Fulltime Cinema: An Interview With Johnnie To
Johnnie To Kei-fung is probably the hardest working man in Hong Kong show business. As a film director, he has made some of the most critically acclaimed films of recent Hong Kong cinema as well as some of Asia’s biggest box office hits (see filmography below). He has served as the Creative Director of one of Hong Kong’s largest film conglomerates, China Star Entertainment, developed the “Hundred Years of Film” initiative to rejuvenate the Hong Kong film industry, and heads his own film production company, Milkyway Image. As a producer always heavily involved in creative decisions, he has overseen many award-winning and popular films helmed by directors such as Patrick Yau and Lawrence Lau.
To remains fairly unfamiliar as an auteur to many audiences outside of Hong Kong, although in the past few years, this has been rapidly changing. 1 He has been the subject of two retrospectives in the United States and his films have been shown at numerous international film festivals such as those in Berlin, Seattle, Udine, and Toronto. American audiences recently had a chance last summer to see one of his films in a limited theatrical release: Fulltime Killer (2001).
Fulltime Killer stars Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau as a cinephile assassin whose gregarious behavior clashes with his chief rival, a stoic killer played by Japanese television star and teen idol, Takashi Sorimachi. Following their assignments throughout the diverse regions of Southeast Asia, Fulltime Killer predominantly uses English and Japanese dialogue, as well as Cantonese, Mandarin, and Portuguese. Sorimachi’s character, a cool, reclusive killer who gradually discovers his conscience, provides the typical To character of calm, quiet reserve. But Lau’s character is the more exciting one, whose persistent quoting of his favorite action films reveals his awareness of the demands on the assassin character: to put on a show. The film opens with fantastic overkill, and later Lau flaunts his performance in broad daylight, wearing a ridiculous Bill Clinton mask (his ode to the surfer-bank robber film Point Break) as he chalks up another kill. While there are a number of other spectacular scenes, there are also moments when the characters almost want the film to slow down, a sublime appreciation of the everyday that is becoming a trademark in To’s action films. Although perhaps one of To’s most self-reflexive works, it is also something of a satire of the popular Hong Kong action film. The film also stars Simon Yam as the Interpol agent driven mad by Lau, eventually giving up police work for writing, frantically trying to narrate the film’s ending.
I talked with To about Fulltime Killer after its original release in Hong Kong. While the film was only a moderate success there, To had also just released the romantic comedy Love on a Diet (2001), which dominated the box-office that summer. We briefly discussed this film as well. It also stars Lau, reunited with Sammi Cheng from the surprise hit of the previous summer, Needing You (2000), as obese Hong Kong expatriates living in Japan. In perhaps the classic auteur method, To often alternates his work between films targeted for box-office success – often romantic comedies with major stars – and more personal productions with lower budgets and his regular troupe of character actors.
To took an uncharacteristic long break from his busy daily schedule to indulge my questions. It was appropriate then that the interview, which put his work and that of his staff on hold for at least a short time, took place over dinner – the usual setting in his films when the characters seem to try to catch their breath before the narrative continues.
CHARLES LEARY: Throughout Fulltime Killer, one senses an association between photography, writing, madness, and death. Do you think there’s something about stories of assassins – which has structured many renowned Hong Kong films – that is especially cinematic, or especially lends itself to film?
JOHNNIE TO: For me, this interest in killers, no matter where they might exist in the world, does not really show the whole story. Hong Kong does have many “killer films,” because we always use the character of a killer to tell a very specific story – it can be a love story, a story of friendship, or some heroic story. Why are there so many Hong Kong “killer films?” Of course, they’re very similar to the martial arts film, and in Hong Kong, the major type of film, ever since the days of Shaw Brothers and then Golden Harvest (they are the ones who really developed this) has been of course the martial arts film. The killer idea always uses to some degree a martial arts framework. Maybe it’s a good story, or maybe its not. But if we tell the story as a story of a killer, at least we can put some martial arts in it. And so then, generally speaking, the genre at least forces you to create some action and movement in the movie. Without of course being very specific, this might describe the history of Hong Kong filmmaking. But in the past ten years, Hong Kong has had too many killers in films, and the audience is now very tired of seeing this. It’s become boring.
CL: So why did you make another one?
JT: Yes, why did we do it again? Two years ago, we began to work on this story. At that time, this type of movie was still okay in Hong Kong. But now it’s not. Now everything has changed. But the investors still wanted to make this movie, and we still liked the movie. However, with the market as I just described, it probably couldn’t make much money. The decision was up to the investors. As for us, we still wanted to make Fulltime Killer, but we knew it would have difficulty at the box office in Hong Kong.
CL: Do you have expectations for its reception in the rest of Asia? It definitely seems to be addressing a more international audience.
JT: Suppose we think of this movie as an “Asian” movie. Our first idea was to film it in many different countries, but, after these market developments, we could not really afford to do as we originally envisioned. But keep in mind this movie was not shot in Hong Kong only. Somewhere around 70 percent of the dialogue is Japanese. For international audiences, the language of the dialogue – whether it is Chinese, Japanese, or Korean – doesn’t really matter. Hong Kong audiences may experience something new by having to pay close attention to subtitles when watching a Hong Kong film, but for Westerners, they probably won’t notice a difference. If there’s a Hong Kong movie that can be called an “Asian movie,” I think something has changed then in Hong Kong cinema. The new audiences in Hong Kong don’t like too much Japanese dialogue, and I also don’t really know if it will be successful or not in Japan. This is a difficult test for us. Of course I do hope it can be accepted by audiences in Asia, but it’s not easy. This is not a typical mainstream movie. Perhaps it’s more like a cult movie, to be appreciated by a special audience.
CL: There also seemed to be a lot of English dialogue, and at times when it wasn’t really necessary.
JT: For people in Asia, from all regions, the common means of communication is always English. For example: maybe I don’t know Korean, and I have a Korean friend who doesn’t know Cantonese – but between us we can still speak English. So it makes sense in the movie that the main characters, working in different countries in Asia, are using English.
CL: In the film, it seems Tok, the Andy Lau character, gets sick whenever he sees flashes of light – this refers back to my earlier question about photography. When he sees the flashing light of a train going by, fireworks, or especially the light in the bedroom, he gets sick – but why doesn’t he get sick when he watches the flickering light of movies or when playing video games?
JT: Actually the primary reason I use the flashing light is to give the film more of a sense of movement and action, to keep the pace going. So there is a technical motivation for doing this – that is, it is motivated by the technique of film. The other reason is that, early on in the shooting, when filming the final confrontation scene under the glare of the fireworks, some of us liked the idea that Andy Lau would fail in this way. The idea [of an epileptic episode when seeing flashing lights] comes from a real story of a Chinese athlete in the Olympic Games. In the finals, it was always the same – this renowned marksman suddenly collapsed at this crucial moment, and no one knows why. The concept of his character is meant to echo that time and place. He becomes a professional killer, yet the character will only experience this kind of sickness if he’s holding a gun. The same happened in this story of the Olympic Games – he was a professional, determined athlete that wouldn’t allow anything to penetrate his mind or body, but when he picks up the gun, then he becomes vulnerable to this illness. This is the ironic handicap of the killer – using the gun. So we approached it this way. Suppose that kind of guilt, that kind of loss of face, and sickness, comes from holding a gun. This is the curse of his profession, and also always signals his lack of success with women. In the bedroom scene with the woman, this moment happens again. That one moment becomes his entire life. He wants to win, but he can never do it. Life has made this arrangement for him.
CL: Also interesting are the conflicts among people who are trying to articulate the destiny of the film. Most of the main characters are also narrators in some way, and when the Simon Yam character starts to write the book, telling the story of the film, he doesn’t really know what to write.
Towards the end of the film, when they are all sitting at the dinner table, I was reminded of The Mission (Johnnie To, 1999). A similar scene occurs – the main characters get to the dinner table, and the story is at an impasse because someone is supposed to die, but no one really wants the story to keep going as it is supposed to. So they just eat and drink and have a good time, delaying the inevitable as long as possible. Why do you like to use the dinner table, or the dinner scene?
JT: I don’t know! It is even a similar scene here [referring to our interview conducted over dinner]! In the ending of The Mission, the gangsters have said everything they can. I liked it at that time – that kind of scene. They are sitting at the dinner table, just talking about everyday things, and then suddenly they have to talk about killing people. The film’s ending I think is very consistent with its setting.
But as for Fulltime Killer, I think in some way this idea is more integral to the story. In The Mission, it is not. Yet why are these two films so similar? I don’t know. The narratives come from the original ideas of [screenwriter] Wai Ka-fai – maybe his answer would be more expansive. But for me, these are two separate films: one film is more personal, and I defined the film. I wrote the film, and I shot this film as close to the original plan. But why did Wai Ka-fai want it that way, and why does the script have a similar ending? In both films, the characters end up at a restaurant before they are supposed to kill each other. My impression was that it reveals their motives to be mutual respect. The situation has become more grave, and that is why the acting is a bit more restrained and they don’t talk very much – although their motives are not restrained. For my job as director, my responsibility is to survey motivation. But for the true answer, you must ask Wai Ka-fai. The truth, from my perspective at least, is that my function is just to shoot the story.
Although actually, as for the impasse that they reach at the restaurant, it wasn’t quite written in the script that way exactly. But I did it this way because I felt like all three characters would want to hold on to that moment. They know what the ending will be: either one or both of them will end up being killed. So you see they’re just sitting there and not really doing much. And they’re not really talking much actually. This scene was basically designed on the set, but it is a take on the script. I don’t know if Wai Ka-fai would agree or disagree with my take on it. But I wanted to drag it out as long as possible.
Now can I ask you a question? What was your favorite scene in the film?
CL: There were a lot of good scenes. I liked the ending when they were pretending to be in a video game. Because, you know, when you play video games…
JT: No, I don’t know! I don’t play video games! I ask because a number of Hong Kong critics didn’t like the movie, and they think it’s too difficult for an audience to follow. They say it’s too playful, and they complain that the director is too showy. But the whole idea behind this script was that we wanted to do something different this time around. We wanted to make the movie like it is in the script, especially this script. In the “real” ending, the policeman changes the ending for the two major actors – in film history there are not many films with this effect. The critics just don’t understand that we want to change something! We know what is perceived as easy to direct and what audiences think is easy to follow. But if the movies are this general, then how could we make something out of a story like Fulltime Killer? We wanted to change something – we wanted the director and the screenwriter to consider this movie as something like an experiment.
CL: Yes I really enjoyed it. I think the film acknowledges its confusing elements, and, like you mentioned earlier, I think the type of filmgoer who would typically enjoy this movie is someone like the Tok character, someone who is a film buff, someone who will just remember and celebrate one moment or one scene from a film. So if you’re latching on to that one moment, than it becomes extraneous to the plot, and its just that one moment that’s important.
JT: And the moment you remember is the video games!
CL: Well, I do like to play video games occasionally. The film also calls attention to its potential to confuse with the writer at the end who goes crazy.
JT: The scenes toward the end with the writer provide a storytelling technique, it is a way to open up the film for the audience.
Although it was in the script, the film doesn’t have a traditional romantic angle for the young policewoman, and it should have been there. But [actress Cherrie Ying] doesn’t know how to act! She just cannot act! So we…Ughh!..cutting and more cutting…cut cut cut cut – until we got rid of the entire thing. The writer you asked about, the Simon Yam character, is supposed to be in love with her and he follows her. You learned more about the girl as he follows her, and in the ending, she is killed by one of the killers. Then the killer appears and disappears in the writer’s head. We made it very confusing – his private madness. Now it’s a bit different, but the original script set up this madness with this romantic subplot between the writer and Gigi [Ying].
We also shot a scene in which she actually doesn’t die [as she does in the finished film]. We shot a scene of him visiting her in the hospital, recovering, afterwards. But because things weren’t really working – again, with the actress – that was cut out.
CL: I also have a question about Love on a Diet, which I also liked.
JT: Before you ask this question, let me tell you something. Love on a Diet is a commercial movie. We made that movie so we could survive to make Fulltime Killer. It’s a common love story – that kind of thing – only for the box-office.
CL: So you didn’t like Love on a Diet?
JT: No, no, its not that. I like my job! But they are very different movies, although made at the same time. Even though Andy [Lau] is in Fulltime Killer, he was doing Love on a Diet as well. Using Andy for both and filming in Japan – it’s very hard.
CL: So did you develop any kind of connections between Love on a Diet and Fulltime Killer? Since you were working on them at the same time, did you borrow some ideas from one for the other?
JT: No. There was a clear separation between productions. We shot Love on a Diet in Japan because of commercial reasons and the recent trend in Hong Kong of a fascination for Japanese things. In Fulltime Killer, they travel around because that’s there job. It’s like those European films where an assassin or spy travels around to England, to Italy, etc.
CL: I’ve been reading in the newspapers a lot about increased cases of Asians suffering from diabetes. In the few months that I’ve been in Asia recently, there seems to be an article every week about this, and that, especially in China, as a middle-class is developing, more Asians are becoming overweight.
JT: Its true. Asians are gaining more and more weight. And getting taller! Now weight-loss has become a very important and popular concern now, and Love on a Diet has even coined a fitness catch-phrase. This kind of film can be successful because we made sure to aim for the middle-class audience. Before, something like a low-class movie was more popular – stories about people of the streets in Hong Kong. The middle-class did not used to be the major audience. Now you can see something in the stories, in the production values, and in certain creative concepts, Hong Kong cinema’s recognition of an emerging middle-class audience. Only a few years ago, many movies in Hong Kong were, for example, films with a lot of dirty jokes or stories about gangsters. But now Hong Kong has changed very much, and in Asia I think something has changed too. For example, have you seen any recent Korean films? There has been a recent wave of Korean films, all alternative in a way because of their emphasis on a middle class setting. And in Japan, the films show more and more of the middle class, because of the economic changes there. The people have changed, and so movies have to change.
Johnnie To Filmography producer and/or director)
- For the few writings in English, see David Bordwell, “ “The Films of Johnnie To: Louder than Words,”; Artforum (May 2003); Andrew Grossman, “The Belated Auteurism of Johnnie To” Senses of Cinema no. 12 (February-March 2001); and Stephen Teo, “The Code of The Mission,” Senses of Cinema no. 17 (November-December 2001). ↩