Johnnie To

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Michael Kerpan
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Johnnie To

#1 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Oct 23, 2013 8:40 am

The HK Blu-Rays of Johnnie To's Drug War and Blind Detective are both pretty good looking. As to the movies, Drug War is very, very good; Blind Detective is fun, but a bit overlong (and episodic).

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feihong
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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#2 Post by feihong » Thu Oct 24, 2013 6:39 am

I just bought the WellGo blu-ray of Drug War and I discovered that the disc is significantly better than the HK disc: sharper, with more visible grain--and it appears that slightly more of the sides of the image are visible on the WellGo disc. The colors are more vivid, and all in all it matches what I saw on the movie screen much closer.

The HK Blind Detective disc does look great to me, and unlike most people, I don't see a dip in filmmaking quality in this movie. It is long, but it didn't feel overlong to me. Rather, the story had, I think, a naturally digressive, shaggy-dog quality which I thought worked very well with the films lightly-stated qualities of comedy, adventure and romantic intrigue. I thought that in a way this film is maybe the apotheosis of the Milkyway obsession with figures twisted or challenged by physical impairment. That theme has been elbowing its way to the fore in Milkyway pictures for quite a while now––not just in Bun's detachment from reality in Mad Detective, but also in the mute drug-makers in Drug War; Francis Costello's bullet to the head--which makes him forget his own narrative in Vengeance, along with the cast of characters that populate it; Panther's stutter in Life Without Principle and Cheung Siu-Fai's stutter in Drug War, Election 1 & Election 2--nearly crippling to his character in each instance; Boss Fay's emasculating injury in Exiled; Sze-to's encroaching blindness in Throwdown; Big's karmic visions in Running on Karma--the result of a psychological trauma--and the series of brutal injuries visited upon specific, highly-prized body parts of the pickpockets in Sparrow.

Most of the time that persistent obsession with disability is not explicated in any full way--but Blind Detective is a full-on, extended extrapolation of Johnston's blindness into every scenario To & Wai can invent to harry our hero. We watch Johnston as if we're in a nightmare, unable to prevent every possible mistake, injury, humiliation or misapprehension he makes as a result of being unable to see. The film is a parade of these disasters, and through witnessing it all in such expansive detail, I think we get a rare appreciation for Johnston's decisions, his opinions, and his special distress; a level of appreciation which we don't achieve with the majority of To and Wai's disabled heroes. Even Bun is not so sympathetic in his dictatorial attitude as Johnston is, because unlike Bun in Mad Detective--who already looks at his society as an outsider, and who as a result seems set up as a tragic victim from the start (almost the first image we get of him is of him getting zipped up in a suitcase and thrown down the stairs)--we get to see Johnston fighting unflappably to be able to participate in the world of the sighted. He's not a sleepwalker, staring into the dream like Costello or Sam (in The Longest Nite) or Jack & Martin (in A Hero Never Dies); he's a very present, active character, beset by perverse odds but not really locked into a fate which he has to play out. As a result, Johnston is frequently imperiled, but never trapped, like Jimmy (in Election 2) or Big (in Running on Karma) or cornered in the way Michael is in Where a Good Man Goes, or the way Sze-to is made to face his demons in Throwdown. Unlike To's more noir-shaded heroes who fight against fate--Yuen in Breaking News, Sam in The Longest Nite, Lok in Fulltime Killer, and the quintet of alienated mobsters in The Mission and in Exiled--Johnston's resisting of his destiny is very admirable; the way he pushes through every embarrassment, failure and confusion is actually pretty astounding, and so it makes sense to me that the form of his story is a chronicle--an epic record of deeds and adventures, episodic because the story is the result of the folding and compressing of many stories into one. Milkyway pictures have always employed very particular narrative structures and strategies for every new film; I think Blind Detective has its own worthy and very interesting structure. Well, that's my 2 cents.

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#3 Post by Michael Kerpan » Thu Oct 24, 2013 9:00 am

Never heard of WellGo...

Great analysis of Blind Detective -- always want to think the best of To's films. And I would point out that, even if one DOES onsider this a "lesser film" it is nonetheless a very enjoyable film -- and should not be skipped. ;~}

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#4 Post by feihong » Thu Oct 24, 2013 5:41 pm

WellGo has been buying up mostly martial-arts-oriented Hong Kong movie fare in the last few years. They have released some of the Shaw Bros films on blu-ray--The Heroic Ones, Delightful Forest, All Men Are Brothers--in interlaced transfers. The detail is pretty sharp and good, but the interlacing is really annoying.

They got the U.S. rights to Drug War, and they released the film theatrically (a brief run, but they got the film some actual nice reviews and good feelings from some critics). Their blu-rays of contemporary films are generally of a higher quality than their Celestial transfers, and Drug War comes out very well, without much of the visible DNR that creeps around the outskirts of the Hong Kong disc.

You're right about lesser films being enjoyable. Certainly Blind Detective doesn't have the compressed feel of ideas crackling together and shooting off sparks that Drug War has. The Blind Detective idea is much looser, and maybe it's a tad less inspired than that of the Mad Detective. My feeling on Blind Detective though is that the story form does fit the characters and themes on display in a way I think of as very purposeful. I was certainly pleased with Blind Detective, and watched it with rapt attention. I think we're used to Milkyway movies coming packed with perverse twists and turns, and, by contrast, Blind Detective advances doggedly, and in a way that sort of defeats that storytelling emphasis on the deft, unforeseen narrative maneuver. In fact, the narrative is full of twists and turns, but because those twists are so central to the narrative structure--they come as a result of Johnston's method of detection, and the methodical probing and epiphany that he relies on as his method (Johnston is actually far more credible in his process of detection than Bun is with his "voodoo" detective work in Mad Detective), and because of their necessity I think the twists and turns are less demonstrative and game-changing.

Sometimes I wonder how far wishful thinking gets me with the auteurs whose films I enjoy? I tend to think of To a little the way I think of Jean-Pierre Melville––and there is more to that association than casual association, as Vengeance is essentially a veiled sequel to Le Samourai, and To's stylistic approach over the years has owed a lot to Melville. Now Melville I love, but some of my favorite of his films, like Le Cercle Rouge, I have to work rather hard to justify as a great film. Certainly Le Samourai, Le Silence de la Mer, L'Enfants Terribles, are great movies that hardly need any justification. And L'armee des Ombres has joined them in most people's eyes--though that took decades of evolution in our understanding and appreciation. But Red Circle, though I love it the best--maybe I include it in that company because I want to believe it to be a great movie?

Johnnie To movies, for me, tend to follow the model of the way the audience embrace Army of Shadows. It took me watching The Mission 5 times before I began to feel that it was a great movie. The first two viewings, I hated the film, and it took lots of development in my thinking to recognize the traits that make the film dynamic and increasingly absorbing. Still, I remember years of argument on Asian film forums, vouching for The Mission as a great movie. Now lots of the people who disagreed at the time routinely refer to The Mission as "a masterpiece." So I think that transformation of understanding is maybe part of a process most people go through in appreciating the Milkyway movies. So often they approach a theme or idea from a perspective that is really unexpected, but also subtle enough to slip by our awareness. It took several years of complaints about how you needed a scorecard to keep up with all the characters in Election before that became one of the traits by which people praised the film. Similarly, I was pretty disappointed with Drug War in the theater (I saw it at the L.A. Film Fest earlier this year), but by my second blu-ray of the film I'm convinced it's a great movie.

Blind Detective was one of the few To movies, like Mad Detective, The Longest Nite and PTU, which I felt was a great movie as I was first watching it. I wonder if that speaks to my familiarity with the idea of the detective as an existential agent in literature? Both Blind Detective and Mad Detective trade on the idea of a blind or hallucinatory seer--in Mad Detective that idea is overlaid with Bun's Cassandra complex, which is also a literary device very common to the movies. In a way, all four of these movies are about a journey into the dark part of the imagination, and that's a very common and somewhat straightforward narrative device in cinema.

Other To movies seem more oblique at first. It took me several viewings to begin to appreciate Throwdown in the way To himself appreciates it. It took me two viewings to understand and "read" the way Sze-to is going blind--pretty much the motivational lynch-pin of the whole picture. Was that because of the quality of the original dvd transfer I saw (looking at the blu-ray years later, it is clear that the whole photographic scheme of the movie is constantly implying that Sze-to is losing his sight), or is it simply that To's reticence to emphasize narrative details makes this element of the film needlessly obscure?

Seeing The Mission at a UCLA screening event years ago solidified for me that the visual strategy of the film was to show the characters regarding one another, and it became clear to me, seeing the picture on a big screen, that the charged drama and subtlety of the film lay in the ways in which characters regarded one another, and how that looking implied character and intent. That wasn't visually clear in the VCD I saw of the film, or the VHS tape, and it was only hinted at in the two Mei Ah dvds of the movie. I feel as if this process of comprehension that people have to go through before accepting Milkyway movies is maybe a testament to how subtle they are. Of course, if that's the case, then there are several outliers--Running on Karma and Fulltime Killer, especially--that are for the most part without subtlety and which seem to defy depth--and there are several sort of "contested" or "problematic" achievements--films in which the subtle scheme doesn't entirely seem to cohere--such as Throwdown, A Hero Never Dies, Election 2, and maybe Blind Detective. These are still very enjoyable films, but I often find myself wondering how much of their mission is accomplished by the filmmaker and how much is accomplished by the viewer.

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#5 Post by whaleallright » Fri Oct 25, 2013 1:41 am

It took me watching The Mission 5 times before I began to feel that it was a great movie. The first two viewings, I hated the film, and it took lots of development in my thinking to recognize the traits that make the film dynamic and increasingly absorbing.
I think one of the issues is that in many Johnnie To crime films, the narration is just insufficiently redundant by mainstream standards. A plot point will pass very quickly, sometimes almost as an aside or literally in the background, and not be repeated. This is especially true of The Mission, one of To's knottiest plots. Drug War is one of the more linear plots he's done recently (excepting, as usual, the romantic comedies that are seldom distributed outside of HK/China) and I wonder whether that's one reason why it was immediately well-received.

It would be a dream to have The Mission, along with the other late '90s To/Milkyway films that are currently in rights limbo, in a big Blu-Ray set. A Hero Never Dies, Where a Good Man Goes, Running Out of Time, Expect the Unexpected, The Longest Nite (the last two credited to Patrick Yau but mostly directed by To)—probably his greatest run. Of course he could always top himself.

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#6 Post by Michael Kerpan » Fri Oct 25, 2013 8:24 am

In our own household "movie club", we noted the lack of redundancy as a major reason why _we_ liked To's films, as well as one of the likely reasons his films generally got short shrift. One virtually can't afford to blink when watching many of To's films.

Drug War got a totally perfunctory brush off by the Globe reviewer here in Boston (not Ty Burr -- who I suspect would have provided a far more intelligent review).

My first three To films were Running on Karma, Thrown Down and Breaking News. I fell in love with Running on Karma and Throw Down on first viewing, but Breaking News just didn't click (except for its opening). However, thanks to the beginning, it got watched again -- and I began to realize just how much humor (of various sorts) this had. (I actually think Running on Karma has a fair amount of sub-surface subtlety, which is masked by the obvious surface unsubtlety). ;~}

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#7 Post by YnEoS » Fri Oct 25, 2013 10:36 am

Was it just me or did anyone else seem to miss the motivation for the ending of Drug War?
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I thought I was with the film the whole way, but then at the end I must have missed something because I was completely oblivious to why he decided to round everyone up for a big shootout.

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#8 Post by whaleallright » Fri Oct 25, 2013 3:17 pm

Michael, I wouldn't say his films get "short shrift"--in Europe and the USA, he's probably the most visible HK director after Wong, and lately he is routinely feted in cinephile websites and magazines. It's true that this general recognition has been belated, as it almost always is with Asian popular cinema. And his films get exhibited about as much as you might hope in these days of declining art-house fortunes. But at least from my vantage he's a (justly) celebrated figure in world cinema.

Re. Drug War:
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I just figured that he was biding his time until there was a semi-opportune moment to betray the cops. I'm not sure why he chose exactly that moment, but perhaps it was a now-or-never sort of thing, figuring that he now had his comrades-in-arms by his side to help him out. Of course, this being a To/Wai film, I probably missed some earlier bit of exposition that helped to motivate his decision.

One of the more interesting character points in the film is that the Hong Kong-based gangster forever assumes that by helping the cops in some way--fingering another gangster, providing the location of a dropoff--he will be able to save his life. The film hints that while this may have been true in HK, the PRC is significantly less lenient, and that he should have recognized his one "out" while he still had it. As in a lot of HK/PRC co-productions, you can read this one or both of two ways. The PRC's justice system is more efficient and effective, or/and it's brutal and remorseless. The final scene is extremely discomfiting, not just because it makes laugh at a guy facing his immediate execution; the character's weaseliness (sp?) almost makes his execution gratifying.
I'm wondering what people make of Expect the Unexpected. It's another one that, as Michael Kerpan suggests, might take two viewings to appreciate. It's impossible to discuss this one w/o mega-spoilers, so be warned:
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I think it's easy to read this film simply as: a routine detective thriller that, somewhat contrary to standard genre cliches, ends in a holocaust for all the characters we have been prodded to care about. Which, the first time through, felt a little like a cheap gimmick. But subsequent viewings suggest that the film's construction is a little more subtle than that. The film devotes an unusual amount of time to the gentle flirtations between the two detectives/brothers and the waitress, and there is a further, equally inchoate, romantic subplot between two of the unit's younger members. These eventually overwhelm what we had figured was the main plot, the unit's attempt to catch two at-large criminal gangs. Having spent so much time on the personal interactions among the cops, we expect a payoff, but the concluding bloodbath leaves these threads--and pretty much all others--unresolved. Adding to the subversion of expectations, the gun battle is initiated, not by the ruthless and expert gang that had set off most of the violence in the film (and who are all dead at this point IIRC), but by the two on-the-loose members of the bumbling gang that had basically provided comic relief up to that point.

Of course, this is all in line with the film's title, and you can even understand the film as a kind of meta-commentary on genre-based audience expectations and how they shape our experience of narrative. Even when told to "expect the unexpected," there really isn't much we can do but be surprised and shocked by the ending. That said, part of me still wonders if this isn't still all a bit cheap. Most of To's films can be described as "genre exercises" in a sense, but Expect the Unexpected feels particularly blunt.
What do others (who have seen this film) think? Michael Kerpan?

Feel free to move this to a thread devoted to Johnnie To, if there is one (and if there isn't, perhaps we should start one).

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#9 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sat Oct 26, 2013 6:02 pm

Just out of Mass General (3rd time this year). Actually Expect the Unexpected is one of those currently unavailable films I'm still waiting to see.

I agree Johnnie To needs his own thread.

I intepreted the doublecross in DW as being due to the character's inability to sell out his relatives when it actually came down to it.

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#10 Post by feihong » Sun Oct 27, 2013 4:39 am

In regards to the Drug War double-cross:
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Earlier in the film's third act, when the HK gang first appears, we get a rare look at Timmy Choi when no one else is watching him. He looks at the faces of the gang members, then turns back with a rueful grimace, and sinks in his seat. On his blog David Bordwell points this shot out as a rare one, and surmises that the reason we see Timmy by himself at that point (and really at no other point, once the film gets underway), is because this is the moment when Timmy realizes he can't depend on anyone to help him. He sizes up the gang members, and he realizes that they haven't figured out the cops' ruse; they're not there to rescue him, but rather, they are there to decide whether to do the drug deal. This puts Timmy in a very desperate position. He doesn't stand too much of a chance with the cops (we see how unforgiving and unsympathetic they are in the initial sequences with the smugglers), and he won't be able to explain to the gang how he led the cops right to them (we see how quickly and efficiently they get rid of Bill Li and his nephew when they prove compromising), and so at that point Timmy realizes that he'll have to set the two groups against one another and hope to escape in a hail of bullets.

Pointedly, Timmy betrays both groups; the cops and the gang. He does this by running over the cops first, and then drawing the gang out into the open by getting them to run for the bus he's driving and then leaving them stranded in the road. He sets the two groups against one another at that precise point because he has both groups committed; it's the only time he can reveal his secret to the gang members--because the cops aren't able to hear--and instigate the fight without becoming the central target for both sides. At the point of the reveal, the gang will have bigger worries than killing Timmy, and if the gang starts shooting, the cops will have bigger worries than capturing Timmy, as well.

I think To is making a very particular point about the PRC criminal code here, and I think it comes from watching Timmy Choi wreak havoc like this. We're watching someone driven mad by the need to escape his own execution. Would he be so violent, so manipulative, if he wasn't facing the death penalty? Would the aging, bourgeois HK gangsters open fire in front of a public school if they weren't facing the death penalty? The film is hardly interested in how the drug distribution system works, or what the drugs do to addicts, or who in the PRC government is obviously benefitting from allowing these drugs to get into the country in the first place, but the movie is entirely preoccupied with the destruction these drug dealers cause when faced with a death sentence. It's interesting that the PRC approved the film; especially the execution scene--though according to To the censors were only too happy to have the execution scene in the film. I guess the party line is to be satisfied with the criminals getting their just deserts, but I hardly think people approving the film couldn't see the picture's implicit suggestion that the law was far too harsh to be an effective deterrent.
As for Expect the Unexpected, I have a lot to process about that movie:

When the first Milkyway movies were coming out, the HK film world was a considerably different place, and so the narrative involvement of The Odd One Dies, The Longest Nite, Too Many Ways to Be No.1 and Expect the Unexpected seemed very unprecedented. The twisty narrative complications of these movies felt written and plotted and purposeful, and it was very refreshing--especially since the HK film industry was busy falling on its face circa 1996. When you consider that narrative complexity in HK films of the "new wave" era meant either Tsui Hark's narrative supercompression, the done-in-an-hour undercover cops and smugglers intrigue of Hard Boiled, or the morally-complicated yet rooted-in-genre Ringo Lam pictures, the Milkyway movies were something entirely different. The Milkyway films twisted and tangled in narrative contortions that were distinctly literary--principally metaficitonal--in origin. Traps and turns in the narrative were set up far in advance, and nowadays, with so many subsequent Milkyway pictures to draw upon, these narrative contortions might be more recognizable as the kind of existential game-playing that obsesses To, and which he has been able to insert into his films in more dynamically visual and effective ways later on.

All this is leading up to me saying that I like Expect the Unexpected for what it was at the time, but that it is the Milkyway film I rewatch probably the least of all--though Where a Good Man Goes is one I tend to avoid re-seeing as well. I adore Ruby Wong both films, and I enjoy the subtle ensemble-work in Expect the Unexpected, with Simon Yam and Lau Ching-wan coming across as especially appealing.

But I do see the twists--and there are many genre subversions that fill the picture--to be very heavy-handed. My problem is that initially in these movies, the twist is the dominant revelation which the film is building to for its entire running time. The Longest Nite is filled with extra detail of place, of shocking violence, of visual flashiness, so that dominant twist is far more hidden behind layers of distraction. The Odd One Dies has a genuinely unexpected twist ending, to my jaded mind. Too Many Ways to Be No.1 is filled with twists and turns that are genuinely unexpected and which in certain places defy description, and the case could be made that the demonstrative, unexpected twist is best served by that rather extreme comedy. But Expect the Unexpected basically calls you out to be looking for the twists and turns throughout, and while they are rendered pretty well, the whole film sags under the weight of that demand it places on the audience. It's asking you to keep looking for the twists and turns, the unexpected narrative divergence from genre practice.

I think the Milkyway movies improve markedly when To and Wai begin to decide that their somewhat perverse upturning of the conventions of genre shouldn't be the centerpiece of their movies, but should instead become more integrated into the larger context of the picture. I think the shift begins with The Mission.

The Mission has a twist near the end that works a little like the twists in The Longest Nite and Expect the Unexpected, but the effect of the twist is rather different; while the twists in the earlier movies are the lynch-pin of a thorny, complicated plot--
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That Sam in The Longest Nite has been set up to be the assassin from the beginning, that the incompetent robbers from the beginning of Expect the Unexpected could turn out to be the cops surprise date with destiny
--the twist in The Mission,
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that Shin has slept with the boss's wife while he was chauffeuring her around
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works more as an element of a larger narrative. It causes us to re-contextualize the film's romantic view of the group, and re-evaluate what their dedication to their job could mean. The twist in The Mission is the first one that is entirely plausible, and the first which serves as an organically-occurring plot point rather than an intensely visible manifestation of the author's hand in the proceedings.

From The Mission onward the Milkyway films develop far more charisma. Immediately they are more loose and supple with their narrative maneuvers, and freer in their atmosphere. Style becomes more a matter of experimentation and growing confidence.

That said, I haven't seen Expect the Unexpected theatrically. I have seen The Longest Nite, and the film gains appreciably from being seen in a format where you can really see the extreme depth-of-field in the shooting. The picture is visually more assured and demonstrative on the big screen than it is on DVD. Expect the Unexpected might be more involving seeing it as it was meant to be seen, but I recall it as the most distancing and remote of the Milkyway pictures (Running Out of Time also looks very flat to me on DVD, and I think seeing it on blu-ray will probably improve my opinion of the film). The Mission gains from seeing it on the big screen, mostly because DVD editions of the film are so bad. The French edition comes closer than the others, but it doesn't really reproduce the theatrical experience too well at all.

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#11 Post by whaleallright » Sun Oct 27, 2013 9:42 am

That was a great post, thank you. Your interpretation of Timmy's betrayal of the cops in Drug War sounds right, though I think that it might be a stretch to attribute the other gangsters' decision to hold a last stand to their fear of the PRC's death penalty. The codes of behavior depicted in triad films is very seldom what you'd call psychologically realistic, and anyway we've seen such desperate acts before in a strictly HK context.

I'm wondering what you see as the narrative twists and turns prior to the conclusion of Expected the Unexpected. The plot seemed fairly straightforward (for To/Wai) to that point, with the exception of the general shift in focus to the interpersonal dynamics of the cops and away from the cat-and-mouse games with the criminal gangs.

I take your point about the narrative gambits and feints in these 1990s films seeming less "digested," for the lack of a better word, than in the later stuff. That's definitely why Expect the Unexpected for all its audacity seems a little hollow to me. But then again, bluntness has its place (see Psycho), and other films of that era give me as much pleasure as anything To and Wai have put together recently.

Re. DVDs/prints my understanding is that the rights issues with many of these late 1990s Milkyway films are "complex," which in this case is a euphemism for "nobody knows who owns them." (I know one programmer who wanted to show some of them and couldn't find anyone to pay!) As a result, there haven't been updates to the 10-years-old DVDs, and the films very seldom screen theatrically. I've managed to see a few that way, but mostly I've watched probably the same so-so DVD copies you have. The Mission and The Longest Nite are, very literally, so dark that home video cannot do them justice. The mostly sunlit Expect the Unexpected fares better, but the DVD image is still kind of washed out. Some enterprising video label with deep pockets (ahem) should throw some money at the problem, untangle the rights issues, and release these on quality Blu-Rays. I suspect the folks at Milkyway are too busy making awesome movies to spend a lot of time on this themselves.

Also: a mod should really break off these last several posts and use them to start a Johnnie To thread in the "Filmmakers" section. :-$

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#12 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Oct 27, 2013 12:42 pm

Really great posts above!

I would say that the Blu-Ray of Running Out of time is a vast improvement over the prior DVD version.

I only watched Where a Good Man Goes once, but I recall generally liking it...

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#13 Post by feihong » Tue Oct 29, 2013 6:30 am

One of the surprising things about seeing Johnnie To movies in a theater (something that is preserved on some of the current blu-rays...PTU, the U.S. Drug War disc, Throwdown, Blind Detective, the British blus of Mad Detective and Vengeance, the HK blus of Exiled and Sparrow) is the enormous depth of field To and his cinematographer work with. The Longest Nite was a revelation in that sense, because the HK DVD of the film is veeeeery flat. To's work with depth and staging is pretty much second-to-none, and he's one of the few filmmakers for whom depth of field delineates filmic themes and concepts really clearly. In The Longest Nite, I was surprised especially at the scene where the triad bouncers corner Tony (the Lau Ching-Wan character) in the nightclub elevator. Tony seems to have a gun in his jacket, and he dares the bouncers to come into the elevator and find out whether his gun is real or not. The scene is shot with protracted depth of field. We see Tony staring out at the gangsters, and the doors of the elevator shoot out in front of him, like a hollow into a cavern. Tony points his--perhaps it's a pistol--at the bouncers, and each pointed element looms towards us, pregnant with violent possibility. Shown flat, on DVD, the scene plays as a minor scene. With the depth available on the big screen, the scene seems pivotal.
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We know later that Tony is only pointing his finger at the bouncers, but the idea that his pointing of his finger might have the same effect as a more traditional mobster pointing a gun becomes a point of some emphasis in the movie.
The French dvd of The Mission really clears up the picture, but it doesn't have the luminous, mellow color of the theatrical version I have seen. The disc looks very gritty, and the film, when I saw it, had more of the elegance that Cheng Siu-Keung always brings to the Milkyway pictures.

Everyone in the Milkyway stable is interesting (it's especially funny to see assistant director Law Wing-Cheong in his occasional acting roles) in their own right, but if there is a silent key collaborator within the group it has to be Cheng Siu-Keung. I guess he wins tons of film awards in Hong Kong, so he is recognized, in a sense, but the understated Ophulsian elegance of the Milkyway movies begins with him; his deep shadow, his subtle yet intense color, and the gorgeous, drifting camera moves. It's strange to me that this doesn't get mentioned much (in Hong Kong this seems to be a mark against the pictures for some critics, in fact; I've read writers who can't stand how composed the Milkyway pictures look), because the neo-noir look of the films is one of the key things that make these pictures so exciting.

I don't think I'm stretching the gangsters motivations in Drug War, though:
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Why do they stay so expertly hidden otherwise? We don't even know they exist until the film's third act. The minute their identities are exposed, they kill the guys who forced them to out themselves. And I think the film has been emphasizing throughout, in all the different criminals responses to the cops, that the threat of capture provokes in them a furious, militant response. Only Timmy ever surrenders--he is smarter than any of them, really, and willing to rely on very long odds. The smuggler in the beginning and Haha later on are restrained, but furiously spouting death-threats (of some importance, I think, is the fact that the police offer death threats --more assurances than threats, really--right back at them in the first instance, which inspires a desperate frustration which the smuggler is ultimately unable to communicate). Then we have the mute brothers, who wear bulletproof vests at all times, and who retaliate against invasion with military precision and hardware (in the theater their guns roar far louder than anyone else's--I think the film kind of obliquely implies that the brothers have military training and are, in a sense, the product of the countries own army system, though this isn't overtly spelled out). When the gang discovers they're surrounded, they immediately go for their guns. Lo Hoi Pang objects a bit to fighting, but joins in once the guns start going off, and there really isn't any alternative plan floated by the gangsters. They don't intend to be taken alive at all, and when they are left without hope--abandoned by Timmy--they seem to accept their destiny without terrible qualms. I think there's no question in To's mind that this conventional heroic bloodshed showdown is a far more gallant and romantic way to die than by lethal injection.
So I think the film is full of hints that the criminals feel as if they have no choice but to fight fire with fire. They are always facing the death penalty, and so they always have to be ready to deal in death immediately if things aren't going their way.


The other narrative twists I see in Expect the Unexpected begin rather early,
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when supposedly-rough-hewn criminal Lam Suet agrees to spill his guts in exchange for a cafeteria meal. Not for him the "brotherhood of silence" that visits criminals of the John Woo era. The idea that that friendly gesture can overcome the boundary of cop and crook is maybe the first minor twist the film offers. Then, as I recall, there is the very complex twisting of which officer likes which person, who is the superior officer vs. who is one that has a real handle on things...there are a lot of little surprises in store. I remember that there's a surprise after they are all injured fighting the really tough mainland robbers, and we learn that Ruby--who seems amorously devoted to the commander--ends up at the bedside of the squad's young rookie instead. We mistook her devotion to the chain of command for devotion to the commander personally. And then there's Lau Ching-Wan, the matchmaker who accidentally makes his own match. While speaking for another man he ends up unwittingly speaking for himself.

I think of all of those things as genre surprises, building in size and scope until they rediscover the mainland gang and take them all without injury--the biggest surprise of the film to me is that the tough mainland gang ends up going down without a fight. I have to say, that once that happened, and the cops all seemed so happy, I felt that the ending twist was basically given away. They weren't about to let them just ride off into the sunset. Though each valiant cop's successive failure to triumph in the ending battle against the hayseed robbery crew is individually surprising and disappointing. It's just not quite the shock of Il Grande Silencio for me.
The Milkyway film that I think is a really forgotten gem in the early ones is The Odd One Dies. That one doesn't show up almost at all in Stephen Teo's book, or in the UK monograph on PTU. Teo does a great job in his book setting the record straight on To's contribution to those early "Patrick Yau" Milkyway pictures (Teo essentially establishes that To is unequivocally the director of those pictures, and that he essentially took over direction of the later Eye in the Sky, which was actually touted at the time as Yau's "directorial debut"), but if that's the case, then To also directed The Odd One Dies as well. I think that the loopiness of that initial movie (although I think Beyond Hypothermia is the first film on which the Milkyway logo appears?) But it feels much more like a late heroic bloodshed production than a movie steeped in the Milkyway aesthetic) seemed to be supplanted by seriousness in the next few movies, but starting maybe with PTU the wacky Milkyway sense of humor got added back into the mix. I think it's for the better. These films work best when there are things to laugh at as well as cringe in suspense.

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#14 Post by The Fanciful Norwegian » Wed Oct 30, 2013 12:06 am

I don't have the PTU book, but The Odd One Dies gets seven pages to itself in Director in Action, which isn't exactly chicken feed given the amount of ground Teo is attempting to cover. (For comparison, The Mission gets ten pages, PTU gets six, and Expect the Unexpected gets five.) It also gets an additional page of discussion in the lengthy interview section, where Teo asks To point-blank if he ghost-directed the film and gets an affirmative response—though Teo notes earlier that Patrick Yau claimed he was more "involved" with it than any of his other Milkyway projects. As for Eye in the Sky, it isn't mentioned at all in either the main text or the filmography, presumably because the book went to press too early (it was published the same year the movie came out). Wherever it came from, that story sounds plausible enough, both from previous precedent and Yau Nai-hoi's own comments. He openly said that To "overstepped" his producer role and even called To "the real soul of the movie," but he doesn't seem to been put out by it, and still works as a co-writer on all of To's movies. Personally it struck me as closer to a "Milkyway house style" than a Johnnie To film specifically.

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#15 Post by Cold Bishop » Wed Oct 30, 2013 12:45 am

I'm curious, having never read the book: Is The Big Heat touched on at all? I've always been curious about the history of that, as , despite two official directorial credits, it seems at least half a dozen people were behind the camera at different points, and in final estimate, Tsui Hark really feels like the chief auteur.

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Re: Hong Kong Cinema

#16 Post by The Fanciful Norwegian » Wed Oct 30, 2013 1:28 am

The Big Heat is actually the first film to get a dedicated section, where Teo analyzes it as To's "apprenticeship" in Hong Kong action genre and locates some of his favored themes and techniques in embryonic form. The subsequent interview has To disowning the film's gore (which he attributes to Tsui) and explaining that he was the second director brought on board (I assume Andrew Kam was the first, but To doesn't specify), after which Tsui and Ching Siu-tung came in to finish it. Here's his first words on it:
That was a very difficult project. There was another director before I was called in. He couldn't satisfy Tsui Hark's demands and so I was called in. That director had a difficult time communicating with Tsui Hark and in fact that happened in my case as well. Tsui's problem was...well, he was a very good producer with a huge capacity, and that was the problem. You shoot something according to his wishes but then you find out that it isn't what he wanted. You can never grasp his line of thought. It turned out that when I was doing stuff according to his wishes, he would turn around and say, why don't you have more of your own stuff. So the film is very uneven to say the least.

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Re: Johnnie To

#17 Post by feihong » Wed Oct 30, 2013 6:08 pm

The PTU book is pretty poor in general. Almost half of it is dedicated to a scene-by-scene synopsis of the film, which itself sports a couple of glaring inaccuracies in terms of the plot. The author does go to some length to point out where the Teo book falls short (the author's basic premise is that the Teo limits his approach by seeing To primarily as a genre filmmaker in the action context, and thus fails to account for To's more artistic leanings), but the author doesn't provide too much of the in-depth analysis of PTU to offer in place of Teo's larger attempt.

I had forgotten that the Teo book spent so much time on The Odd One Dies. I do often read people talking about the Milkyway series as beginning with The Longest Nite, so that's what I meant by it being in general sort of forgotten. Though I think all of the pre-Election Milkyway movies seem to languish in a bit of obscurity.

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Re: Johnnie To

#18 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Oct 30, 2013 7:22 pm

Teo's book is quite good on the very specific goal he sets himself -- but he really IS only interested in To as an "action" film maker and is quite dismissive of To's use of (or mixing in of) elements of other genres (as well as "art films").

How much of an upgrade is the PTU BR over the PTU DVD?

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Re: Johnnie To

#19 Post by feihong » Thu Oct 31, 2013 4:12 am

The upgrade is huge, I think. It helps that the blu-ray is one of the best ever made in Hong Kong. It came out before the the big push in that country for excessive DNR. So the disc has great visible grain, very sharp, crisp lines and shadows, tons of detail, an uncompressed audio track (if memory serves me right), and--most important, as far as I go with this--huge depth of field which the DVDs of the film out there just do not have. The color is more intense, and the image more stable.

Blu-ray.com has a host of screengrabs from the Mei Ah blu-ray. If you can get the disc, it's definitely worth it.

I think the upgrade is compounded by the fact that PTU is a film in which the contrast and shadow detail of the image is very precise; we're meant to be looking into the shadows for threat and doubt, so the sensitivity of the visual detail really lends a lot to the drama.

You're very right about Teo's success in the book; I just wish some of the more philosophical and narrative-structural concerns of the Milkyway movies had been addressed in the book in some detail. I know To is shy about discussing those aspects of the films, but I think they bear investigation. I don't know. Would Teo have done a book called "Jean-Pierre Melville: Director in Action?" Would he have focused so exclusively on the action in the Melville crime films? To definitely plays up the commercial aspects of his films--the action especially--more than Melville might have, but I don't think one could claim that action is all that's on his mind.

I did very much like the attention Teo paid to the games and game-playing that is such an increasingly vivid theme in the Milkyway pictures. I like the way Teo identifies the filmmaking games To sets for himself, and I wish he had linked it a little more to the thematic content of the films; the way gamesmanship is such a recurrent element in the ideas behind the Milkyway pictures as well as part of the filmmaking technique.

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Re: Johnnie To

#20 Post by FerdinandGriffon » Tue Jan 28, 2014 10:27 pm

Has anyone seen 2004's Yesterday Once More? I just watched the DVD and am a bit confounded by the abrupt ending...
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What was the point of Mr. Do's elaborate drawing out of the necklace search? Maybe just because I found Mrs. Do's obsessive greed unattractive, I assumed that Mr. Do was trying to teach her some kind of lesson, but the final sequence (the missus' carefree driving intercut with mister's sparsely attended and distant funeral, all set to bright pop music) seems to point to the game being simply an elaborate romantic gesture. And that rings a bit hollow for me.

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Re: Johnnie To

#21 Post by YingJanshi » Sun Sep 21, 2014 1:39 am

Hello, know this is a bit of a thread necro, but just have to chime in. (Hey, first post is about my fav director!)
So I've seen a lot of Johnnie To's movies (at least what's been released here in the US):

The Heroic Trio (I...try to forget about this one honestly...),
The Mission (an excellent movie, one of his best),
Fulltime Killer (a good but standard action yarn),
PTU (I love this one, barely any plot, but the actors make it so worthwhile),
Running on Karma (which I thought was good, but a too cartoonish to call really good),
Throwdown (which is amazing, I love it, the fight at the end and the balloon scene are two of To's best),
Breaking News (Enjoyable but...),
Yesterday Once More (I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it, makes me interested to see his other RomComs (a genre I usually find absurd)),
Election 1 & 2 (for having surprisingly little gore or even blood, Election 2 is one of the most violent movies I've ever seen),
Exiled (probably my favorite of his action movies, I think the brotherhood theme is portrayed better in this movie than even in The Mission),
Triangle (just a really good collaboration movie, it's very cool to see how the movie changes under each director),
Sparrow (okay, I have to come clean, this is my absolute all-time favorite To movie. I've watched it I don't know how many times, and it just doesn't get old. I even have the soundtrack on my phone to listen to at work. Just everything about this movie enchants me. And the fact that it took THREE years to film amazes me. Okay, I'll stop, otherwise I'll never stop gushing about this movie),
Vengeance (was...I liked it and yet...I don't know, it didn't stick with me like the others did),
Life Without Principle (okay, I know I've seen it...but I just don't remember it...),
and the final one I've seen was Drug War (and it was good...for most of it: I really enjoyed Sun Honglei's Captain Zhang Lei. Seemed like a hard but cool and quirky cop. And most of the early gun fights show To's style (which I believe is much cooler than John Woo's by the way), but the end shoot out...I'm sorry, did To not direct that? Because it felt completely amateurish to me. As if it was the rehearsal and not the main shoot. As if none of the actors knew what to do. So that end fight really ruined it for me (it might also have something to do with the two female cops getting killed (yes, I know it's in the line of duty, but it still felt gratuitous and I have a problem with seeing women killed). So, was a decent movie...but not to be compared to his best.)

I've always enjoyed his style ever since I first discovered him. The way he can do so much with so little, a look between characters, the feel of the camerawork (I don't know how to put it better...), his understatedness. I feel like he's a bit of a romantic (in the original sense), and it shows. I think it's been mentioned that one of his influences is Jean-Pierre Melville (another of my favorite directors) and I think it shows.
Besides his impressive and distinctive style, one thing I've always enjoyed is his "crew" of actors. Simon Yam, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong, Luis Koo and my favorite: Lam Suet considering how late he came to acting...his ability as a character actor is amazing.

Sorry...I'll stop my wall-o'-text now. Just haven't met any others that really enjoyed his movies. So it's good to be able to talk about him...
Hm, it's 00:35 here...and now I feel like watching one of his movies, but which? Exiled, Throwdown or Sparrow??? Decisions, decisions, decisions...

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Re: Johnnie To

#22 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Sep 21, 2014 5:38 pm

Running on Karma initially has a cartoonish aspect, but I think it transcends that.

Breaking News gets better and better with each revisitation.

I think I've seen at least 45 To films, and Exiled is still my favorite -- but there are surprisingly few that I _don't_ like.

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Re: Johnnie To

#23 Post by masterofoneinchpunch » Wed Sep 24, 2014 1:53 pm

I have seen somewhere in the low 40s of Johnnie To films. He too is my favorite living director. By far my least favorite of his is Lucky Encounter and I'm not a big fan of Executioners either. I too am a big fanatic of Sparrow which was my favorite film of 2008. I had put a review/essay of it in the Sparrow thead.

Here is a review of Drug War which I originally posted on Kung Fu Cinema:

“Without coincidences, there would be no stories.” – Nick Cheung in Breaking News

I think it behooves anyone working on a best of 2013 list to make sure you have seen this one. Johnnie To is one of my favorite current auteurs and I generally like anything from his coproduction company Milkyway. Do not be surprised if this is going to be on my top 10 2013 list of film -- which I will eventually make around the middle of this year since I am behind as usual with newer movies. I had some trepidation going into this because of the Mainland censor rules, but I noticed a lot of positive reviews as well that this made several film critics top 10 lists.

In the prologue you see Hong Kong citizen Timmy Choi Tin-ming (Louis Koo: Throw Down) driving his car erratically throwing up with burns on his face while the Orwellian omnipresent cameras film his movements. What you do not know at this point is he is fleeing a meth lab explosion which killed his wife and her brothers. This takes place in Jinhai (I believe this is Jinghai a municipality of Tianjin) as well as in the Heping District. Meanwhile two simultaneous events are happening: there is an undercover sting led by the Stetson wearing Captain Zhang Lei (the Stetson reminds me of both Jean-Pierre Melville and Lau Ching-wan in A Hero Never Dies) and two out-of-area cops (fromYuejiang) are following a suspected meth truck of Bill Li’s.

After being captured by the police, Timmy is able to talk into “redeeming” himself if he turns informer. He will do anything to avoid the death penalty for his meth manufacturing. He tells of an upcoming meeting between manufacturer front Li Shuchang and ebullient distributer HaHa. This leads to a fascinating set of scenes where Zhang inserts himself as a fake proxy pretending to be both HaHa and Li Shuchang to gain trust from both sides. But what starts off as a police procedural ends up a mental battle of wills between Zhang and Timmy. While Timmy is corroborating, he of course, has other plans. But how far he will go and what he will do helps make this a fascinating film. Johnnie To fans will also be wondering when Lam Suet will show up.

In the end you get the feeling that one cannot escape the reach of the Mainland law with their vast resources of money and people. But you also get the feeling that no one is going to stop trying either. This is a starkly bleak film not just in theme but in the cinematography from longtime collaborators Cheung Siu-keung and To Hung-mo as well. Johnnie To has partially attributed this to him working more about content passing the censors and less time on visual style.

The end shoot-out that resembles Expect the Unexpected has been much heralded and rightly so. It is sometimes discombobulating in a way that sometimes you forget the dichotomy between who is bad and who is good. But there was an earlier shoot out with the Mute brothers that was so fantastic that I had to re-watch a few times after finishing the film. It also literally reminds me of the title Expect the Unexpected where I did not expect them to be that effective as they are calm and focused like the emotionless hit-man in The Boondock Saints. Since it is mainly from their perspective it also puts you in their mind-set and makes the government the aggressors and trespassers. In this film he tends to foster the humanity of the antagonists more than the police. Film professor David Bordwell makes a salient point in his essay on the film (link below): “Yet the result humanizes the crooks more than the cops. Timmy mourns his family; we don’t know if Captain Zhang has one.”

I do think if he was to make this in Hong Kong and not under the SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) rules there would have been a few differences in script as well as tone. There would have been more ambiguity, especially with the cop character. There might have been more bloody violence. I would have expected a more open ending. In a way it reminds me of film noir movies under the Hays Code. You knew that while watching the film certain facts were going to be evident. You know the “bad guys” are not going to get away (and they are from Hong Kong which probably helped sell this to the censors.) You know the cops are going to be portrayed as good with little to no ambiguity which it makes it difficult to do one of To’s favorite themes -- The psychological Doppleganger. These reasons are why I would not rank this up with my favorite To films like Election, Sparrow or Throw Down. Regardless, this is an excellent film and To has a way with being provocative and pushing ideas past the censors. But like with films under the Hays Code and with past Chinese films that have broached taboo topics with allegory (early Zhang Yimou) it is all in how you present the material.

You have to pay attention in a Johnnie To film. He often just presents salient information once so if you missed something that can create a misunderstanding later. Sometimes you are not given all you need to know right away and important plot aspects are revealed later. It makes his oeuvre a little more difficult than many directors but often a lot more rewarding especially with subsequent viewings. This film is no exception and is highly recommended and is one of my favorite of 2013.

DVD Notes: I saw this on the R1 Well Go release. On insert of disc: Well Go advertisement, trailers Ip Man: The Final Fight, The Guillotines, New World (those later three are also under Trailers). There is one Trailer (2.02m), but unfortunately no extras. Removable English subtitles and two audio tracks (Mandarin 5.1 Dolby Digital and Mandarin 2.0 Stereo.)

Sources:
Mixing business with pleasure: Johnnie To’s DRUG WAR (July 8, 2013) by David Bordwell: Great analysis from David here. I disagree with Grady Hendrix’s statement “They will save themselves and leave their wives to die…” in dealing with the criminals in two parts: Timmy’s wife might already have been dead and second later on in the last firefight the Gordon Lam character picks up his dead (or dying) wife and is certainly not leaving her behind. There is a comradeship between the head triad, all except for Timmy.
The Badass Interview: Johnnie To (July 19, 2013): Most interesting points here are that the guns jammed quite a bit while filming and that To (like John Woo) would like to do a musical.
Mr. Beaks Talks DRUG WAR With Johnnie To! (July 23, 2013): It’s funny the interviewer mentions Angels with Dirty Faces because I thought that as well. The two reasons I did not put it in my review was because To said he had not seen it and one important aspect of that older film is that Cagney is actually pretending and not serious like Timmy is.
Simon Abrams review (July 26, 2013): I agree with him that the color palette here more approaches a Jean-Pierre Melville film. He mentions Un Flic though several of Melville’s color films have this bleak look.
Kung Fu Cinema thread
Tianjin Google Maps
Director in Action Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film (2007) by Stephen Teo

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Michael Kerpan
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Re: Johnnie To

#24 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Sep 24, 2014 3:59 pm

> You have to pay attention in a Johnnie To film. He often just presents salient information once
> so if you missed something that can create a misunderstanding later

Absolutely. This is one of the reasons I like his work so much -- and yet also probably one of the biggest reasons he has yet to really crack the US market.

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Re: Johnnie To

#25 Post by masterofoneinchpunch » Wed Sep 24, 2014 5:20 pm

Michael Kerpan wrote:> You have to pay attention in a Johnnie To film. He often just presents salient information once
> so if you missed something that can create a misunderstanding later

Absolutely. This is one of the reasons I like his work so much -- and yet also probably one of the biggest reasons he has yet to really crack the US market.
Anecdotal US story: I lend out a lot of films. I have lent several of To's films and generally they are received in a lukewarm manner with a variety of complaints with the misunderstanding as a top issue. I have had some success with Exiled though. Still scary enough The Raid (and its sequel) have had the greatest reaction among my recent Asian lends (though because of the violence I have not lent this to some of my older friends/family members.)

With To films I like to ponder on them (and generally the Milkyway output) before I come to any knee-jerk reaction, especially for a reviewing. Occasionally there is a film like Wu Yen (2001) (co-dir Wai Ka-Fai) which I just cannot seem to like. But most often I end up raving about the movie to anyone who will listen or read my ramblings. For me when someone asks about To it isn't about what should be seen but more (since it is a shorter list) on what should not be seen.

Here is a thread I have dedicated on To on another site which I have quite a bit of writing on.

Echoing feihong, I am also a big fan of The Odd One Dies. Definitely in my top 5 Johnnie To (uncredited for this one though.) I hope this one does not "languish in a bit of obscurity." I would love to see a rerelease of this on DVD/BD and quite a bit of others like Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (1997: Wai Ka-fai: Hong Kong).

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