Prolific Hong Kong filmmaker says his best is yet to come

By Park Ung Posted : July 11, 2024, 09:17 Updated : July 11, 2024, 10:06
Johnnie To speaks during a press interview at the annual Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in Gyeonggi Province on July 5, 2024. AJU PRESS Park Jong-hyeok
SEOUL, July 11 (AJU PRESS) - Hong Kong noir auteur Johnnie To recently visited Korea as his film was invited to a special screening at this year's Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) which kicked off last week.

The high-resolution version of his 2004 film "Throw Down" was screened on July 5 at the Asia’s largest genre film festival. The martial arts film, known as his homage to legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, revolves around the story of a former judoka who becomes a pub manager.

"When I was shooting the film, Hong Kong was grappling with the outbreak of an epidemic like Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), only exacerbated by economic difficulties," To said at a press interview. "At the time, most people in Hong Kong felt hopeless about their future, so I wanted to give them some solace, similar to what is often found in Japanese soaps," he recalled.

The film's main protagonist, played by Hong Kong's famous star Louis Koo, mutters his reassuring mantra, "It would be okay even if I mess things up. Everything will turn out fine."

When asked whether he still has similar optimistic sentiments before starting a new project, he said that cinematic line from the film, no longer applies to him. "As I'm getting older and wiser, I should be mastering what I'm doing. First and foremost, I must be satisfied with my own work. If the movie isn't quite my cup of tea, how can I convince others to enjoy it?"
Johnnie To attends a press interview at the annual Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in Gyeonggi Province on July 5, 2024. AJU PRESS Park Jong-hyeok
The prolific filmmaker in his late 60s, who has made over 40 films for his four-decade career then shared his insights on the movie industry overall, with a special focus on money and films, and how the former affects the latter.

He admitted that budget constraints hindered him from creating "satisfying" scenes in "Throw Down," stressing that money is an indispensable aspect of filmmaking as artistic endeavors often require millions of dollars.

"Hong Kong people's light pockets ironically fueled the golden era of Hong Kong action cinema in the late 1980s and early 1990s," he said. "At the time, most people were financially constrained with few affordable leisure options for weekends. Watching movies became one of the few luxuries they could afford, at least occasionally."

Then he added, "That remains true even today, as money continues to influence Hong Kong movies."

"Hong Kong movies are now heavily influenced by mainland China, where there is more money, leading to the production of many big-budget films in China. More financial resources also mean more choices, including options like selecting locations," he explained.

To also criticized the current movie industry's budget allocation, arguing that excessive spending on movie stars leaves little room for filmmaking to flourish. "More money should be invested in production, but nowadays, almost half of budget often goes to movie stars."

This is why he believes that passion for movies should be the priority for young filmmakers, as their chances of achieving mainstream success in the showbusiness are "quite challenging."

"I always tell aspiring filmmakers that you shouldn't pursue this career if you don't love it. I'm very strict about this. Another key aspect is to be independent and inspirational. Watch plenty of movies and learn from them, but never steal ideas."

He compared movies to books, saying good ones can be enjoyed forever, even after their creators are gone. "No matter how much time passes, regardless of when they were created or by whom, people will continue to revisit timeless films like 'Citizen Kane.'" Directed by Orson Welles, the classic semi-biographical movie is still considered by many as the greatest of all time.

When asked about his favorite Korean filmmaker, he chose Lee Chang-dong, without hesitation, who won the best screenplay award for his film "Poetry" at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2010. "I'm sure Lee is one of the greatest filmmakers in Asia, exceptionally superb at delicately portraying human nature. For me, 'Oasis' (2002) is his best film."

Then when asked which film he considers his best, he responded by expressing his love for filmmaking. "I always decline to answer such a question because my best work is yet to come. That's why I tirelessly make movies," he said. "I've been in this game for almost 50 years, but I still love it. When I make movies, it feels like I'm fully immersed in them, separate from reality."

The annual festival of BIFAN, now in its 28th year, featuring about 255 short and feature films from 49 countries runs until this weekend. Action noir "Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In," directed by Soi Cheang, was selected as the curtain-closer, which takes viewers back to a lawless, murky underworld of wild men and villains in Hong Kong in the 1980s.

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