Johnnie To Comments on State of Hong Kong Film Industry

Director Johnnie To’s (杜琪峯) movies have defined and shaped the Hong Kong film industry for nearly two decades. However, many feel that the glory of Hong Kong cinema peaked in the 1990s and the industry has been unable to break new ground beyond its prolific crime thrillers. At the Malaysia International Film Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Johnnie served on the jury as the chairman and taught a master class entitled, Decoding Action Directorial Master: In Conversation with Johnnie To, to share his experiences and the underlying issue of the film industry.

Improv Filming Style

Starting off with films that inspired him as a director, Johnnie revealed, “I re-watch films by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa – he heavily inspired me. He  pays special emphasis on the characters, their stories, and overall cinematography. Another person I find inspiring is King Hu (胡金銓). His movies are highly inspirational. Both directors excel at using films to tell a story. From their use of cameras to the artistry, everything is just done so well. I take lessons from them for my own work.”

While Johnnie is a renowned director, his popular “flying paper” scripts have been met with mixed opinions by artistes. “Flying paper” scripts is essentially a filming technique where artistes are not given a defined script or they are often laced with last minute changes. Johnnie believes in working spontaneously and writing the script as he films. “I film based on my instincts. Although I don’t have a perfectly crafted plan, I know what works and what doesn’t. By filming as I go, I’m able to see what changes I need to make and understand which path to take in the moment.”

Johnnie explains that he does not like committing words on paper until the perfect timing comes along. Until that perfect moment, Johnnie leaves room for improvisation and unpredicted changes. Because of these reasons, Johnnie often does not have anything ready until cameras start rolling.

Hong Kong Doesn’t Belong to Itself

On the current state of the Hong Kong film industry, Johnnie acknowledges there is a critical underlying issue. “The issue with the Hong Kong film industry would surface sooner or later. It’s just surfacing earlier than I imagined. Hong Kong doesn’t belong to Hong Kong itself. Hong Kong’s appearance in history is a mere coincidence – one day Hong Kong will reveal what it truly belongs to.”

Hoping to develop a new generation to lead the film industry, the director explains that younger people differ greatly. With the younger generation being more educated, it is inevitable that there would be a clash of opinions.

In terms of finding a solution to today’s problem in Hong Kong, Johnnie concludes, “I think we need some sort of magic. That magic is to continue doing what we can and doing it to the best of our abilities. Express your most inner thoughts and opinions, but avoid heavier topics and speak only on lighter issues in an intelligent way. When you feel bad, let it be – life’s not perfect and there will be change. With more pressure comes stronger emotions.”

Source: [1]

This article is written by Su for

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  1. The problem with HK is lack of creativity and artists in movies. How many more drug/cop themed films do we need? How many Storm XYZs do we need? It’s the same cast, same story, on repeat over and over again. Why would anyone keep watching it? Look at Korea. They have refreshing dramas. Interesting scripts. Problem with HK is there hasn’t even been much of any censorship and they still lack quality and diversity. Now with the CCP controlling its media output, I can’t even imagine how the industry could get any better.

    1. I agree with you. There’s about a list of less than 10 actors who headline all the big movies (Andy Lau, Sean Lau, Tony Leung, Gordan Lam, Nick Cheung, Louis Koo, etc.) and they’re almost always some crime/police story. Even with China’s stronger regulations on what gets put on screen, I still think they have more variety and better storylines.

      1. It’s worse for the leading actresses in HK movies now. During HK golden era, the A list actors weren’t a lot as well with Chow Yun Fatt, JC, two Tony, Andy Lau, Leslie Cheung and Stephen Chow but they were A list or highly sought out actresses – Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung, Carol Cheng, Cherie Chung, RK, SC and later Anita Yuen, etc. Some of these actresses had movie plots on the roles they portrayed and not just a love interest or a minor character in today action thriller.
        The range of movie genres were so much wider then. Horror comedies (all those horror in police academies and Yin Yang Road), comedies (from Stephen, Raymond Wong and Wong Ching), romantic (Andy’s), contemporary action/thriller (Jackie Chan), period (directed by Tsui Hak), period action (Wong Fei Hong) and occasionally artistic ones.

      2. @BearBear you are right. I was thinking more the list of actors haven’t changed much and they’re all in the same age range of 50s-60s. HK can’t seem to produce young talent anymore. You’re also very correct with the lack of actresses. In addition to the ones you listed, there was also Chingmy Yau, Joey Wong, and Brigitte Lin that I found so uniquely beautiful.

      3. @lilseemonster oh yes, how can I forget about JW and Chingmy. Brigitte was a rare situation with another career peak after starring in Qiong Yao’s adaptions. The actresses in that era look so much better, mostly natural and unique. My personal “goddess” is Cherie Chung though I like Maggie, Carol and Anita a lot (anyone who did well in comedies and serious stuff).
        Even the actors then, we have more good looking ones, at least in my personal view, Keke. Leslie and Takeshi who either could act or at least with decent performance (cannot help thinking about YY whom netizens are willing to overlook lack of acting just for his looks) and charismatic actors like Tony and CYF.
        You are so right that HK is in an awkward situation with their inability in producing younger talents, be it in acting or scriptwriters. Recall some time back had a brief discussion with Hohliu that going up north to mainland with faster income could be a reason. However the Chinese movie productions are still not there yet and its dramaland is saturated with rip offs of novels adaptations which do not even do even need the scriptwriters to come up with a storyline and they cannot even adapt properly.

  2. It’s these big budget movies..if you go look at the independent films like Sunny Side of the Street, they’re still good, and heck Anthony Wong is doing these types of movies which good for him, unlike the other A list actors who keep doing the rinse and repeat of the same movies. Glad I don’t pay $ to see any of those movies though haha.

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