Since the formation of his Milkyway Image production company in 1996 in Hong Kong, Johnnie To has been the most imaginative (and prolific) director of genre films in the world. Mainly known stateside for self-reflexively stylish gangster flicks like “The Mission” (1999) and “Exiled” (2006), he’s also produced a slew of hit romantic comedies (including the delirious 2002 supernatural love story “My Left Eye Sees Ghosts”). Whatever the subject, his films hum with the skill of a committed craftsman, every shot jiggered for maximum lucidity and intensity. There’s no wasted motion in a To film — every gun crack or eye-poke carries the weight of the character behind it.
To’s collaborated with screenwriter and Milkyway co-founder Wai Ka-Fai on his most daring projects, including the bodybuilding Buddhist thriller “Running on Karma” (2003), and they reteam again for “Mad Detective,” which recently screened at the New York Asian Film Festival and which opens in New York on July 18th. A knotty noir about a burnt-out cop (Lau Ching Wan) who claims he can see people’s inner personalities as distinct individuals, it shoehorns black comedy and psychological musings into its pistol operatics. I got the chance to chat over email with Mr. To about the film as well as his sublime new pickpocket tale “Sparrow” (also a part of this year’s NYAFF, and currently without U.S. distribution), and his next project, a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.”
What’s your working relationship like with Wai Ka-Fai? He’s given a co-director credit on “Mad Detective.”
To put it simply, Wai Ka-Fai is the brain of Milkyway, whereas I consider myself the hands that handle the execution. All the ideas come from Wai Ka-Fai, although I handle everything that’s related to shooting. For “Mad Detective,” Wai and I were on the set together because the story was very complicated. We conferred with each other frequently to make sure I didn’t shoot incorrectly. Without Wai, there wouldn’t be “Mad Detective.”
How do you prepare to film a major action set piece like the final shootout in “Mad Detective,” or the long opening take in “Breaking News”? Do you storyboard every shot beforehand, decide on the blocking once you arrive on set, or both?
I don’t storyboard. Everything is kept in my head. For “Breaking News,” after initial location scouting, I planned out the sequence step-by-step while rehearsing with the cast and crew. I don’t like to plan things too early because it takes away the fun of actual shooting.
I understand you filmed “Sparrow” over a three-year period. Could you describe the production process?
“Sparrow” was a personal and fun project for me. I would shoot whenever I had ideas, be it a scene or an image. Basically we shot for three years, but it was for a few days every 3-4 months between projects. Without the Berlin Film Festival’s invitation, I probably would’ve gone on shooting! I really appreciated the actors’ patience and their ability to stay relatively the same over a period of three years.
What was your original conception for the film? Did it change over the course of the shoot?
When I shot “The Mission,” it was about a group of bodyguards. Then I made “PTU,” which was about a group of cops. So I thought it’d be fun to make another film about teamwork, but this time without guns and blood.
Could you comment on the score? It seems highly indebted to Michel Legrand’s work for Jacques Demy.
For me, “Old Hong Kong” meant a combination of Eastern and Western culture. So I thought the sound of “exotic oriental” would be perfect for the film, something similar to the score of “The World of Susie Wong.” The last scene in the film is an homage to Jacques Demy, so our composer followed that direction as well.
Your work uses the richness of the film grain to such an expressive extent, I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on digital photography. Do you ever see yourself shooting in HD?
I am a 35mm person. But recent developments in digital cameras has impressed me, like with the Nikon D3. Also, I liked a lot of what David Fincher did in “Zodiac.”
The “Bourne” films have created a bit of a stir in the U.S. for their hyperactive editing schemes. As someone who places great importance on editing, I wondered if you had seen these films, and what you think of their style?
I’m not familiar with the “Bourne” films, but I think editing is very crucial to storytelling, not simply for providing a sense of motion and speed. Too much of Hong Kong cinema has focused on that in the past and in the end, audiences don’t care about the story anymore.
You’re an incredibly prolific worker, and I’ve read that you’ve started preparing a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.” What do you value in Melville as a filmmaker?
The remake is currently in development and the script is written by Wai Ka-Fai.
I think my work and Melville’s bear a lot of resemblance to each other, not just visually but also philosophically. I must admit I didn’t know much about Melville when I was young. I saw all his films when they first came out because I was a fan of Alain Delon!
[Photos: “Mad Detective,” IFC Films, 2007; “Sparrow,” Milky Way Image Company, 2008; director Johnnie To]
“Mad Detective” opens in New York on July 18th.