Johnnie To

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )

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Johnnie To (China, 1955)

The Big Heat (1988), produced by Tsui Hark,

The Eighth Happiness (1988)

All About Ah-Long (1989) basically began the Triad saga.

The Heroic Trio (1993)

The Mad Monk (1993)

The Bare-Footed Kid (1993)

Lifeline (1997)

Running Out of Time (1999)

Where a Good Man Goes (1999)

Needing You (2000)

Help (2000)

Yesterday Once More (2004)

Cheung Foh/ The Mission (1999), one of his most stylish gangster movies, is basically one long shootout with very little dialogue.

Someone is trying to assassinate the boss of a gang, Lung, who lives in a huge mansion. His brother Frank organizes a retinue of five body guards, including the owner of a night club, Roy, and his man Shin (who normally finds girls and rooms for VIPs), under the direction of the ruthless Curtis. They torture in vain one of the men who is suspected of being a traitor. One night someone shoots Lung in an alley, fooling the body guards around him. Lung is saved by the bullet-proof vest, but the sniper gets away. Roy is furious. Lung, instead, takes it philosophically and doesn't blame anyone. Someone tries to kill all of the bodyguards in a deserted shopping mall, but they escape unarmed after the shootout. Another attempt is foiled at the office building where the boss works. The man they tortured is now a janitor. The boss hands him some money on the way to the elevator. The janitor realizes that the men coming out of the elevator are about to shoot him and screams. The janitor is shot but the boss and his bodyguards can escape unarmed again. They chase one of the shooters and lay siege to an abandoned warehouse. After a long shootout, Lung's men prevailed over the men inside and capture one of them. They finally find out who is trying to assassinate their boss Lung: a family friend named Fat Cheung who worked with Lung's and Frank's father in the old days but was marginalized and now simply runs a restaurant. He is liquidated quickly and the five bodyguards drink to their eternal friendship. However, when Curtis meets Frank to receive the financial reward, Frank tells him that Shin has been having an affair with Lung's wife. Curtis coldly decides to kill him, but Roy, learning of the problem, tells Curtis that Shin, who has been his right arm man for a long time, is under his protection. The team is now split. Roy finds Shin, gives him his share of the reward and beats him up. But Roy and the other two have decided to save his life. The problem is that, by doing so, they risk their own life. They meet with Curtis at a restaurant for a last dinner. Curtis confirms that he intends to kill Shin, who is sitting next to him. Curtis' man James offers to talk to Lung and try to reverse his order while the others continue their dinner. On his way to Lung's place James witnesses two of Lung's men assassinate Lung's wife. James runs back to the restaurant but time is up. Despite hearing that the woman is dead, Curtis carries out his orders and kills Shin in front of the others. Everybody points the gun at everybody else. Roy shoots furious but not at Curtis, simply out of anger. He has no choice but to let Curtis do his job. They all leave but on the way out Curtis hands his man James a blank bullet: he shot Shin knowing that James had loaded his gun with a blank. When they are all gone, Shin walks out of the restaurant, drunk, but alive.

Needing You (2000), co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai

Chuen jik sat sau/ Fulltime Killer (2001), co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai, that wasted both talents,

the horrible Lik goo lik goo san nin choi/ Fat Choi Spirit (2002)

My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002)

PTU (2003) is aesthetically one of his best, the culmination of his cinematographer's noir calligraphy, but the plot is razor thin and not particularly well developed. Towards the end the photography steals the show with dazzling movements and angles, while the story tries to converge into an epic shootout whose rationale is not completely clear (its best and funniest thing being a child who apparently rides around at night breaking into cars to steal coins and who gets caught up in the mayhem).

The whole action takes place during one night. Police officers on an armored truck comment on the death of a fellow cop, killed by bank robbers. Ponytail and four of his thugs meet at a restaurant. The owner is terrorized by them. A long-haired kid is forced to move to another table when they take over his table. The kid silently moves and keeps eating. Meanwhile, Lo, the sergeant who controls the neighborhood shows up at the same restaurant. Outside he is confronted by a young man who obviously does not know who he is. The young man is the grandson of the butcher, and the butcher immediately comes to apologize to sergeant Lo. The sergeant walks into the restaurant and orders (the owner of the restaurant is no less terrorized by him than by the thugs). He sits at the same table as the thugs, who then move to the table of the long-haired kid, who then moves to another table. Ponytail's thugs leave the restaurant. When the sergeant leaves too (without having exchanged a single word with Ponytail), he finds that one of them is scratching his car's door. The sergeant starts running after the punk. The butcher's grandson seizes the opportunity and dumps white paint on the sergeant's expensive car. Inside the restaurant the long-haired kid receives a phone call, then gets up, pulls out a steak knife and pushes the knife into the back of Ponytail. Ponytail does not die: he musters enough strength to run outside, flag down a taxi, then, when the taxi driver runs away scared, drive the taxi himself towards the hospital. He finally dies crashing into other cars. The sergeant is still chasing the punk through dark deserted alleys. It is a trap: the others are waiting for him behind a corner. Ironically, he trips and falls badly by himself. The thugs find him lying unconscious on the pavement. They still beat him up, fearful of what to tell Ponytail. When the police officers find the sergeant, he claims he simply fell by himself. However, his gun is gone, and that's serious enough that they should report it immediately. He begs them not to, because it would jeopardize his coming promotion. The captain in charge, Mike Ho, accepts to do it and tells his men that he himself will report it if the gun is not recovered within a day. The sergeant, nicknamed Fatty, takes off on his car and, first thing, he buys a toy gun and paints it so it will look real. He reaches the site where Ponytail lies dead and steals his cell phone. Ho is calling it from the cell phone of Ponytail's cousin. Fatty tells Ho that Ponytail is dead. The icy female inspector Cheng can smell that something is wrong when Ponytail's phone goes missing, even if Fatty quickly returns it. Ho's men corner another punk and almost beat him to death until he reveals where Ponytail's man hang out: the third floor of an abandoned building. It is now middle of the night and nobody is in the streets except for the cops. After Cheng sends a trusted cop to "learn" from Ho, Ho's men become reluctant to follow him: by not reporting the lost gun they are breaking the law and now there is a spy among them to witness their actions. Nonetheless Ho is adamant that he will continue to search for Lo's gun until the morning, even risking his career. His men follow him. Lo/Fatty is approached by an old fat man, nicknamed Uncle, who tells him that Eye Ball is innocent of Ponytail's murder. Icy inspector Cheng is in fact looking for Eye Ball (using interrogation methods no less brutal than Ho's). Ho and his men enter the abandoned warehouse (a lengthy pointless scene). iThey find two half-naked girls kept captive by a woman. Ho simply asks for the gang's whereabouts and ignores the crying girls. Cheng has Ponytail's phone and she realizes that someone keeps calling that number looking for Lo/Fatty: that someone is Ho. Viceversa Lo/Fatty keeps getting phone calls for Ponytail. Deserted streets. Cops walking and/or driving around.
Fatty meets Ponytail's father, who is very angry at the thugs who were supposed to protect his son (the ones whom Ho is looking for): he has trapped them naked into tiny cages. Ponytail's father Bald Head believes that Eye Ball killed his son, so he wants Eye Ball's head in exchange for Fatty's gun. Fatty leaves and the old man resumes torturing the men who were supposed to protect his son.
Cheng's men figure out what is wrong with Ponytail's cell phone: it is actually Fatty's phone! Which also explains why Fatty keeps getting phone calls for Ponytail: he accidentally switched the two phones. Fatty calls Eye Ball and tells him that everything will be all right. Then he meets with Ho at the restaurant and asks him to keep the cops out of Canton St at 4am. Cheng has seen his car downstairs (being painted white it is easy to recognize) and walks to their table explaining the mixup with the cell phones. Fatty grabs his cell phone and runs out the back door. He then calls Bald Head from a public phone and asks him to take him to Eye Ball at 4am. The next person to use the same public phone is a young man who seems desperate to get in touch with someone. Cheng's undercover agent calls her saying that he has important information about Eye Ball and Bald Head. When Bald Head leaves for the appointment, he is followed by Cheng's car. Fatty and the young man are still near the same phone booth. This time the young man gets through and a man tells him that they are about to pick him up. Fatty is waiting for Bald Head. A child, who has been riding around on his bicycle, breaks the windows of a car to steal coins. Some of Ho's cops, who were investigating the mysterious break-ins, are watching but don't intervene. Eye Ball arrives... and he realizes that Fatty has set him up because a few seconds later Ponytail's father Bald Head arrives too. Cheng drives by in front of Fatty, who is still at the telephone booth. Ho's men, disobeying Fatty, come running down the street. A taxi stops by to drop off three friends of the young man who was using the same phone booth... but they quickly pull out guns (are they the bank robbers mentioned in the first sequence of the film?) Shooting erupts: Bald Head wants to kill Eye Ball (and they kill each other right away), everybody else shoots for non-obvious reasons (and without trying to avoid bullets). Fatty is the only one who doesn't have a real gun and crawls away, chased by the young man of the phone booth. Fatty trips on something and, lo and behold, finds his own lost phone; and shoots the young man just in time. Lots of dead people in the street. Cheng behaved like a coward, hiding inside her car, and apologizes to Fatty: she fires a few shots so it will look like she participated in the shootout. The child rides away with the coins he stole from the cars he broke into.

Turn Left Turn Right (2003)

Running on Karma (2003), one of his best

the psychological noir Throw Down (2004), not well architected,

the mediocre Breaking News (2004)

Yesterday Once More (2004)

The overrated Hak Sewui/ Election (2005) accounts to little more than a diligent Chinese version of the Godfather. There are lengthy detours that don't serve any purpose, such as the night chase scene and the ritual of brotherhood. The gruesome ending feels like a desperate attempt at making the film a little less predictable than it is.

There are two main criminal organizations in Hong Kong: the Sun Society, where power is transferred dynastically from father to son, and the Triad, where the new chairman is elected democratically every two years, a tradition that goes back centuries. The elders of the Triad are discussing whom to elect next, and the choice is between the ambitious Big D and the surgical and younger Lok. The elders react negatively to Big D's attempt to buy the election and instead elect Lok, who is congratulated by the main power broker, Uncle Teng. Big D rebels: his men kidnap two of the "uncles", put them into cages and roll the cages down a steep hill. He demands from outgoing chairman Whistle the baton that symbolizes the leadership of the Triad, the baton that is supposed to go to Lok. Whistle is scared of Big D, clearly a psychopath, and keeps saying that the baton is past the border, in China, unreachable. Meanwhile the police, sensing trouble, decides to arrest all the bosses, starting with Uncle Teng, and then Lok. The police arrive just in time to save Whistle from being killed by Big D. Even handcuffed, Big D still tries to launch on Whistle, who, terrified, runs away and gets hit by a car. While in prison each of the two bosses directs associates to hunt for the baton. Both camps know that the baton is kept by Whistle's driver Four-Eye in China. Big D's camp charges the young and icy Kun of killing Four-Eye. The action moves to China. Lok's camp finds where Four-Eye is being tortured, frees him and asks in vain for the baton: Four-Eye is loyal only to Whistle and will release the baton only if Whistle orders him, but Whistle is dying after the accident. Lok's men, however, find the baton just when the police is storming the building. One of them, Big Head, takes off with the baton while the other stays to confront the police captain, an old friend who used to be a gangster himself. Meanwhile, in the prison, Teng is summoned by the police chief, who tells him flatly that he will not tolerate a civil war inside the Triad. Teng offers to mediate between Big D and Lok in order to keep the peace that is convenient for both the Triad and the police. Big D, however, refuses any compromise and, instead, threatens to start his own society, something that Teng would not tolerate. The police chief tells Teng that, in case of war, he would arrest everybody. Teng calmly explains that the various societies have 350,000 members: they wouldn't in all the prisons of the city. Big Head is driving back to Hong Kong with the baton but is ambushed by Kun and tries in vain to run away through a field of tall grass. Kun proceeds to torture Big Head who refuses to surrender the baton. Meanwhile the bosses of the Triad are agreeing to fight Big D, regardless of previous allegiances, in the name of unity. Hence one calls Kun to tell him that his new mission is to rescue the baton for Lok, and one calls Big Head to tell him that Kun is his new boss. In a comic scene Kun stops beating Big Head, and a bleeding Big Head gladly surrenders the baton to him. In the middle of the night Kun, who is on his way to Hong Kong, realizes that he is beeing followed by a car. Both Kun and the chaser cross the border illegally, killing a border guard. The bosses send a motorcycle to stop the chaser. Kun hands over the baton to the motorcyclist. The motorcyclist is in turn attacked by thugs who want the baton. He is helped by another young man, the cryptic and soft-spoken Jimmy, who finally retrieves the baton after a bloody confrontation, and reluctantly hands it over to Lok. Whistle has recovered enough to asks for a deal with the police. Big D orders to kill Whistle. This all happens in jail, with the police tolerating all the negotiations between the two camps. But nobody needs to kill Whistle: he commits suicide at the hospital when he learns that his son has been run over by a truck, presumably an assassination planned by the Triad. (Confusingly, Lok takes credit for killing Whistle in a conversation with Jimmy.) The police release Big D. Lok and his men are outside waiting for him. Lok offers him a truce. Big D accepts, and they become good buddies. When a traitor offers Big D an alliance to kill Lok, Big D alerts Lok and together they defeat the traitor. The pair now rules over Hong Kong. They go fishing together. Big D brings his wife and Lok brings his son. Big D asks for Lok's support in getting elected chairman. Suddenly, Lok grabs a big rock and kills Big D. Lok keeps dropping the heavy rock on Big D's head even after the man is already dead. Big D's wife and Lok's teenage son witness the brutal murder. Lok chases Big D's wife through the woods and strangles her to death. The boy runs to the car and can hear the woman scream. Lok buries both bodies and then drives away with his son. Elsewhere, Jimmy is being groomed to become chairman some day...

Triad Election (2006), the follow-up to Election, is probably a better film, focusing on the most complex character, Jimmy.

Fong Juk/ Exiled (2006) is basically a Western movie, in fact a diligent tribute to Sam Peckinpah, and remains one of his best.

Mad Detective (2007), co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai

Man Jeuk/ Sparrow (2008), an odd tribute to Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,

Vengeance (2009)

Life Without Principle (2011)

Don't Go Breaking My Heart (2011)

Romancing in Thin Air (2012)

Du Zhan/ Drug War (2012), written by Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau and Xi Yu, may appear to be yet another brutal action movies, but it is also a metaphysical parable of evil. Just like To's models for this film, namely Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Jean-Pierre Melville's Un Flic, harbor a deeper meaning than the relatively simplistic plot, so Drug War has a subplot of an extremely clever satan who is willing to sacrifice and betray everybody, from his wife to his loyal servants, a mind who can continuously process logical steps to maximizes his own chances of surviving. At the beginning we feel that the police captain is the protagonist. He is the character that gets developed more fully, and who gets the heroic treatment; but then the real protagonist emerges and it is the ultimate anti-hero, a coward who cares absolutely zero about the rest of the world. A side-story has to do with the way that technology helps watch undercover operations as if they were television shows: we see most of the first part twice, because many of the scenes are broadcast to surveillance systems and shown in black and white inside the small screens of the computers.

A man, Timmy Choi, is driving erratically on a wide road and eventually loses control and crashes into a restaurant while throwing up white foam. Meanwhile two men, who look like they are high on drugs, are driving a green truck through a highway toll, followed by a red car. Meanwhile, a bus arrives at the same highway toll. One of the man inside senses that something is wrong. He is right: his partner is an undercover police captain, Zhang Lei, the girl at the tool booth is his trusted and attractive young assistant Xiaobei, and the whole area is surrounded by police officers that arrest all the passengers of the bus. They are all carrying drugs inside their body. They are taken to a hospital where they are forced to defecate the packets of drugs. Timmy ends up, unconscious, in the same hospital and Zhang easily recognizes that he is another drug dealer. Zhang inspects Timmy's car and finds the cell phone that was ringing when he crashed. Zhang calls the number that was calling Timmy: it rings inside the green truck, that is still being followed by a red car. Timmy escapes at the hospital but Zhang catches him hiding in the morgue. Zhang sends his own men to replace the cops in the red car that have been following the green truck from very far away. Zhang finds three dead bodies in a warehouse turned into a laboratory for making drugs: the factory had exploded and only Timmy had survived. They are Timmy's wife and her two brothers. Zhang interrogates Timmy, who admits that the green truck is carrying raw material for him. He has to make drugs for a kingpin, Bill Lee, whom Zhang has been wanting to arrest for a long time. Timmy knows that he will get the death penalty unless he collaborates: he offers to help Zhang frame Bill Lee. First Timmy takes Zhang to an appointment with a comical character nicknamed "Ha Ha" because he is always laughing loud. Ha Ha wants to meet Bill Lee and Zhang pretends to be working for the boss. Everything that Ha Ha says, during a lavish dinner, about their business is broadcasted live to the police station by Zhang's cigarette holder that contains a camera. The high-tech crew at the police station is directed by Zhang's assistant Xiaobei. Next, Timmy organizes the meeting with Bill Lee's trusted nephew, who is permanently under the influence of heavy drugs. Zhang plays Ha Ha and his assistant Xiaobei plays his wife while their police team watches the meeting remotely broadcasted by a tiny camera. Bill's trusted nephew submits Zhang to an orgy of heavy drugs to test his credibility. Zhang has no choice but to accept. After Bill's trusted nephew leaves, convinced that he can do business with the man he believes to be Ha Ha, Zhang is seized by epileptic fits. Timmy shouts that they have to make him vomit and tells the cops what to do to save Zhang's life. It works. So far Timmy has fully cooperated and never tried to escape. In the middle of the night the green truck crashes in a remote location. The cops that were following the truck call Zhang. The two dudes of the truck are acting more funny than ever, obviously stoned senseless. Zhang, Timmy and Zhang's cute assistant Xiaobei take the bullet train and then meet local police. They get to the place where the truck is. Timmy cooperates behaving realistically with his two men. At one point he has one of their guns in his hands but throws it away instead of trying to escape. Timmy drives the truck full of raw material to his other factory. He is welcomed by his workers: a group of loyal deaf-mutes who are happy to see him as if he was a family member. It turns out that Timmy is fluent in sign language. As instructed by Zhang, Timmy places cameras and microphones around the building. During dinner with the deaf-mutes, Timmy cries and says (or, better, gestures) that he is crying because his wife died (but maybe he is crying because he is betraying such loyal buddies). The deaf-mute decided to pay tribute to the dead wife by burning a huge amount of money in front of Timmy. Zhang is ready to order the attack: cops storm the yacht where the real Ha Ha is delivering drugs to Timmy; and other corps storm Timmy's factory, despite the ferocious resistance of the deaf-mutes, who manage to escape and to blow up the building killing many of Zhang's cops. Zhang is furious at Timmy for not having told them about the secret passage (did Timmy try to save his loyal deaf-mutes?) Zhang is about to ship him back to headquarters when Timmy begs him to continue the operation. Timmy reveals that Bill Lee is just a front for the real kingpins. Impersonating Ha Ha, Zhang meets Bill Lee in person. It turns out that Bill Lee is simply taking orders on a earpiece from the seven real bosses who are walking around the port and checking everything that is going on. The seven bosses don't want to reveal their faces but Zhang/Ha Ha manages a trick to make them come out. Later the bosses decide to execute Bill and his nephew, who failed to protect their identities. Now Zhang and his high-tech crew can target the real bosses directly. The green truck is still driving around, loaded with precious merchandise, The two deaf-mutes on the loose comunicate only via a code transmitted by cell phone, but now they don't trust the messages they receive. Timmy, who has been instructed to lead the bosses in the trap, suddenly switches sides, removing the microphones from his clothes and telling the bosses that they are surrounded by cops. The cops grab the guns and a chaotic shootout erupts in front of a school. Timmy hides inside a school bus. He sees Xiaobei lying on the road wounded after being run over by a car, and drives by to finish her with a bullet. Police and mobsters reach an impasse. Timmy drives the school bus where the mobsters are and opens the door. The elderly bosses run towards the bus. Timmy shuts the door and drives away, leaving them an easy target for the cops. Having helped the police capture the bosses, he flees. By accident he crashes into the car driven by the deafmutes. Knowing that he betrayed them, they pull out the guns. Zhang, chasing the school bus, gets there to witness the shootout between Timmy and the deafmutes. Timmy is caught between the deafmutes, who are determined to kill him, and the cops, who are waiting to see who wins. Timmy raises his hands and surrenders to the cops. Zhang aims at him and would probably want to execute him right there but he can't. Zhang handcuffs Timmy to the car and then helps the other cops corner the deafmutes. The deafmutes, however, put up an heroic struggle and manage to wound or kill all the cops, although they get fatally wounded too. Meanwhile, Timmy manages to free himself. He walks coldly towards the bodies lying on the asphalt, grabs a gun and finishes them one by one. Before he can escape, however, Zhang, with his last breath, handcuffs Timmy's ankle to his own arm. Timmy tries in vain to free himself from Zhang's dying body. Timmy has to drag the dead body on the asphalt while trying to escape. Lots of cops arrive at the scene and arrest him. Timmy is the only survivor of the whole story, but at the trial he is found guilty by the judge and promptly executed. While they strap him to the apparatus that will kill him, Timmy begs for another chance to cooperate, but the only person listening to his new confession is the guard who witnesses his death.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )