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I Am Caine

What Johnnie To movies should I seek next?

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My first Johnnie To movie was The Mad Monk (1993). It's not really for Johnnie To fans but more for fans of Stephen Chow. You can totally see that Chow had a lot of creative control. Some of To's older works are of a different style than what most know him for (i.e. The Eighth Happiness).

One of my favorite Johnnie To movies is Expect the Unexpected (1998). I love the theme of the movie showing that life has its ups and downs and that the happy endings that we see in movies don't usually happen in real life (which is further elaborated on at the end).

I saw Running Out of Time (1999) which is somewhat unrealistic (Andy Lau's character is overly smart and never seems to break a sweat) but the movie's thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. Fulltime Killer (2001) was a bit pretentious but I still liked it. I haven't seen The Longest Nite or The Mission yet, but I plan to do so soon.

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... . Le Samourai for me next, and then perhaps Army of Shadows, and back to To.

Did you get to these yet? You can see so much influence in both To and Woo from those films (especially Le Samourai -- which you can see in so many later films especially the ones that delve into what I call the "psychotic loner subgenre".)

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I find it always baffling that discussions about Johnny To “recommendations” seem to focus almost entirely on his noir-ish crime thrillers, blotting out the man’s tremendous proficiency to helm “lighter” material that shows off his romance-related and comedic leanings. Sometimes these films are simply explained away as mere Mainland-pandering commercial stinkers (conveniently ignoring the fact that To dabbled in these genres aeons before HK filmmakers circled in on the booming Mainland market), stuff in other words that he’s “forced to do” in order to finance his “good films”. What’s rarely acknowledged by Western critics is that most of To’s comedies or rom-coms are done with a lotta flair, they’re extremely smart, well written, brilliantly acted, shot and edited affairs that oftentimes truly affect and should not be ignored by anyone professing even a casual interest in Milkyway’s variegated filmography. So unless you approaching HK cinema in strictly generic terms (meaning if it ain’t action or MA its not up your alley) then its really rewarding to watch at least DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART, NEEDING YOU and LOVE ON A DIET. And that’s only for starters...

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They're definitely not Mainland pandering, since Drug War was the first one aimed at Mainland audiences, but the Milkyway rom-coms are definitely "works for hire" done to pay the bills. Johnnie To said so himself, during a 2001 interview with Senses of Cinema:

JT: At Milkyway Image, we aim for a balance between the kind of movies we like and the kind of movies audiences like. That is our goal. A few years ago, we only did the movies we liked. That would make the industry dead.

SK: You mean your dark, critically acclaimed films like Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (1997), The Longest Nite (1998), and Expect the Unexpected(1998)? They were not exactly box office successes.

JT: [laughs] Yeah, these were not successful in HK, but of course, in the end, many people tell us “it’s a good movie, it’s a good movie, it’s a good movie…” But this kind of support is not enough to boost the industry. So, we decided in 1999 that we would shoot an audience movie first. We knew that if we were successful, then we would have the spare time and money to shoot the kind of movies we like, like Fulltime Killer. As a result, we were successful [with the hit Needing You]. The commercial movies we’ve released last year and this year are in fact getting good box office in HK. And I think that this will continue. Which means investors will give us money, and will give other producers money to shoot movies in Hong Kong. It’s not easy.

I'm not going to argue and say To and Wa Kai Fai can't make a good rom-com -- I enjoyed watching Needing You and Fantasia -- but most are forgettable fluff. All the sure-fire signs of a HK cash-grab are there, from the rushed productions made specifically for the Chinese New Year (Wu Yen, Love For All Seasons), to the overuse of a famous celebrity like Sammi Cheng (Yesterday Once More, Romancing in Thin Air, etc), who draws the eyeballs but is a sub-par actress.

They're not even the best from the oughts. I'd mention Just One Look, b420, and Crazy n' the City before To and Fai's offerings. Or I'd just recommend Pang Ho-Cheung's filmography.

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They're definitely not Mainland pandering, since Drug War was the first one aimed at Mainland audiences, but the Milkyway rom-coms are definitely "works for hire" done to pay the bills.

Wrong. DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART and ROMANCING IN THIN AIR were the first Milkyway movies that were aimed straight at the Mainland market. DRUG WAR came later, was shot in Mandarin and also clearly Mainland-oriented, but at the same time it was designed as an experimental effort to ‘adjust’ the tried & tested crime thriller tropes the company stands for to fit Mainland sensibilities (and furtively circumvent censorships demands).

I know the SOC interview you’re quoting from, but its nor saying much. To has repeatedly stated how satisfied he is with some of the comedy / rom-core fare he directs.

I'm not going to argue and say To and Wa Kai Fai can't make a good rom-com -- I enjoyed watching Needing You and Fantasia -- but most are forgettable fluff. All the sure-fire signs of a HK cash-grab are there, from the rushed productions made specifically for the Chinese New Year (Wu Yen, Love For All Seasons), to the overuse of a famous celebrity like Sammi Cheng (Yesterday Once More, Romancing in Thin Air, etc), who draws the eyeballs but is a sub-par actress.

I agree, ROMANCING IN THIN AIR was by and large forgettable (YESTERDAY ONCE MORE I haven’t seen), but I thought Sammi Cheng’s acting was spot-on and certainly far from “sub-par” in NEEDING YOU and LOVE ON A DIET.

The “fluff factor” in To’s long filmography is undeniable, especially in the early, i.e. the pre-Milkyway years. THE EIGTH HAPPINESS was the epitome of ultra-commercial New Year fluff and it proved to be To’s biggest HK hit in his entire career. Still, it is clearly evident that To finds joy and artistic satisfaction in a good number of his rom-com exercises. They can’t be just uniformly written off as “cash cows” and the better ones – like the three I mentioned – are certainly anything but “rushed productions”. They’re simply well-made, intelligently scripted and superbly acted affairs.

They're not even the best from the oughts. I'd mention Just One Look, b420, and Crazy n' the City before To and Fai's offerings. Or I'd just recommend Pang Ho-Cheung's filmography.

CRAZY’N’THE CITY, call it a “cop soap” if you will, was a masterstroke but the film isn’t really comparable with To and Wai Ka-Fai’s more light-weight commercial fare. Nor is Pang Ho-Cheung's entire oeuvre, safe for a few ultra-accessible, Mainstream- (and Mainland-)friendly efforts like LOVE IN A BUFF or MEN SUDDENLY IN BLACK.

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I know the SOC interview you’re quoting from, but its nor saying much. To has repeatedly stated how satisfied he is with some of the comedy / rom-core fare he directs.

He clearly states he makes films like Needing You to finance the films he really enjoys.

Again, I'm not going to pretend like none of To's rom-coms are good. However, the majority are meddling commercial affairs whose main drawing points are the pretty faces of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng. Now, to be clear, I consider Andy Lau a good actor, but for most of the To rom-coms he's just going through the motions, collecting a paycheck. So is Johnnie.

CRAZY’N’THE CITY, call it a “cop soap” if you will, was a masterstroke but the film isn’t really comparable with To and Wai Ka-Fai’s more light-weight commercial fare. Nor is Pang Ho-Cheung's entire oeuvre, safe for a few ultra-accessible, Mainstream- (and Mainland-)friendly efforts like LOVE IN A BUFF or MEN SUDDENLY IN BLACK.

You can say they're incomparable because To/Kai-Fai's work is "more light-weight commercial fare," but to me that just sounds like an excuse because their work isn't as daring, as smart, and as good. These are all mainstream films we're talking about; not arthouse affairs.

To reiterate, To and Kai-Fai have made good rom-com's, but not to the point where it's a travesty when people don't fully immerse themselves in their light-weight commercial fare. Most are designed to be disposable entertainment, and even among the better ones, superior HK genre offerings can be found elsewhere.

Want a real travesty? Compared to something like The Blind Detective, not nearly as many people have seen My Name is Fame.

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The election films and Drug War are probably the only To film you need to see. The Election films might be the greatest Hong Kong films ever made. Who wants to dispute me on that? I didn't think so.

Come on, just three films? :wink2:

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I find it always baffling that discussions about Johnny To “recommendations” seem to focus almost entirely on his noir-ish crime thrillers, blotting out the man’s tremendous proficiency to helm “lighter” material that shows off his romance-related and comedic leanings. Sometimes these films are simply explained away as mere Mainland-pandering commercial stinkers (conveniently ignoring the fact that To dabbled in these genres aeons before HK filmmakers circled in on the booming Mainland market), stuff in other words that he’s “forced to do” in order to finance his “good films”. What’s rarely acknowledged by Western critics is that most of To’s comedies or rom-coms are done with a lotta flair, they’re extremely smart, well written, brilliantly acted, shot and edited affairs that oftentimes truly affect and should not be ignored by anyone professing even a casual interest in Milkyway’s variegated filmography. So unless you approaching HK cinema in strictly generic terms (meaning if it ain’t action or MA its not up your alley) then its really rewarding to watch at least DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART, NEEDING YOU and LOVE ON A DIET. And that’s only for starters...

The fun aspect of going over To's ouerve is the different phases and the different material he has gone over in his career. I've enjoyed the lighter material and his comedies (for the most part except for a few like Lucky Encounter.) Love on a Diet is quite fun and well made (I have not seen Don't Go Breaking My Heart). I feel Sparrow is a masterpiece (my review) and is my top film of 2008. But yeah these films definitely help in understanding To as an artist and should not be ignored.

Your comments make me think how MA and Triad films sometimes are overly talked about by some reviewers and critics (with some exceptions like the later Stephen Chow films) ignoring some dramas and comedies. It is like not watching the non-westerns from John Ford. It also reminds me of Takashi Kitano and how some of his films can be slightly (or more) underrated like Kikujiro because it is not a Yakuza film. Though at least that film has a R1 release. Don't Go Breaking My Heart did not get one which aggravates me.

... YESTERDAY ONCE MORE I haven’t seen ...

Here is a mini-review I did on that film. If I do a rewatch I'll do a longer review/essay. I like Sammi Cheng as an actress so I really don't have anything bad to say about her.

The third in a series of romantic comedies staring Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng was the least successful at the box office in Hong Kong following Needing You (2000) and Love on a Diet (2001). The previous two were co-directed with Wai Ka-fai and while I have only seen Love on a Diet there is definitely a stylist difference one that fits in more of the To's auteur direction and themes. This film is more languid, more nuanced, less commercial, but is much more uneven then Love on a Diet (that film feels mostly like an American romantic comedy with the help of the special effects team from The Nutty Professor and I rate that film slightly higher ***/****).

The story centers around two professional thieves Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng who divorce at the beginning of the film for an unknown reason only to find themselves still in love as the years go by. Sammi is engaged to a rich momma's boy, but only because she is interested in his jewelry. Andy's character (they are never named) is jealous and decides to steal the very jewel she is interested in (causing the breakup of Sammi and her beau). The rest of the movie deals with their relationship until a tragic fact about one of their fates is learned.

The movie is quite beautiful to look as the locations vary from Hong Kong to Italy and the characters intrigued me (and often irritated me); however, the biggest fault was with the most unsatisfying ending since well Running On Karma.

While ultimately this movie fails as an aesthetic cohesive whole it has many interesting elements that would later be used in Sparrow to better effect. While Sparrow had references to French Cinema, this movie had several quite obvious homages to the original The Thomas Crown Affair from the introductory scenes reminiscent of the multi-splitscreen style used in that film to the relationship and the characters to one specific interview technique used in original film.

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I am surprised that so far in this thread I haven't seen any mention of Running on Karma. It was one of the To/Kar-Fai collaberations. It's a quirky action comedy that stars Andy Lau and Cecelia Cheung. I really enjoyed it. I love all of his post-mission gangster thrillers. Throwdown is excellent too. Of course his earlier 90's movies Heroic trio, executioners and the bare-footed kid are all great, but To had not truley found his voice back then. I have Vengeance with french former pop star Johnny Halliday on DVD, still haven't got around to watching it yet. Any good??

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I am surprised that so far in this thread I haven't seen any mention of Running on Karma. It was one of the To/Kar-Fai collaberations. It's a quirky action comedy that stars Andy Lau and Cecelia Cheung. I really enjoyed it. I love all of his post-mission gangster thrillers. Throwdown is excellent too. Of course his earlier 90's movies Heroic trio, executioners and the bare-footed kid are all great, but To had not truley found his voice back then. I have Vengeance with french former pop star Johnny Halliday on DVD, still haven't got around to watching it yet. Any good??

In the previous post I mentioned I did not like the ending of Running on Karma.

Vengeance I liked quite a bit but I am a biased To fan. Here's my online friend clydefro's review from digitalfix (some possible spoilers)

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Again, I'm not going to pretend like none of To's rom-coms are good. However, the majority are meddling commercial affairs whose main drawing points are the pretty faces of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng. Now, to be clear, I consider Andy Lau a good actor, but for most of the To rom-coms he's just going through the motions, collecting a paycheck. So is Johnnie.

You can say they're incomparable because To/Kai-Fai's work is "more light-weight commercial fare," but to me that just sounds like an excuse because their work isn't as daring, as smart, and as good. These are all mainstream films we're talking about; not arthouse affairs.

I’m with you, To & WKF’s comedy / romance output isn’t as daring, as smart and as good as the most daring, smart and brilliant efforts Pang Ho Cheung coughed up. Think BEYOND OUR KEN, think YOU SHOOT, I SHOOT (one of the most stunning debuts by any director I’ve ever seen!), ISABELLA, LOVE IN A PUFF and VULGARIA. No, they’re not. And that’s exactly why Pang Ho Cheung is the most interesting director working outta HK right now! :tongue:

But when it comes to disarmingly charming, easily accessible, inventively constructed, technically immaculate and, yep, shamelessly calculated & commercial rom-coms, well... then you can’t do any better than watching DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART, NEEDING YOU and LOVE ON A DIET. Hope I made the distinctions clear.

BTW, you’re not trying to insinuate that “mainstream films” are by nature inferior to, er... “arthouse” stuff, aren’t you?

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