TIFF 09: Johnnie To Talks VENGEANCE

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
This year the Toronto International Film Festival presented a pair of films that bore the mark of iconic Hong Kong director Johnnie To:  his directorial effort Vengeance and a film which he produced, Accident.  We had the chance to sit with the director and talk about these two pictures and more.


TB: First I'd like to ask about the beginnings of VENGEANCE, where the story came from. I know you've been a very outspoken fan of French gangster movies.

JT: First of all, I've been making movies in Hong Kong for so long now that of course I'm interested in doing something that's different. In this case an international production, with an international cast. In terms of VENGEANCE, it all started in 2005 after I left Cannes after screening Election there. I was introduced in Paris by Alain Delon by the French distributors of Election. Alain Delon came and he brought DVDs of THE MISSION. He's seen it, he really liked the movie, he liked my style. Over dinner, it was amazing for me to meet my idol from the 70s. So I went back to Hong Kong, with my collaborator Wai Ka Fai, I basically tailor made the story for him. When we finished the first draft two months later the producer presented it to Alain Delon and for reasons unknown he decided to turn it down.

But even after Delon turned down the script, the producer and I still thought it was a very good story and we still hoped to find a different way to shoot the script. Fast forward to two months later, and the producer brought me to Paris to meet Johnny Hallyday. When I went to his restaurant, it was a dark place and I saw this lone person sitting there with a black suit, a black tie, and a white shirt, alone. Immediately I thought he looked just like a killer waiting in a bar to be sent to a job. Then it all begins from there. We could go on from there but no. (Laughs.)

TB: (Laughs.) So did VENGEANCE begin before or after the involvement with THE RED CIRCLE? Was it around the same era?

JT: VENGEANCE happened first. We began to develop RED CIRCLE in the same year but it was about six or eight months later that RED CIRCLE came about. They were always independent projects.

TB: Did you find that working with French producers and with a French actor, that you needed to change your working style to accommodate them at all, or were they willing to coming into Hong Kong and suit you?

JT: In general I feel that I did what I always do. I had complete freedom. The producers gave me complete freedom to shoot the movie the way I wanted, to work the way that we work in Hong Kong. Of course sometimes they had suggestions or thoughts about the script and then we'd have a discussion, but they never got in the way of how I do movies. As for Jonny Hallyday, he completely adapted to the Hong Kong way of doing things. He didn't play the star, did not have an entourage or even a make-up trailer. What did he get? A portable tent. That's the best he got. He basically followed the way we do movies in Hong Kong. He got used to it. So I didn't have to change.

TB: For people who know your films, when they look at VENGEANCE, there lots of little moments in there that are tributes to earlier films. Would it be correct to think that part of the point of doing VENGEANCE was to introduce yourself to an audience that may not know you, to say "This is who Jonnie To is."?

JT: When I sat down with producers to discuss this movie we all understood that we would need to familiarize the audience with my style. That they might see something they've never seen before. But that's not all that this project is. It's about building a character and presenting that character in Jonnie To style. And that's what I did. But I don't think I repeated myself in this film.

TB: One of the things your fans really like is that you have the same core stable of actors who we know we're going to see - certain people, at least one or two of them, in pretty much every movie - and to see what you do with them every time to change their image on screen a little bit. This time it was Simon, to take his very, very smooth image and play him as a very, very over the top villain. Do you talk to the actors, to Simon, about what they're willing to do, what they want to do with these sorts of things?

JT: In terms of Simon Yam, as you said, in my movies like PTU or the ELECTION movies, he's a rational thinker. In this movie I wanted him to be more spontaneous, wanted him to be more crazy, to have more outbursts. And that's for two reasons. One, the film is set in Macau and that's just a great setting for a character like this. And secondly, because all the other characters in the film are very, very quiet if Simon was that sort of character as well the film would feel very, very flat. So I used Simon as the opposite, to bring more energy to the film.

TB: I'd like to ask a question about the way you shoot action, in terms of your action scenes. Something that makes them so unique is the way you use the space and the way you use your environment. In VENGEANCE the big scene is Anthony Wong's final shoot out, the big cubes of garbage being rolled in. When you create these sequences, do you find the locations first and plan what you can do in this space? Or do you have concepts, and then have go out and create something on set? What comes first?

JT: It happens as a concept first, always. Then we will find a location, and then I see how I can work, the way to materialize it. For example with the garbage, I had the idea, and they found me a space at an old abandoned airport and then my art team went in there and dressed the space, made it look how I needed. So it is about developing a concept and then creating the real thing.

TB: I wanted to ask you about THE ACCIDENT. You have two films in the festival here, one that you directed, and one that you produced. Do you enjoy the experience of being a producer and filling a different role? Do you like being a mentor to somebody like Soi Cheang who is very, very talented? I think he really benefited.

JT: In this experience, I feel first of all that Soi is a very talented filmmaker who went through a lot. He really suffered to get his movie made. As a producer, it was a very good experience. I think as a producer I really changed with this film. In the past I would have a lot of opinions about how the movie should be shot or how it should be framed, things like that. But this time I feel that I really changed. My role became to just really support the director's decisions totally. To help him to bring that out. To help him to achieve that. My job was more about the production resources: the budgeting, the scheduling, finding him the best musician, the best editor possible. Everything I did was in the interest of the director. For me, I don't get in the way of what he's doing.

TB: And finally - because people will be mad at me if I don't ask - DEATH OF A HOSTAGE: are you making progress? Do you have an idea when that will be finished?

JT: The movie is not called DEATH OF A HOSTAGE. It is a work in progress and that was a temporary title. The movie does not have an English working title as yet. It is yet to be titled. But I can tell you a little about the concept. The movie is about greed. What greed is, and what it means to people, the value, what it represents. Right now I am still struggling with the concept because I can either make it a comedy, or make it very heavy. I am still trying to find the right balance but what I hope is that I can express a very human idea about greed. Hopefully in a light way, not too heavy. That's all I can tell you now.

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