kong movies can turn out really good. The good thing about Hong Kong is that movies can be filmed here easily. I would say that action and kung-fu movies are unique and signature to Hong Kong and even our more artistic films are of excellent quality. Every work has its own quirk to it. In our city, our established filmmakers are so good [and] the movies they contribute to on the Mainland are up to par as well and make up an important part of Chinese cinema. I think the culture and creativity of Hong Kong directors influences China. Even our commercial movies, like those by Wong Jing, are really good too. It’s like Hong Kong cinema is being reborn. In Hong Kong, different genres of movies can do really well. So in the future, when there are better prospects, the young generation should invest in both Hong Kong and China. People say Hong Kong films are dying but the film industry is making an impact on movies in China. It’s just that films that are native to the area are fewer, but in fact, Hong Kong filmmaking is flourishing in China.

You grew up in the Kowloon Walled City. Will you ever make a movie about it?
A few years back, I did think about filming one but there are some reasons that have prevented me from doing so. For now, I think it’s a no but I’ll have to see later if people would watch it and whether or not the movie can make it into the market in China. If you don’t have the market, you can’t do it. Moreover, we’d have to build an entire set. With the Walled City gone, we would have to rebuild everything in order to bring the film to life. 

In the future, who do you want to collaborate with? 
Personally, I want to collaborate with everyone, if possible. But it really does come down to lining things up. Sometimes there is a common interest but no market for it or support. There’s nothing much we can do about a situation like that. But no matter if they’re from Hong Kong, the Mainland or overseas, if the material and the situation is right, I’d like to work with them. 

When you see a storyline or a book, what’s the most important thing for you?Interest! That’s the only thing that will determine whether I can tell a story properly, if I have the ability or will to tell it correctly. As far as tackling a script, the first thing to do is absorb the story, then see who can help me tell it – actors, staff and such. They are the most important. 

Three is in cinemas from Thu Jul 14.

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