Hubert Burda Media

Johnnie To talks filmmaking and freedom of speech

The director chats about his unlikely start in the film industry, why the arts are important and what he's doing to encourage young filmmakers.

Johnnie To. Portrait: Until Chan
Johnnie To. Portrait: Until Chan

Johnnie To eases back in his chair for a second when asked to reflect on a 37-year filmmaking career that has wowed audiences and critics both near and far.

Then he leans forward with a smile on his face and shrugs his shoulders as he begins to explain that he had never really thought it would happen, this life in cinema, and a role as a staunch supporter of the arts. But you make your own luck in this world, and since his directorial debut in 1980 the 61-year-old To has ridden his good fortune – and no small amount of talent – to helm box office hits and award-winners (The Mission, Election), as well as the string of films he has produced, such as this year’s lauded Trivisa.

Tonight, before a room packed full of his friends, his peers and a legion of admirers, To is to be handed a Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award in recognition of the influence and inspiration he has provided across those decades through initiatives such as the Fresh Wave support programme for young filmmakers.

A still from Election

A still from Election

To says the role of patron comes with the territory, and it is motivated by a fierce desire to ensure that young artistes know where to turn when they need support.

Congratulations on the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award – what does this sort of recognition mean to you?

Every award has a special meaning. As this award is not just for film, it is for the arts, I feel very proud that Montblanc is recognising me and my work. The arts have an important role to play in Hong Kong, which is often forgotten. They tell people about who we are and they reflect on our identity. I feel it is my role to help encourage the younger generation to become involved in the arts because of this. They can express who they are and show where they come from.

In terms of patrons, was there anyone specific who helped you get started in film?

My journey started completely by chance. I was looking for a job and had four interviews lined up. It just happened that the first was with a television station – and they offered me a job straight away. I never went to the other three [interviews] and have no idea how my life would have gone if I had and they’d offered me work. I had no real knowledge of the film industry but I loved it from the day I first started.

How would you describe the films you have made, or the Johnnie To “style”?

Since establishing my own company [Milkyway Image in 1996] I’ve been determined to make more personal films, and in my own style. I like to think that there is a sense of freedom in my films, and in the way I make them. I’m not restrained by one particular style or genre, but the audience will recognise also that I am influenced by film noir and by satires.

A still from Election

A still from Election

You’ve remained loyal to Hong Kong in terms of subject matter. Why is that?

Hong Kong is a very important element in my films. I understand the city well, the feeling here, and the culture, as well as the history. I know these things very well. This is something I want to share. I like to tell stories that explore Hong Kong characters and the things that affect people in this city, which can sometimes be serious and sometimes not so serious. And I like to try new things, I always have. That’s why I’ve tried different things, from musicals to action and drama, even to love stories.

What has impressed you about Montblanc’s support of the arts here?

Their support of the arts is very valuable – any help that artists can be given is. It can be hard work when you’re starting out and learning your job, so encouragement is important. Montblanc has a long history of doing that and it’s something that should be celebrated as much as it is recognised.

How did you come up with the concept for your Fresh Wave programme?'

It came about after Sars. I saw people scared, people not even wanting to touch each other. Even when I was young, when most people in Hong Kong were very poor, the feeling around the city was not as bad as this. Hong Kong has given me a lot, from the very beginning of my career. I wanted to give something back and the only thing I can do is make movies. I don’t know about music, about dancing, and I don’t know how to write a book. That’s why, when I decided to help the next generation, I decided to show them how to make movies.

A still from Trivisa

A still from Trivisa

What role do you see this programme playing now in terms of the Hong Kong film industry?

We’ve been going for 11 editions of Fresh Wave now and we’re looking ahead to help these young directors make their first feature films. We want to help give them an entry into the industry. It’s much harder now to make a film than when I was starting out. The education system doesn’t encourage people to get into the arts and if they do it can be very tough. If you’re brand new, it takes time to learn how to make a feature film but you also have to make money too and you have to find support from someone and to learn from someone. That’s what the Fresh Wave programme is all about and now we want to take this to the next level. So these young filmmakers make short films, but then are able to make feature films as well.

What is the first piece of advice you share with young filmmakers?

I tell them it’s about more than just making movies – it’s about passion. You have to have passion in this industry and that is from where the best films come. Passion and vision. You have to try new things, explore new things. Hong Kong movies are very dynamic. Obviously we’ve been very good at making kung-fu movies and action but we can do drama, comedies. Up until now we’ve had a big advantage in that we have had free speech. So we can make what we want. That is something I think we have to make sure we keep.