Ushering In A New Regime: Johnnie To, Crime Films and Dissent

Last month, I wrote about British (and a little pre-People’s Republic Chinese) censorship of Hong Kong movies and the ways that wuxia and kung fu movies in particular got around British control of political speech. And now, with wuxia and kung fu movies seemingly all nationalistic, dissent has creeped into the crime films, so this month I’m going to talk about the films of Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Wai Ka-Fai and their production company, Milkyway Image. Since 1997, Hong Kong crime films have been set in pre-Handover Hong Kong (or pre-1999 Macao) because doing otherwise would imply that there are crime problems after the Handover or in China. As if anything set before 1997 were only about things before 1997.

But movies about trouble within triads can easily be read as about the troubled relationship between the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR)and China and, even more, as about the takeover of Hong Kong and Macao as gang turf wars, and the Communist Party as a kind of triad. Of course, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) is not so blind that they don’t ban crime films from screening in China, though in the case of To’s films Exiled (2006), Election (2005), and Election 2 (2006), it was for depicting hand signs or rituals of triads, the traditional gangsters of Hong Kong, who began as anti-Qing revolutionaries. But somehow To got a crime film not only made in China, but set in contemporary China—Drug War (2013).

But before I talk about Johnnie To’s movies, I need to talk about John Woo, because Woo redefined the gangster movie and what To does with his movies grows from what Woo did. Woo started out working for Shaw Bros. He was an assistant director to Chang Cheh and even worked on Chang’s Blood Brothers (1973), often considered Chang Cheh’s finest film. Influenced by Chang’s themes of manly friendship, loyalty, duty and tragic conflict, Woo went on to make his own wuxia film, Last Hurrah For Chivalry (1979) for Golden Harvest studio. It didn’t do well, but has many of the elements common in Woo’s later work: two friends fight overwhelming odds to uphold their honor, decency and loyalty despite betrayal and usually die doing so.

Among Woo’s many innovations was transferring wuxia film elements into crime films, creating the contemporary “heroic bloodshed” genre with films like A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), A Bullet In The Head (1990) and Hard Boiled (1992). Woo’s heroic bloodshed films have a palpable sense of loss as the virtues of friendship, loyalty and honor fade away in a new order in which money is all that matters, and loyalty is not reciprocated. They reflect a sense of loss through change, but also a Hong Kong increasingly overshadowed by the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Hong Kong films of the 1980s and 1990s reflect a great deal of anxiety about what would happen to Hong Kong after 1997. Woo himself said:

I have no intention to talk about politics in my films. I’m not interested in politics and there’s no political system that’s perfect. People are always using politics to gain certain power for themselves. But subconsciously I can’t help putting my my own personal feelings towards some politics into the film. For instance, I do have very strong feelings towards 1997 (Stokes and Hoover, 63)

As so often the case in his films, Johnnie To is all about the aftermath. Where Woo subconsciously put politics in his films, To’s personal films seem to include very deliberate politics about Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region of China. To takes Woo’s conventions and expands on them in the new Hong Kong and the new deadline of 2047, when Hong Kong’s separate system is no longer protected, but folded back into China. To started in television but his first film was a wuxia film, The Enigmatic Case (1980). It was the first feature shot by a Hong Kong director in Mainland China (Zhuo & Pak, 232). The movie didn’t do well and To returned to television until 1986, when he started making films again. In 1996, he founded Milkyway Image with Wai Ka-Fai so they could make the kind of movies they wanted. Since 1998, Milkyway has deliberately released their personal films–including the crime movies I’m discussing here–paired with movies that would be more popularly successful in Hong Kong (Yang, 132).

The Mission 1999

“This is a movie that is all Johnnie To—and nothing else.”  To on The Mission (1999) (Teo, 238)

In 1999, To released The Mission, a film about gangsters, played by Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, Roy Cheung and Jackie Lui, brought together to defend Brother Lung (Eddie Ko) in the aftermath of an attempted assassination. Their leader, Curtis, (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), is brought out of a peacefully fashionable life running a hair salon. Much of the film focuses on the men in-between the exciting parts and much of the action has a stillness to it that reveals their increasing closeness. Lung is a kind boss and shows consideration to the men—making them coffee, giving cash to the man coerced into betraying him and who was fortunate to survive punishment by Lung’s brother, Frank, played by the ever enchantingly evil Simon Yam. When the youngest man seriously slips up, the men try to figure out how to honor their commitments while remaining loyal to their brothers. In a John Woo movie, the conflict would play out operatically as a chain reaction of righteousness, loyalty, and self-sacrifice is set in motion by a betrayal. In To’s version, it almost plays out over dinner. It’s a story that reveals that the systems of “One Triad, Two Systems”–the kind, traditional one of Lung co-existing with the cruel, avaricious one of Frank–are irreconcilable.

exiled photograph

“Times are changing. We’re ushering in a new regime”

Reprising the cast of The Mission, if not the characters, and a tribute to Westerns and Sam Peckinpah, Exiled (2006) starts with the aftermath of an earlier betrayal. Most of the action takes place under a countdown to midnight, New Year’s Day, 1999, when China takes over Macao. Former triad brother Wo (Nick Cheung), returns to Macao with his wife (Josie Ho) and infant. Wo had betrayed Boss Fay (Yam). Fay is enraged by Wo’s return and sends Blaze (Wong) and Fat (Lam) to kill Wo. Meanwhile, Tai (Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung) intend to protect Wo. After a brief shootout, Blaze asks Wo why he came back. Wo says that Macao is his home. Blaze agrees to give Wo twenty-four hours to put some money together for his family–and even agrees to help get it.

Meanwhile, Fay is working on expanding his territory into Macao. He initially tries to kill the area’s boss, Keung (Lam Ka-Tung), but invites Keung to join him if Keung will help kill Blaze and the others. And a hapless police detective keeps blundering into the events of the film. Fired on by Fat and Cat, he calls Fay to ask Fay to stop them. Later, he lets the gangsters knows that his job is done at midnight and he is officially not seeing anything that’s happening. While Exiled might seem like a straightforward triad / heist movie, at a screening at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, To explained quite clearly that he wanted to make a movie about the parallels between a gang taking over new territory and the Chinese taking over Macao and Hong Kong.

This poster was banned in China for depicting triad hand signs. The posters were seized and destroyed.

“Triads were electing their leaders a hundred years earlier than Hong Kong.

To’s tribute to Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather, Election (2005) similarly looks at the Handover as triad politics. Every two years the Wo Sing triad elects their leader. Lok (Yam) represents traditional triad virtues and Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) represents a new crass, loud, greedy and impulsive way of getting ahead. Lok is the favorite, but Big D wants to expand the gang’s territory, promising wealth for all. The process is corrupted, as partisans bribe and threaten the uncles who vote and betray each other in hopes of obtaining power and money. It’s easily read as an indictment of Hong Kongese ready to trample each other for status and power in the new order and the new expanding Mainland market. But the process also parallels the transformation of Hong Kong governance, as the post-Handover Provisional Legislature limited freedoms and checks on the government’s power and reduced the voting franchise the last British colonial Legislative Council had put in place. (Stokes and Hoover, 281). In an interview with Stephen Teo, To says of Election,

I wanted to show a Buddhist notion of cause and effect relating to the history of the Chinese triads. They have a 300-year history where the original aim was to oppose the Qing and restore the Ming. But today, the triads have forgotten the principles of the founding father in the Hong Men society; they have forgotten brotherly affections….What I wanted to show is a tradition. In China, there has been a long history of secret societies and the largest secret society of them all is the Communist Party. I wanted to show a continuity of tradition (Teo, 245-6).

“Even criminals can serve their country.”

To goes further in Election 2: Harmony Is A Virtue/ Triad Election (2006), which takes place two years later and in the next triad election cycle. It’s not enough to fix an election. The election itself must be done away with. In Election 2, the current chairman refuses to step down and the voting uncles seem pretty sweet on Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), a member of Wo Sing involved in video piracy who wants to leave triad life behind. Jimmy has an MBA and sees his way out in Chinese land development deal, but Mainland National Security Bureau Inspector Xi* (You Yong) will only allow Jimmy to do business in China if he becomes the Wo Sing chairman for life. Xi wants the stability of autocracy, authoritarianism and a clear line of descent. “Harmony is a virtue” he says. Democracy is bad for business. Jimmy will be the face of the Wo Sing and Xi will run it. To adds the brutality of state power to the run-of-the-mill triad brutality, with a military execution and visual references to Abu Ghraib. And it turns out that Xi’s deal has historical precedent. To notes, “Before the handover…the mainland government, officially and unofficially, sent people down to Hong Kong to appease the gangsters, by working out deals with them.”

life without principle poster

“To get rich is glorious”–Deng Xiaopeng

In Life Without Principle / Deadly Gold (2011), bank officer Teresa Ma (Denise Ho), Detective Cheung (Richie Ren) and his wife Connie (Myolie Wu), and old school triad member Panther (Lau Ching-Wan) intersect in an interlocking chronology of the 2008 global economic crisis. It’s an indictment of greed and the short-sighted pursuit of gain in the HKSAR. Connie signs a letter of intent to buy an upscale flat before Chinese investors return from their New Year holiday and drive up prices. She tries to arrange a loan from Teresa. Teresa is desperate to sell a risky investment portfolio to keep her job. She also handles the account of loan shark Yuen (Lo Hoi-Pang), who’s ecstatic about the financial chaos. Panther is desperate to be a good triad member, but finds it difficult even to raise bail for an imprisoned, and ultimately ungrateful, fellow gangster. Giving up, he decides to work the stock market with former triad brother Lung (Keung Ho-Man).  A successful gambler and adept at seeing patterns, Panther is the only character who bets on the market’s recovery. But he’s way out of his depth as everyone is fully committed to making a profit somewhere in the market collapse’s karmic chain—even at the cost of their own lives. Incidentally, this is the second film I’ve seen Lau Ching-Wan in the last 5 years or so in which so much character is revealed in his terrible footwear. He also wears flashy shirts I associate with his cooler gangster characters. But his haplessness reminds me of his small-time gangster hoping for big things in Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (1997)—as does the backtracking narrative. The film ends with Panther and Teresa passing each other on the street, each with a bag full of money. Detective Cheung saved the lives of people threatened by a financially ruined old man and a Chinese investor buys Connie’s flat, saving her only incidentally while making a profit on the collapse of Hong Kong’s real estate market.

drug war poster

“Live or die, I’ll be with you”

In Drug War (2013), Narcotics Special Division Captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) is finishing up an operation and almost accidentally catches Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a weaselly Hong Kong gangster who manufactures drugs in China. Zhang tells Timmy he can avoid execution if he helps Zhang infiltrate and break up his drug ring. Timmy’s loyalty is always in question, but Zhang’s commitment to the law and his task are unshakeable. To filmed Drug War in Tianjin, renamed Jinhai to avoid any implications that there might be a drug problem or a drug war in the city, let alone in China. And the choices To had to make in order to film Drug War in China end up giving the film its subversiveness. All the cops are Mainlanders. All the criminals are from Hong Kong. But we see little of the life of the cops, and a great deal of the life of the people from Hong Kong. They eat together. They have families and friends. They mourn. The police seem to have nothing but their duty. This makes the Hong Kong criminals, who are amoral and greedy, much more sympathetic. And I say this as someone who likes Zhang. But he is also frightening. In fact, the police’s relentless efficiency and single-mindedness are in stark contrast to Exiled‘s policeman who’s biding his time until Macao isn’t his problem any more.

Drug War‘s final act echoes other convergences in films written by Milkyway’s Wai Ka-Fai. Timmy brings cops, criminals and school children together, hoping he’ll escape from police custody during a shoot-out on the highway. Instead, a dying Zhang handcuffs himself to Timmy’s ankle, leaving Timmy the last man standing among the dead, chained to a corpse and still trying to escape. The death and destruction caused by Timmy and the police isn’t redeemed by Timmy’s execution.  He desperately shares the names of everyone he can think of and the state performs its function clinically through lethal injection. The law has been fulfilled, but it doesn’t seem like justice–just a blind, brutal process. Where Life Without Principle is an indictment of greed, Drug War indicts everyone, greedy Hong Kong criminal and righteous Mainland cop alike.  In fact, Hong Kong might just be a greedy bastard chained to a man who is so single-minded he won’t let go, even when he’s dying. Might be, if you take symbolism very, very literally.

Drug War end

I’m kind of amazed that Drug War received police and SAPPRFT approval. Maybe censors were fooled by the commitment of the police and the fact that all the criminals were stereotypical greedy people from Hong Kong. Maybe despite the banning of Exiled, Election and Election 2 in China, some dissent is just invisible to Chinese censors. After all, censors have blindspots. While SAPPRFT is fluent in the language of historical drama, wuxia and kung fu movies, somehow the pointed criticisms of corrupt and loyalty-free bosses, triad brothers who will do anything for money, and the gradual decay of virtue is just not visible as criticism. In several interviews, To mentions being very aware of passing censor review while he was shooting Drug War. In fact, he shot some scenes two ways so that if one wasn’t approved, he could switch in the other. It’s fascinating to me that in making Drug War, To used the censorship process as a constraint, like any other artistic constraint, to be used and transcended in making a subversive film.

*The surname does make one wonder.


Carol Borden says that harmony is a virtue. She will return to comics next month.

Lisa Odham Stokes & Michael Hoover. City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. (New York, Verso: 1999)

Stephen Teo. “Author’s Interview with Johnnie To” and “Johnnie To On Election.” Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film
. (Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press: 2007)

Jeff Yang. Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese Cinema. (New York, Atria: 2003)

Botong Zhuo & Pak Tong Cheuk. Hong Kong New Wave Cinema (1978-2000) (Intellect, Ltd., 2011) (Digital book)

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