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)
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)
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)
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!
25. The Mad Monk (1993)
To’s impressive ability to maintain tight control over loony situations like those of “My Left Eye Sees Ghosts” or “Running on Karma” gets its first major test with this Stephen Chow vehicle, in which he plays an arrogant god challenged by his exasperated fellow deities to put put up and truly better the lives of mankind. The action comedy that follows is nearly incomprehensible, but the images have such charm to them: Maggie Cheung as a prostitute riding a man into town in more ways than one, Chow’s wire-fu walks through the air, an afterlife populated by mean-spirited idle gods to make Olympus look benevolent and cooperative in comparison, and a climax involving a giant monster and miniature sets. Maybe the weirdest film in To’s corpus, and one of his first thoroughly entertaining films because of it.
24. Needing You... (2000)
To’s first pairing of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng is a minor feature through and through, but it’s also a terrific showcase for the actors’ comfort and understanding with one another, and one of the director’s breeziest and most accessible comedies. Lau plays a lothario and office manager who gravitates toward the scatterbrained but earnest Cheng as she is the only person in his department who puts any effort into her work. The games they play on old lovers (who eventually turn around and play games on them) are rote genre formula but are handled with aplomb by the two actors, who infuse their actions with a sense of genuine emotional stakes. Seen today, the lighthearted romp, set during a period of economic growth, acts as a sort of time capsule precursor to the similarly constructed but differently toned “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” which coldly updates office romance in the wake of the recession.
23. The Bare-Footed Kid (1993)
The greatest reward of Johnnie To's early work is seeing a voice slowly emerge from serviceable mimicry of popular form. "The Bare-Footed Kid's" jokey double-takes and bluntly edited choreography carry traces of the old workman, but the fluid movement of what would otherwise be a needlessly convoluted story of aspiration, good intentions and wounded betrayal keeps everything thrillingly ordered in a way the director could later manage blindfolded. Aaron Kwok and Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung flaunt their skills with amazing fight sequences, while Maggie Cheung, on the cusp of crawling out of these supporting roles with next year's "Irma Vep," hints at the talent she was about to showcase as a cloth maker whose livelihood is threatened as much by Kwok's attempts to help as the antagonistic advances of corrupt authorities. The best of To's first stage.
22. "Help!!!" (2000)
Pitch-black whimsy is a common trait of To's comedies (and Hong Kong films in general), but "Help!!!" distinguishes itself from the inconsistencies of his earlier farces with a developed aesthetic vision that can handle the tonal shifts of this comedy about a trio of committed doctors trying to reform an outlandishly negligent hospital. The comedy can be brutal: in the bleakest joke, two doctors argue about a minor car collision at the front of the hospital while ignoring a patient who leapt to his death behind them to bring attention to the facility's incompetence. Even so, To's fanciful direction and the slow resignation of passion in the doctors generates a believably light contrast, and one of Wai Ka-fai’s patented twists makes for a delightfully ridiculous punchline.
21. Lifeline (1997)
According to the narrative, “Lifeline,” To’s last feature prior to the setup of Milkyway, marks the director’s aesthetic blossoming, the first film to fully display the sense of mastery that has become a staple of his work. Sometimes the narrative is right: “Lifeline’s” firefighter thriller builds on the aesthetic strengths of “Loving You” by trading the simple time-marking of the director’s montages to that point for a tight progression of action through edits. The simple control exerted over establishing scenes lays the foundation for its lengthy climax, set in a chemical plant about to blow as firefighters rush to save who they can. Collapsing floors and flames that lick along the ceiling constantly plunge the actors into unfamiliar areas, but To keeps the dimensions and relations of each room crystal clear. Earlier films showed the director could keep budgets down and productions on time, but “Lifeline” suggested To would take Milkyway to some great places.
20. Mad Detective (2007)
To say that the “mad detective” is the role that Lau Ching-wan was born to play gives some idea of the sheer odd energy he brings to his performances. Lau’s unpredictability, the beast hiding under his loping clown persona, has long made him the most magnetic of To’s many leading men, and he plays on that uneasy blend of harmlessness and danger as the possibly psychic, definitely crazy detective who can solve crimes by re-enacting them. The supernatural elements allow the film to change up every few minutes, but a climax that is as much a cover up of itself as a great action sequence offers a more prosaic view of Bun’s ability to distort reality. The film naturally looks spectacular, but in many respects this is the only late-period To film that seems to stem fully from its lead’s performance rather than the director’s guiding hand.
19. Where a Good Man Goes (1999)
Lau Ching-wan typically plays the tragic clown for To, but he brings new life to the beaten-to-death storyline of a paroled gangster trying to go straight. One of To's talkiest Milkyway films, with generic and hackneyed explanations by Lau's character of where his life went wrong, "Where a Good Man Goes" nevertheless rises above cliché on the back of To's direction. Drawing as much from the work To ghost-directed for Patrick Yau as "A Hero Never Dies," this film tempers its brutal threats of rape and its frequent violence with grace notes like the joyful, slurred transitions of Lau's gangster playing in a park with his redemptive innkeeper and her son. Rushing track-pans lend a sense of spaciousness to the woman's inn clearly at odds with its true dimensions, a fitting visual analogy for the film's surprising strengths.
18. Yesterday Once More (2004)
As a modern caper film, "Yesterday Once More" rates with "Oceans 12" and John McTiernan's "The Thomas Crown Affair" as the best updates of the genre. Like those films, all the thefts of this picture take a backseat to the simple joy of its cat-and-mouse antics, the manner in which couples are brought together through absurdly complicated heists. But the melancholy that ultimately underpins this film's tale of divorced lovers (Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng), two people brought together and separated and reunited again over their love of stealing, more recalls the downbeat trajectory of Peter Bogdanovich's mostly whimsical "They All Laughed." The ending is perplexing at first, but once it becomes clear how one lover has made contingency plans to keep up their games no matter what, the sheer pleasantness of it can only slightly dull the heartbreak.
17. Life Without Principle (2011)
Where American films on the recession tend to focus on (and sympathize with) the actual architects of the collapse, “Life Without Principle” remains firmly on the ground floor, linking a banker, a cop and a Triad in the symbiotic relationship between their desire for more and the system’s pusher mentality for that desire. Blocks of red highlight the bank where Denise Ho works, openly cautioning everyone to stop until, after a time, the color starts to signify crushing debt. And if Ho’s officer is portrayed as placed under great pressure to sell at all costs by her superiors, it is clear that “following orders” is as flimsy a defense to karma as it was to the Nuremberg judges. “Life Without Principle” maintains its focus on the blindly sold scams and socially aspirant consumers who bought into the banks’ fantasy, and its blunt honesty in spreading around culpability makes it the finest of the recession films to date.
16. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011)
The flip-side to “Needing You...” replaces the earlier film’s economic prosperity for post-collapse uncertainty. The heart still wants what it wants, but now it has to comparison shop to get the best deal. Never has a romantic comedy drawn so much attention to the genre’s inherent sense of competition, with two men vying over the same woman like two salesman seeking to close an account. Geometrically precise compositions literally triangulate the love triangle across high-rises, uniting the characters but keeping them separate in a brutally unromantic romance. This is a film where to spoil who the woman chooses would not ruin the story but give it the false impression that the choice makes any difference in a world where love, too, has limited available positions.
15. Vengeance (2009)
Rounding out an action homage trilogy begun with “The Mission’s” John Woo nods and “Exiled’s” Leone tribute, “Vengeance” tips its fedora to Jean-Pierre Melville. Its protagonist (“French Elvis” Johnny Hallyday) is losing his memory from a bullet to the head, but he wants revenge for his daughter’s death before he goes. His thirst for vengeance becomes a self-perpetuating sickness, carrying on after he’s forgotten what it is he even wants justice for. It’s also a showcase for some of the director’s most poetic action, especially a gliding firefight that stops and starts as the moon peeks in and out of clouds. Even so, the somber, annihilating tone of the film saps such sequences of their thrill.
14. The Mission (1999)
“The Mission” put To on an international stage: its takeoff of John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films may have come nearly a decade too late to be fashionable, but it put To on the festival circuit at the perfect time, past his growing pains. To deviates from Woo in ducking the latter’s penchant for loners and duos, instead viewing a handful of Triads as a unit, so tight-knit that their action scenes resemble not the free-for-all firefights of other action films but the collective discipline of a military squad. One indicative sequence has the group move toward a shooter with methodical precision, some moving forward as others cover them, then covering the others as they move up. Without ever pausing to clarify his themes in hackneyed, stiff dialogue, To says everything through the group’s slow, agonizing dissolution, one of his first significant approaches to Hong Kong’s handover.
13. Turn Left, Turn Right (2003)
To’s graphic-novel adaptation is an effervescent romantic melodrama, one in which his camera routinely stresses the spaces between of star-crossed lovers engaged in a lifelong pas-de-deux of near-misses and oblivious proximity. A flashback shot of Takeshi Kaneshiro's John and Gigi Leung's Eve as teenagers, the boy staring after the girl as they ride a carousel, distills the so-close-but-so-far ties that keep them apart. The endless series of missed connections, sometimes shown via the actors' bodies, sometimes through representative objects like their phone numbers, plays as comedy until Eve is shown photographs of all the chances she had at reuniting with John, and her face morphs the whole film into near-tragedy. But it's not all sad, though, and a fade up from their belated union to show only their umbrellas intertwined is the refined, ebullient version of Hitchcock's train plowing into a tunnel.
12. Election 2 (a.k.a. Triad Election)
The first "Election" never escaped internal Triad politics, acknowledging cops only as hapless bystanders hoping the turf war will sort itself out. Its sequel, however, pulls back from the gangsters' myopic civil war to show how frivolous they really are under the watchful, permissive eye of government. Literally speaking, this may be To's darkest film, with Cheung Siu-keung's cinematography plunged in deep shadows and obscuring mise-en-scène. Yet no other To film so powerfully gives the impression of constant surveillance by forces within the diegetic world, and a mainland security chief's efforts to destroy Triad democracy in favor of a more easily controlled dynasty (thus exerting strict regulation on future generations) is some of his most vicious commentary.
11. My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002)
Sammi Cheng commands the screen with “My Left Eye Sees Ghosts” as a possible gold-digger who must win the approval of her dead husband’s family and, after an accident gives her the condition alluded to in the title, deal with a friendly but curiously interrogative ghost from her past (Lau Ching-wan). The split imagery of ghostly presences and reality, with all its attendant written and visual gags, marks the quintessential contribution of Wai Ka-fai’s metaphysically humorous contributions to To’s canon, while Cheng’s performance is a distillation of everything that makes her great. The huffy irritation she puts into her interactions with invisible souls, less terrified than put-upon, grounds her outbursts of possessed farce, but the pain she snatches seemingly from nowhere gives the nonsense sudden, devastation meaning.
10. PTU (2003)
Cheng Siu-keung’s started lensing To’s movies around the time the director found his voice as an auteur, but “PTU” shows the two reaching for the next level in their long-running collaboration. City streets resemble interrogation rooms, bathed in darkness save for isolated, blinding white lights that illuminate the misdeeds of officers as much as criminals. Even by the standards of To’s wide, spacious canvases, the Hong Kong of “PTU” is one of starkly, eerily empty frames, as if an apocalypse wiped out everyone but cops and crooks. As the two forces clash, each side becomes so embroiled with internal politics it’s a wonder they ever get around to fighting each other. One of the better places to introduce newcomers to the director.
9. Fat Choi Spirit (2002)
Who but Johnnie To could put so many crane shots into an overview of mahjong? To revels in sports film cliché—there are suspenseful zooms into player's hands, a sense of cosmic stakes to a meaningless game, even some strains of Morricone-esque showdown music between rivals—but To ably transplants his gift for revealing character through action into an oddly graceful paean to good sportsmanship. An added bonus: “Fat Choi Spirit” has the world’s funniest “Chungking Express” parody, in which a woman sneaks into her crush's home to clean it up, only to get lazy minutes in and start sweeping crap under rugs or tossing it out the window.
8. Exiled (2006)
“Exiled’s” opening sequence may top even the crane shot of “Breaking News” for establishing audacity. A nearly wordless stake-out and break-in clarifies everything: the extreme skill of the mob hitmen who show up at a man’s door, the relationship that clearly exists between that man and those sent to kill him, the location of the target’s wife and child, even how crossfire can suspend an unhinged door in midair, because why not. Somehow, the rest of the film lives up to the first scene’s promise, with its bleak halftime upheaval and equally impressive later shootouts. Packed with sequences that would make climaxes for most films (including most Milkyway productions) and subtly characterized with taciturn performances from its leads and a script that never lets on more than it needs to, “Exiled” is the perfect gateway into To’s world.
7. Breaking News (2004)
The opening crane shot alone could make Brian De Palma rethink his career, while the constant variation of the film’s tenement raid reveals the unchanging brute force of “The Raid” as insipid child’s play. Its use of primitive viral and social media is both prescient and dated, though its observation on police striving to not look bad as opposed to not doing bad is enduringly termitic. And among a career of poetic dinner scenes, a pre-climax meal between hostages and captors reigns over all others, a true last supper that momentarily suspends domination and hostilities as both parties recognize the likelihood that they will all die.
6. Drug War (2012)
A censor-friendly tamping down of eccentricities merely results in blunt direction reflective of the single-minded pursuits of mainland anti-drug officers. (To’s ‘Scope frame has never felt more cramped and claustrophobic.) A careful procedural is invalidated by a late upheaval that reveals just how oblivious the seemingly thorough police are. Dedication becomes farce as a cop handcuffs a perp to his dying body. And the threat of execution by lethal injection that hangs over a dubiously cooperative drug lord provides a haunting alternative definition to this kind of war, one fought not merely over drugs but with them.
5. Election (2005)
As is so often the case in To's films, the key to understanding "Election" lies in its scenes around dinner tables. At the top of the film, a group of like-ranking Triads meets around a table to discuss their next leader, and To shots them in isolated close-ups that speak to the solipsism and narcissism of gangsters that will make their stabs at democracy laughably hollow. Sure enough, the election that follows occurs early in the film, after both candidates wheel and deal, and the remainder stews in the fallout as the loser does not concede gracefully. To has long placed critical views of Triads under façades of professionalism and balletic gunplay, but these mobsters are nothing more than thugs whose outward displays of tradition and discipline give way to shameless bribing and beatings. All the talk of centuries-old tradition and all the ostensible discipline evaporates when a climber finds himself in an area with only his unsuspecting rival and a rock.
4. Throw Down (2004)
Soaked in color and humid jazz, “Throw Down” ostensibly unfolds as a take-off on Akira Kurosawa’s debut, “Sanshiro Sugata,” but soon even that overt reference becomes just another block on which To builds a drifting mood piece. “Throw Down” is a film of has-beens and never-weres reduced to hopeless dreams and cynical exploitation; there are only two decent people in the film, one mentally disabled, the other eventually revealed to be a narcissistic fraud. It can be no coincidence that the martial art employed here is not one of assault but self-defense; no one has the bravery to think they can take on the world, they only want to survive its onslaughts. Among its many tonal pleasures, a conversation that leaps across three tables in a club and explodes into a slow-motion fight of Judo fighters flipping each other over in ouroboric rings could make a compelling case for the best scene of any Johnnie To film.
3. Running on Karma (2003)
A romantic comedy in which one’s character’s attendant baggage is carried over not from a previous relationship but a previous life. Karma, as they say, is a bitch, and even a good person in this life must answer for the sins of a previous one, no matter how many good deeds one does to overcome them. Contrary to expectations, To does not suspend cosmic justice; the final act’s lurch into ultraviolence is one of the more jolting reminders that, no matter how often the director reuses a stable of actors, none of them is ever safe in any given film. The movie thus becomes less a matter of altering fate than learning its intended lessons, defeating the karmic cycle only by not perpetuating it. Pretty heady stuff for a movie that prominently features Andy Lau in a muscle suit as a monk-turned-male stripper.
2. Sparrow (2008)
To’s oeuvre can loosely be divided into action films and comedies, but “Sparrow” is a sui generis creation that defies description. As its conflict between rival pickpocket clans unfolds, the camera darts and anxiously hovers less like a sparrow than a hummingbird. Pity the poor camera operators who had to sprint every which way for a shot that jumps forward and backward as a crew of thieves pass a wallet among each other as a mini-relay of invisible gestures and handoffs. It is a film of constant action but no violence, where even a small bloodletting is a sign of failure among professionals. Above all, this may be the best jazz ballet since “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.”
1. Romancing in Thin Air (2012)
As-yet-unreleased in theaters or DVD in the States (though it is happily up on Hulu), Johnnie To’s metaphysical masterpiece trades the spiritual dimension hopping of his karmic films for self-reflexive movement between planes of cinematic awareness. In it, a washed-up actor finds himself in a strange love triangle between the woman who nurses him back to health and the memory of her dead husband, made unbearably real by the presence of the star whose movies brought them together. Thus ghosts, gods and the invisible hand of fate become the false images of actors, films that eerily parallel life and the equally invisibly guiding hand of a director. Cinema creeps into reality and rewrites it to be less painful, not exactly lying but finding a means of release and coping that make for an unabashedly melodramatic treatise on the way films both shape and are shaped by life.