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Jake Cole

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Jake Cole is a film critic and OFCS member based in Birmingham, Alabama. When he’s not writing, he’s trying to move anywhere else.

Ranked: The Films of Johnnie To From Worst to Best

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Friday’s release of “Drug War,” the first Johnnie To film to receive non-festival U.S. distribution since the paltry belated release afforded to 2009’s “Vengeance,” should mark a more important event than any of the summer’s distended blockbusters. Ostensibly toned down to play well to mainland censors, ”Drug War” only confirms To’s status as one of the world’s greatest working filmmakers, if not the greatest of them all (read our recent interview with him here).

A To film made in the last 15 years is as easy to spot as it is hard to find (many of To’s films are extremely difficult to get ahold of, but we recommend YesAsia for tracking down rare titles). Low-angle shots cut diagonally through rooms, with wide-angle lenses slightly curving the edges of the frame as if to emphasize that each film takes place in a demented snow globe. Darting close-ups of gestures and objects provide the bulk of exposition, split-second clarifications given only once to an audience that must be paying attention. Movement, of camera and body, takes on a balletic property enhanced by the wide ‘Scope framings: the empty space between people is the dominant force of any image, and orientation of that distance can communicate anything from Triad hierarchy to romantic yearning.

The mystery of that space makes him one of the great chroniclers of post-handover Hong Kong. Compared to the crushing population density of the actual region, To’s Hong Kong is rarely crowded, instead defined by gulfs of emptiness that hold uncertain futures. Fate in To’s films is an unforgiving and capricious thing, subject to destroying women, children, and the director’s stable of recurring stars without warning.

The aesthetic and thematic consistency of To’s later career gives the impression of the director having an innate command of his setting, placement, movement and actors, but a more comprehensive look at the director’s filmography shows a long, slow process of artistic evolution, starting from his rise out of television with workman projects for Raymond Wong’s Cinema City production company through the founding of his own company, Milkyway Image. In many ways, seeing To within the context of his often-unimpressive early days is more rewarding than the more convenient narrative of a master emerging fully formed from nowhere, as it offers the chance to follow the process most artists take, from functional replication to emboldened, personal creations. As a bonus, the full context of To’s career provides a glimpse at the gradual construction of To’s Fordian stock company of on- and off-screen talent, a gathering of editors, DPs and actors who give To’s films their identifiable stamp as much as his own visual motifs.

The only downside to tracking down the wide range of topics To draws from his generic foundation is his sheer prolificacy. Following a long hiatus from theatrical filmmaking following the disappointing box office of his first film, To has since proved to be one of the most prolific filmmakers working, amassing more than 50 film credits from 1987 to the present, not counting the films he has produced and, depending on the film and which rumors you believe, ghost-directed. Even “Drug War” is not his latest; “Blind Detective” played at Cannes in May and is currently on the festival circuit. To has mentioned his desire to retire at 65, seven years from now, which means fans can look forward to at least 13 or 14 films even if he sticks to his plan.

But as overwhelming as To’s work can be, watching his movies proves an endlessly rewarding task, not to mention a routinely entertaining one. Of the 49 films listed below, nearly all are watchable. Be they action films, rom-coms or even works of sui generis invention, these films are among the most entertaining of the last 25 years, and more than one deserves the label of “masterpiece.”

(Notes: Due to the infrequent distribution of To’s films in the U.S. for availability reasons, international release dates are use. A copy of To’s 50th film, “The Royal Scoundrel” could not be found in time for this article and thus does not appear on the list. Please show us mercy for this grave omission.)

49. The Eighth Happiness (1988)

Even by the standards of the director’s early, gun-for-hire days, “The Eighth Happiness” is an unremarkable picture with no hint of any personality, to say nothing of a distinctive aesthetic voice. It’s boilerplate romantic comedy: three brothers in various stages of relationships (one yearning, one monogamous, one philandering) chase three women, and the outcome may as well be etched in fate for how predictable it is. (Only in an epilogue is a curveball thrown.) The actors give serviceably broad performances, with only Chow Yun-fat’s effete thespian put-ons standing out. The film’s success gave To a much-needed career boost, but that is its only enduring legacy.

48. Justice, My Foot! (1992)

To’s first collaboration with Stephen Chow is an intermittently entertaining but scattershot action/comedy/courtroom drama that never finds an internal logic to obey. The director’s later mastery of genre fluidity is wholly absent here as the film careens between slapstick, verbally dexterous legal debates and even wire-fu martial arts with reckless abandon. Chow’s antics grate more often than they score, and the karmic worry over his unborn baby’s health (and gender) lends such a depressive air to the whole thing that one eventually looks to its status as a comedy to know things turn out OK in the end.

47. Executioners (1993)

The sequel to “The Heroic Trio,” one of To’s first artistic successes, ranks among his worst works. The elements that made the first work—an uneasy balance of goofy wire-fu, audience-baiting sucker punches and idealistic heroism—are transformed by a post-apocalyptic setting into a cynical bore. Longer, more fluid takes should anticipate the To to come, but instead they only reveal the shortcomings of the material, studying wire-fu techniques that pack much less of a punch than those of its predecessor. One of To’s few truly unenjoyable features.

46. Lucky Encounter (1992)

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As with “Justice, My Foot!,” “Lucky Encounter” is a frothy comedy with a dark edge: in this case, a sleazy investor (an unrecognizably hammy Anthony Wong) cannot take over his sister’s house until he can evict the ghost haunting it. The ghost in question is that of the man’s nephew, whom he murdered. In-between Tony Leung and the rest of the cast’s slapstick and mugging, the dead child must rush to get revenge before his window for reincarnation closes, and also before his presence among his mortal support causes them to lose their lives. Sweet dreams.

45. The Seven Years Itch (1987)

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The earliest stages of To’s directorial career provide more of an insight into the kind of films popular with Hong Kong audiences in the late ’80s and early ’90s than any glimpse of the director’s own prodigious skill. A solid box-office hit, “The Seven Years Itch” bears this out, its plot of a man’s deliberate quest to have an affair proving surprisingly toothless, as if his genuine desire for infidelity were the usual Big Misunderstanding. Only a few mildly amusing gags, like a forced perspective shot of containers that look like a woman’s bottom, or Raymond Wong putting anything he can in between his girlfriend and his paramour, liven the film for a few seconds.

44. Linger (2008)

Once again, straight drama proves too limiting for To. The material—a woman visited by the spirit of her dead lover—plays like a more explicit, less poetic variation of his earlier comedy “My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.” To and cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung make great use of night, with gulfs of dark space between the conversant living and dead. That emptiness defines the film in other ways, however, with thinly defined characters disappearing before they can resonate and themes that come secondary to plot mechanics. A rare late-career miss for To.

43. The Story of My Son (1990)

Like “All About Ah-Long,” “The Story of My Son” marks a foray into pure drama for the director, stewing in pointless misery as a single father attempts to care for his child, or, in this case, children. But where the bond in Chow Yun-fat’s star vehicle was a kind, loving dad, the one here is a spiteful wreck, deep in debt to violent loan sharks and taking it out on his boys. The sadness is hyperbolic to the point of farce, from incessantly crying kids to a grisly climax so graphic and prolonged it cannot help but be mordantly funny. The opening, in which close-ups on a wrapped bundle understood to be an urn silently answer the boys’ questions as to where their mother is, suggest poetry the rest of the film never broaches again.

42. The Enigmatic Case (1980)

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To swiftly retreated to television whence he came after the poor performance of this feature debut, but if this wuxia film has not aged gracefully, it is still notable for its ambition. The nonlinear structure is sloppy, but it hints at the director’s later mastery of delayed revelations, while the action showcases To’s ambitions of visceral, bleak combat even as his inexperience gets the better of some scenes, especially the ending. Fitfully beautiful, if sometimes murky, cinematography gives the film a sense of visual uncertainty that matches its maker’s growing pains.

41. All About Ah-Long (1989)

Johnnie To and Chow Yun-fat both play against type with their two collaborations, one being a comedy and the other being this drama about a poor single dad faced with the possibility of losing his son when his now-successful ex returns and woos the child with a better life. It’s straight melodrama, which underlines the emotions of many of To’s best films but has no offset here for its overbearing sadness. Strong lead performances maintain a somber air, but that leaves its flourishes feeling under-supported and unearned. Today, it’s best seen as a demonstration of how minimal To can be, and of the baseline of grounded emotion that sits under his more stylish works.

40. Casino Raiders II (1991)

“Casino Raiders II” amply demonstrates both the facelessness of much of To’s early work, as well as the flashes of genius to come buried in those studio pictures. Brilliant but soft lighting, unmemorable mise-en-scène and functional cutting mask fleeting stylistic flourishes like a spacious nighttime street or a match cut of playing cards and leaves falling in slow motion. Characters are never safe in To’s films, and this one least of all: maimed gamblers commit suicide to protect their ways, hands are offered as payment and children turn feral in the absence of parents. These are all lessons in a didactic statement on the cost of greed and fast money.

39. Fulltime Killer (2001)

“Fulltime Killer” lays bare To’s preoccupation with the image as a reflective surface, an object in and of itself to be broken down and studied in order to reveal truths about what it reflects. But it is also one of the least grounded film’s of To’s post-Milkyway oeuvre, a jumble of blatant references, flashy direction and a final-act twist that only adds justification, not depth. Undeniably well-shot—multiple reversals of perspective across apartment buildings as parties monitor each other unfurl with swift elegance, while its impressionistic cutting is sensual—but if this provides a stylistic blueprint for the next decade of Milkyway films, it would be a few years before To would deliver a film that fused his heightened visual virtuosity with meaningful ideas and characterization.

38. Love for All Seasons (2003)

Perhaps the most manic of Sammi Cheng’s films with To (though the competition for that designation is fierce), “Love for All Seasons” is a romantic comedy that builds romance through deliberate attempts to drive two people apart. Louis Koo plays a hotshot playboy who agrees to help the martial arts master (Cheng) who cured his VD by giving her the heartbreak she needs to master a sword technique. The more Tiger tries to hurt May, the more she appreciates how much he is doing for her, until her gradual hurt mixes with her self-awareness in absurdity. Cheng deftly handles that emotional balancing act, but even she cannot handle how far the final act goes in hurting/helping May in the pursuit of a predictable ending. All of Cheng’s films for To are entertaining, but this is the least rewarding.

37. A Hero Never Dies (1998)

After Johnnie To claimed credit for his assistant director/protégé Patrick Ya’s Milkyway films, he made “A Hero Never Dies” as proof of who really made films like “The Longest Nite.” It’s hard to argue with his contention: similar hard-boiled tones, cinematography, even actors suggest that if To wasn’t guiding the camera on Yau’s credited director gigs, he’s the world’s most talented mimic of good trash. But “Hero” also pushes “Yau’s” Category III works of brutal, relentless cynicism into parody, a somewhat unimpressive feat when the director is really spoofing himself. Nevertheless, the action sequences mark a breakthrough for To’s regular stunt coordinator Yuen Bun. From an early hotel shootout between rival Triads that sends tufts of pillow down into the air like a snowstorm in reverse, Bun tempers the rough, inchoate fury of the film into something beautiful.

36. The Big Heat (1988)

With four credited directors, “The Big Heat” is in no way Johnnie To’s movie; if any one person can lay claim to the film’s rough but focused direction, carnage and jagged slow-motion, it’s Tsui Hark. Even To’s twisted sense of humor couldn’t concoct visuals like a man doused in petrol and set ablaze, then run over into oil barrels that explode for good measure, or a “Work carefully and safely” sign that sits in a shot’s background as a man is shot backward into industrial machinery, resulting in his decapitation. Even so, Tsui clearly had an impact on To: florid color contrasts, casually dropped narrative details and a tight structure provide a strong foundation for To’s own flourishes.

35. A Moment of Romance III (1996)

To took over the third film of the popular romance franchise he produced (and, according to some, secretly directed) with a narrative unrelated to its predecessors that draws a city boy pilot (Andy Lau) and a betrothed farm girl (Wu Chien-lien) together during the 1930s prewar skirmishes between the Chinese and Japanese. At its best, as in Lau and Wu’s nighttime stroll among battle preparations, the film exists in the same ballpark, if not the same dugout, as the Archers’ wartime films. In general, though, the film moves at a snail’s pace, and a young Andy Lau is oppressively serious, acting as if the Cantopop star still had something to prove. To see the director going through the motions in 1996, as opposed to 1991, shows what a difference a few years makes: longer takes, more intricate movements and a subtler observation enliven an otherwise overwrought, underwritten romance.

34. Running Out of Time (1999)

Though he has only ever made a few caper films, Johnnie To seems ideally suited to the genre, with his flair for ostentatious yet fluid and jazzy movement, his refusal to spell out elements he instead displays through easily missed visual cues, and his sudden clarity of perspective. From a technical standpoint, “Running Out of Time” is a hard caper film to beat, with its immaculately timed revenge plot unfurling primarily as a pas de deux between Andy Lau’s dying criminal and Lau Ching-wan’s increasingly respectful cop. Nevertheless, the film never nails down a tone, or even the harmony of several tones that To can typically manage with ease, robbing its whimsical interactions of their delightfulness and the somber, moralizing moments of their reflection. By anyone else’s standards, a bravura show of skill and organization, but for To, this is coasting.

33. Love on a Diet (2001)

Johnnie To’s “Shallow Hal,” to oversimplify, but nothing in that movie sets the tone like an early scene of a despondent overeater (Sammi Cheng) failing to hang herself and cutting herself loose, thread by thread, with a nail clipper, pausing to clip her own cuticles. The rest of the movie is less macabre, though certainly no less manic, as Andy Lau holds bidding wars among his friends for quick weight-loss solutions for Cheng and both leads give in to maniacal binges. But Cheng’s deft ability to suddenly wring tears from her screwball antics lends the film enough heart to elevate it above mere farce.

32. Running Out of Time 2 (2001)

Even less meaningful than its predecessor, which at least had the benefit of its thief’s terminal illness to provide some sense of stakes, “Running Out of Time 2″ nevertheless improves on the first film’s sense of delicate timing and shamelessly convoluted setups to provide a release far more satisfying than it should be. Ekin Cheng cannot approach Andy Lau as an actor, but Lau Ching-wan pulls Cheung’s weight along with his own as he returns as a cop forced to reckon with a thief who inexplicably wants to test him. The thief this time out is a magician, leading to a series of smoke bombs, fake-outs, even a literal chase through shall of mirrors that more or less say everything about what tone the movie is shooting for.

31. Happy Ghost III (1986)

Co-directed with, depending on which source you find, either Ringo Lam or producer Raymond Wong, “Happy Ghost III” brings To back from a seven-year TVB retreat with a sturdy comedy. Wong’s affable oaf Sam Kwai is disrupted by the ghost of a suicidal failed singer (Maggie Cheung) driven to revenge when the man inadvertently defers her dream reincarnation. To’s time at Wong’s Cinema City would prove beneficial more in the lessons he learned from the do-it-all actor/director/producer than in the quality of his movies made there, but “Happy Ghost III” is one of the strongest entries of his time there. To’s influence on the project’s strengths is likely negligible, but the facility with actors and respect for the script would carry over even into the full blossoming of the director’s talents.

30. Triangle (2007)

Not an anthology film, “Triangle” trades off between Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and To as each directs one third of a feature about a trio of friends whose attempt to pay off their debts with some stolen treasure runs afoul of collectors, crooked cops and an emotionally unstable wife. The clash of distinct styles flows together better than it has any right to: Tsui’s meaty direction sets up the players, Lam’s more intimate shots to dig into the second act’s personal betrayals, and To brings it on home with a feverish shootout in long grass. To captures the free-for-all via extreme long shots of shadowed heads jumping up from the grass to fire a shot before disappearing again, yet somehow the director always makes it clear who is firing at whom. Once upon a time, To answered to both Tsui and Lam, but by the time of “Triangle,” it’s clear that the student had become the master.

29. The Heroic Trio (1993)

Though lacking in auteurist tics, “The Heroic Trio” does serve as an early display of the director’s action mastery. Ching Siu-tung’s choreography is introduced through literal wire fu as Anita Mui dances on power lines, and To’s energetic, multivalent direction maintains order of the film’s mood swings between physics-defying action, dopey comedy and mourning. This vehicle for some of Hong Kong’s most popular female action stars travels through vaguely connected flashbacks, thinly justified set pieces, even the underworld itself, but clear shot continuity and camera placement lends the film an unlikely sense of clarity.

28. Wu Yen (2001)

Harking back to To’s early New Year’s comedies, the delirious love triangle of “Wu Yen” recalls their slapdash approach but shows off a far more controlled hand at the helm. Sammi Cheng, Anita Mui and Cecilia Cheung star as both male and female characters as a warrior (Cheng) attempts to fulfill her destiny to marry an emperor (Mui) until a  “fairy enchantress” (Cheung) starts seducing them both. At two full hours, it’s one of To’s longer pictures, and the fast pace of the material—complete with speed-up puppet montages that elide over further action—leave the picture feeling stretched. Nevertheless, a talented cast makes the bewildering comedy work, especially Cheng, whose slapstick capacity serves her best in a scene in which she fights an opponent in self-imposed slow-motion to accommodate the man’s gaseous lethargy.

27. The Fun, The Luck & The Tycoon (1990)

This class-conscious farce sprints along at a breakneck pace, but from its opening scene—in which a fencing duel spills out into a mansion’s halls as servants remove fragile objects from harm with perfect choreography—To adds his own idiosyncratic touches. In a “Coming to America” ripoff, Chow Yun-fat’s wealthy heir ducks his obligations to play poor in a fast food restaurant, where he also finds love. That plot may be derivative, but it supports a number of hilarious sights, like the robotic movements of Nina Li’s arranged fiancée that suggests she wears corsets on all of her joints, or the manner in which To subtly shades the cheery promotional gimmicks of the fast food chain as a capitalist variant of desperately sunny Maoist propaganda.

26. Loving You (1995)

Cheng Siu-keung’s first collaboration with To shows just how much the cinematographer brought to the director’s work, adding grace notes to Yau Nai-hoi’s brutal but redemptive tale of a crooked cop inspired to make amends with his colleagues and his long-suffering wife after being wounded in action. The final shootout is without question the most beautiful scene in a To film to that point, with papers flying in the air as carts are shoved into makeshift barriers between the bad guys and the cop’s hostage wife. The occasional rough edges demonstrate that finding Cheng was not the final step in To’s developing aesthetic so much as a crucial step that would strengthen the director and cinematographer with each new project.

HEAD ON OVER TO PAGE 2 TO SEE OUR PICKS FOR THE TOP 25 JOHNNIE TO FILMS! 


Categories: Lists, Top 50

Tags: China, Chow Yun-fat, Drug War, Hong Kong, Jake Cole, Johnnie To, List, Ranked, Romancing in Thin Air, Running on Karma, Sparrow, Vengeance