But at 46, Johnnie To Kei-fung is too busy to worry about being too busy. This summer, like last summer, he produced and co-directed two hit movies. The first, in June, was the comedy Love on a Diet, a follow-up to his 2000 smash Needing You..., both starring Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng; it grossed a robust $5 million. Soon after, he opened the gun drama Fulltime Killer, with Lau as a preening, delirious assassin; so far, the film has taken in $3 million. With his creative partner, Wai Ka-fai, To runs Hong Kong's premier indie production company, Milkyway Image. And for two years he was COO of the film division of Charles Heung's China Star Entertainment. He resigned last month to—what else?—make more movies. He's already at work on another crime film, P.T.U., starring Simon Yam as a member of Hong Kong's Police Tactical Unit.
"I can write better than anybody who can write faster," the American journalist A.J. Liebling used to say, "and faster than anybody who can write better." In the film game, To is the embodiment of that maxim. He makes quality pictures in quantity. He drives himself hard and his staff nuts; 24/7 is a normal work week at Milkyway. He suffered a severe burn on his right forearm while making Fulltime Killer, but kept on shooting. His editors have stayed in the cutting room 10 days and nights straight to get a movie in theaters on time. It's all about the work ethic—and the work passion. "I'm not a good man, but I like what I do," To says, sounding like the scarred antiheroes of his best films. "I believe you don't just do movies; you have to like the movies. And I love the job. For me, movies are a mission."
That's a statement of principle—and a plug for his most lauded crime film. The Mission, which earned To last year's Hong Kong Film Award as best director, convened five gunmen as bodyguards for a powerful boss. Swift, spare and violent, with bullet ballets staged in deserted malls, the film played like The Seven Samurai (minus two) in Alphaville. It was another To essay on a man's dedication to the work ethic, no matter what line of work he's in. For cine-philes everywhere, The Mission offered proof that the Heroic Bloodshed genre had not died out with the emigration to the U.S. of John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam.
He could keep grinding out meticulous, and well-nigh flawless, gangster movies; it's the genre closest to his heart. But To and Wai, who serves as writer, co-producer and co-director, don't care to be cult figures. They're in business. Movies cost money and in Hong Kong, beset by movie piracy, the brain drain and the overall artistic glums, only 5% of all films released last year earned a profit. Wai and To want to be in that 5%. So they'll make, as well as they can, anything they think the audience wants. What to artier directors would be a confession is to To a boast: "I change with the audience. I have to get them into the theaters—that's my sole aim." He gets them in, and he makes them pay. That's why the Hong Kong film industry pronounces To as in "dough."
He had the Midas touch as far back as 1988 when The Eighth Happiness, a broad but nimble romantic comedy starring Chow as an effeminate babe magnet, was the year's top-grossing film, raking in $4.7 million. (Says To today: "I've still no idea why the movie was so successful.") Justice, My Foot!, his period comedy with Stephen Chow, earned a gigantic $6.3 million. To's two collaborations with martial-arts master Ching Siu-tung—The Heroic Trio and Executioners, with Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung as magical crime fighters—were hits in Asian theaters and in video stores around the world.
To's career is a series of pendulum swings, from popular movies to personal ones and back again. For a decade or so, he was just a bright face in the directorial crowd. He was brought in to save other men's movies, as in the hyper-violent The Big Heat, about a cop with projectile dysfunction (he can't fire his gun). To helmed sequels (Happy Ghost 3, Casino Raiders 2) and launched franchises (the Moment of Romance trilogy). Then three lucky things happened: he founded Milkyway to be in control of his films; he hooked up with Wai; and nearly all the big action directors left for the U.S. In this vacuum, To's cramped, gritty melodramas shone like chrome bullets.
This was largely thanks to Wai, a pinwheel of compelling, eccentric movie ideas. In the '80s they had worked together at tvb, Hong Kong's highest-rated channel. (That's also where To meet his wife Paulina; they have been married for 23 years.) Wai made his directorial debut in 1995 with Peace Hotel, a Chow Yun-fat Eastern Western whose bold, dusky style seemed indebted equally to Woo, Sergio Leone and Wong Kar-wai.
Wai's 1997 triad movie Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 has a devious structure that Alan Ayckbourn might envy: a layabout named Kau (Lau Ching-wan) is drawn into a heist scheme. Is it in China? Or in Taiwan? The two parts of this what-if scenario show the results, with some odd twists, as when the hoods laboriously seal their comrade's corpse behind a wall, then hear the sound of a beeper—it's the dead man's, which they need to get further instructions, and they buried it with him behind the wall. Wai visualized this complex farrago with a dizzying display of hand-held, fish-eye, overhead, upside-down shots. The film seemed to herald a brazen, bracing solo directing career. Instead, he went back to scripting for To.
The results were impressive: gnarled, noirish items like The Odd One Dies and Where a Good Man Goes. Milkyway developed a solid rep, and its house star, the sensitively sullen Lau Ching-wan, became the poor man's Chow Yun-fat. A Hero Never Dies, a blueprint for Fulltime Killer in its rivalry of two gang lieutenants, won a fistful of critics' prizes. Running Out of Time garnered Andy Lau his first Best Actor citation in the Hong Kong Film Awards. With The Mission, To was elevated to top status among Asian action auteurs. One of his first Milkyway films was called Expect the Unexpected, and To did. He created an unusual partnership with his old friend. Wai writes the scripts, usually with a freelancer, and he and To share director's credit—though To usually calls the shots.
To explains the relationship: "He's the philosopher, the brain. He thinks about structure, develops the theme, arranges the details. I provide the pace. Then in post-production we sit down and discuss what's good and bad. We never really disagree. And while he's thinking, I'm dealing. I work on finance and promotions. I'm the controller. Every film is like a battle, and I have to organize the soldiers who fight with me. But the battle is usually good. A lot of people call me 'The General' and Ka-fai 'The Minister'."
Financially, they won the battle. Needing You..., with Cheng as a harried office worker and Lau as the playboy she reforms, was the biggest Hong Kong grosser since The Storm Riders in 1998. Help!!! (it was a big summer for punctuation), a hospital drama, mixed cynicism and sentiment in crowd-pleasing proportions. For New Year they offered the gorgeous, frantic, virtually all-girl Wu Yen, with Cheng as a warrior, Cecilia Cheung as an elfin enchantress and Anita Mui as both a King and his grandfather; it was the season's second-highest grossing film. Then came Love on a Diet, a romance about two grossly obese people determined to lose weight. It encased Lau and Cheng in bulbous makeup and padded suits—and still earned a, well, fat profit.
Now it was time for the pendulum to swing again. Thus Fulltime Killer, with Lau battling Japanese actor-singer-heartthrob Takashi Sorimachi for the title of "gold medalist of assassins." For once, To and Wai have crafted a parable on the danger of liking your job too much. Tok (Lau) believes murder is an art; after a kill he gestures, hand raised like a matador. What's inside that spray of flowers he's carrying? His mini-Uzi. What does he do in the middle of a lunch date? Run outside, don a Bill Clinton mask, and gun down a half-dozen rivals. And what does he does to the hand of a rival? Stick a fork in it. "I'm way bad!" he says in English. Bending all his crooner charm to create a psycho Nijinsky, Lau here is great bad.
Fulltime Killer has all the To trademarks: a good woman (lovely Kelly Lin) drawn into a web of haunted men, an escalator scene (it's his favorite form of criminal transport) and an explosive climax. Literally: Lau and Sorimachi are in a fireworks warehouse. "We've got stuff exploding everywhere to the music of Mozart's Figaro," says To, for once enthusiastic. "It's fantastical, it's magical. I think this film will change a few minds in Hong Kong. It's the new look for Milkyway. It's amazing stuff."
He is even expressing optimism for Hong Kong movies. "On the whole they've been lousy the last few years, but it's changing right now." If they do get better, you can bet To will be a big part of it. Not that he's a betting man. "Movies are a gamble, a crapshoot. But you have to eliminate that risk. First you have to think that you're always going to win. And then you have to practice hard enough so you always will win."
For To, hard work produces tough art.