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Secret life of Johnnie To

He may have an accountant's look, but see what goes on in the mind of this Hong Kong action director.

March 26, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

In Hong Kong, he is one of the most respected action directors, an inheritor of John Woo's mantle, known for wild roller-coast rides of violence. In person, Johnnie To is a staid, somewhat heavyset man with wire-rimmed glasses, and neatly dressed in a light blue shirt, dark blue blazer and khaki slacks. Someone like director Tsui Hark ("Once Upon a Time in China," "Double Team"), with his intense deep-set eyes and goatee, looks like a cinema legend, but more often than not, Hong Kong filmmakers tend to look like To (pronounced "toe"), accountants who don't get enough sun or exercise.

But, ah, the fantasy life accountants must have!

Sitting in the conference room of a mid-city Los Angeles office, To is trying to speak English, his second language, sometimes reverting to phrases of Cantonese, but he's determined to try to talk up his last film, "Fulltime Killer," a multilingual shoot-'em-up fest, his first to have a general commercial release in the U.S. (It opens Friday in Los Angeles.

The film has a Wild West premise: A trigger-happy young assassin, Tok (Andy Lau), has decided to challenge the No. 1 hit man for the mob (known as the triad) in Asia, O (Takashi Sorimachi), a laconic Japanese man based in Hong Kong. But instead of having a simple shootout in a saloon or on main street like those American westerns, the action careens through several Asian cities as well as the colorful streets of Hong Kong -- colorful especially as they become blood-stained with carnage. The two killers also end up sharing a girlfriend, Chin (Kelly Lin), a befuddled video-store clerk who had been desperate to get away from her life of monotony; she gets her wish in twisted spades.

In one scene, Tok excuses himself from a coffee-shop date with her, dons a rubber Bill Clinton mask and walks to the car that contains his next victim -- presumably a triad boss. Taking out his shotgun, he dispatches three henchmen, then blows off the knees of the fleeing triad honcho, before finishing him off.

Is this film a bit too ... violent?

"Oh, not too much," To says calmly in his deep, rumbly voice. "I've tried to shoot the violent scenes from a more romantic point of view. In the book there are very detailed scenes of getting rid of a corpse, but we shot that quite quickly."

Referring to a final shootout in a warehouse stacked high with cardboard boxes of fireworks that go off, bursting in air, To says proudly, "Look at the ending, we shot it in quite a glorious way."

Indeed, there are a lot of slo-mos, extreme close-ups and other fancy camerawork by cinematographer Cheng Siu Keung, along with daredevil Hong Kong stunts and just a few computer-generated images.

Like many in the Hong Kong film business, both in front of and behind the camera, To, 48, got his start by joining a Hong Kong television station, where he stayed from the 1970s through 1992, working his way up to assistant director, then director of serial dramas. "Many TV directors want to become film directors," he says, because each series has "about three or four directors, following the story; you have no creative control. Everything is mechanical."

His shift to features was gradual. His first was a martial arts flick, "The Enigmatic Case," released in 1980. There was a long break; then, starting in 1986, he made three films for a prolific new production company, Cinema City, three popular comedies including "Eighth Happiness," which was such a box office hit that To finally got the chance to make a film in which he had more input into the script, "The Story of Ah Long," a family melodrama starring Chow Yun-Fat and Sylvia Chang. The director is flatly realistic about the Hong Kong movie business: "If I didn't make money, they would not let me make movies I wanted to make."

His first contemporary action adventure was "The Heroic Trio" in 1993 -- a novelty because the trio was female. A kind of comic-book style superhero saga starring Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung, the film evolved from a typically practical consideration.

"Why we shot this movie was because famous actors at that time were very expensive -- actors like Jet Li and Leslie Cheung," To says. Those actors were commanding about half a million per film, a fortune when even an action film can be shot for less than $2 million.

But he admits, "We were not very successful. It wasn't a period drama, it wasn't a police thriller. We were ahead of our time." The movie flopped at the box office.

Creative liberties

"Fulltime Killer" was based on a popular Hong Kong novel by Edmond Pang. Actor Andy Lau bought the rights and asked To to make it into a movie.

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