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20 Essential Johnnie To Films You Need To Watch

22 April 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Emilio Santoni

14. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011)

Don't Go Breaking My Heart

One of the clearly pure commercial outings on this list, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart saw Johnnie To’s return to romantic comedies after more than a decade away from the genre. The film stars two of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Louis Koo (another To regular) and Daniel Wu, as two men who compete over the affections of one girl.

Zixin is a girl who has recently been dumped by her boyfriend. Distressed about this she meets Qi Hong (Daniel Wu), seemingly a beggar but really an architect who has lost his mojo and has sought solace in the bottle. He helps her with her heartbreak and she re-awakens his old drive and they decide to meet again later on. But then the girl falls for Shen-Ran (Louis Koo), a fund manager who works in the office opposite hers and who starts flirting with her by means of cute post-it note compositions on his window.

The two set up a date but Shen-Ran misses it as he gets distracted by another lady whilst it also causes Zixin to forget about her initial date with Qi Hong. The three don’t see each other for three years but faith brings them all back together and the question becomes who will eventually end up with the girl.

With great performances by all three leads, inspired direction by To who displays his usual visual flair and a fun screenplay by Wai Ka-Fai, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is light fluffy entertainment but so much better than many of its peers. If you like rom-coms, this one comes highly recommended.

 

13. A Hero Never Dies (1998)

a hero never dies

Another crime thriller which pushes the brutal and cynical earlier works by Patrick Yau and Johnnie To and even the Heroic Bloodshed themes of John Woo so far to the limit that the film damn nearly becomes a right-out parody and a spoof of Milkyway’s trademark gangster films.

The film tells the story of Jack and Martin (Lau Ching-wan), two hitmen who have been working for two warring triad bosses. Despite working for opposite sides both men have a professional respect for each other which borders on friendship. When the triads come to a truce, both hitmen become redundant and are left for dead by their respective employers. But you can’t keep good hitmen down and soon the two join forces to exact revenge on their former employers.

A glorious homage to the gun blazing Heroic Bloodshed bromances mainly associated with John Woo, A Hero Never Dies is one of the only great examples of the genre as the century was coming to an end. If A Better Tomorrow is your idea of a Hong Kong classic, this is a must see.

 

12. Drug War (2012)

drug war

An important film for Johnnie To, Drug War was his first bona fide mainland China production, starring various mainland actors, a distinct mainland setting and dealing with a bunch of mainland cops who are trying to bust a gang of drug dealers. The wide open bleak Chinese landscapes give this movie a very distinct feel when compared to Milkyway’s earlier thrillers, as does the handling of the material as To had to work his way around the infamous Chinese censorship restrictions.

Louis Koo is Timmy Choi, a Hong Kong amphetamine manufacturer in China who gets busted after an explosion in his drug factory. Sentenced to death, Timmy decides to cooperate with the cops in order to avoid the death sentence and becomes their informer. From there on in the film becomes a crime procedural as the police and Timmy start working their way up the drug supply chain, starting with the little fish and leading to the bigger culprits and even a gang from Hong Kong. And as the stakes start rising, who can be really trusted?

Whereas the expectation was that To’s signature style and themes would have no chance under the strict censorship guidelines of mainland China, To managed to sidestep the potential issues nicely and delivered his strongest, most claustrophobic and bleakest crime thrillers in years.

 

11. Needing You (co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai – 2000)

Needing You

The second romantic comedy on this list and possibly the most famous and best one ever made by To is Needing You, which saw the first ever team-up of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng. The film broke box-office records in Hong Kong at the time and the duo became so popular that they have starred in three more To films since, in the process making Sammi Cheng yet another regular To performer and a bona fide Hong Kong superstar.

Kinki (Sammi Cheng) is an scatter-brained executive assistant who is forced to transfer to a department led by Wah-Siu (Andy Lau), just as it turns out that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Wah-Siu befriends Kinki as he appreciates her work-ethic and tries to help her with her relationship issues but the two slowly start to also develop feelings for each other. Wah-Siu’s ex however gets annoyed at how much time he spends with Kinki and sets her up with Roger, a handsome internet mogul who seemingly has it all.

Benefiting greatly from its highly likeable lead characters who display genuine chemistry throughout the movie and great direction, which doesn’t rely on exposition but visual flair instead, Needing You is one of the lightest and most inconsequential entries on this list but also one of the easiest ones to like. A must for rom-com fans and still the best collaboration between Lau and Cheng.

 

10. Throw Down (2004)

throw down

Possibly the most eccentric and idiosyncratic entry on this list (and apparently To’s personal favourite), Thrown Down takes place is a slightly surreal world where everybody seem to be initiated in the art of judo and where characters stop what they are doing at the drop of a hat to settle any sort of dispute by engaging in judo battles.

Sze-To (Louis Koo) was once one of Hong Kong’s greatest judo champions but nowadays he’s an alcoholic who has lost interest in the sport and runs a nightclub. One night Tony (Aron Kwok) turns up, intending to challenge the former champ, but seeing his state he decides to wait and hangs around the club taking a job as a jazz saxophonist. Meanwhile and aspiring singer as well as an old judo master both also start pushing Sze-To to return to the sport, especially when it becomes apparent that a judo tournament is coming to town.

Throw Down is one hell of an atmospheric albeit slightly surreal mood film. To makes Hong Kong look lush and bathes the city in stunning reds and blues during the night time scenes whilst setting the action to smooth jazzy grooves. Not the most accessible film but an interesting and unique personal vision of To, which seems to exist somewhere between his own noir thrillers and a homage to Akira Kurosawa’s debut about Judo, Sanshiro Sugata.

 

9. Breaking News (2004)

breaking news

Part gun-blazing action film, part media satire, Breaking News starts with an almost seven minute crane assisted continuous take of a major shoot-out between cops and mainland robbers, which sucks the viewer straight into the proceedings.

As the shoot-out which opens the movie ends, the media films a police-officer surrendering to the bad guys. The footage causes an uproar and public opinion sways against the police force. When the cops trace the gang to a densely populated apartment block, they try to flush the gang out whilst simultaneously saturating the airwaves with a strategically planned media campaign to win back the general public. But when it turns out that the criminals might be better at manipulating the media than the cops and it also appears that there is another pair of mainland hitmen holed up in the building, things start getting out of hand.

Directed with flair and his knack to subvert genre conventions (as when the criminals prepare a dinner for their hostages, which they all share with gusto), Johnnie To keeps the movie moving at a steady pace whilst alternating satire and fine-tuned action sequences with ease. The film was remade in Russia as Newsmakers but the original is where it’s at.

 

8. Exiled (2006)

Exiled

A sequel of sorts to one of To’s greatest films, The Mission, Exiled at times feels like a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of all the elements that make To’s noir crime thrillers exceptional. And that can never be a bad thing.

Four hitman (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Francis Ng and Roy Cheung – all To regulars and all returning from very similar yet not identical roles in The Mission) are sent to Macau. Two of them are there to take out their former buddy Wo (Nick Cheung) after a failed assassination attempt on their boss Fay (Simon Yam), whilst the other two are there to protect their old friend. After an initial shoot-out in which nobody dies, the five men soon find themselves having dinner together and reminiscing about their shared past. But boss Fay isn’t down with their new found friendship and soon all five men are gunning for their lives.

All the familiar To gangster elements are here: honour amongst friends and gangsters, cool looking hitmen, stunning photography, incredible gun battles and echoes of one of To’s most lauded gangster films (in which a fifth member of the team had to escape the wrath of their boss at the end of the movie). This one seems to have been designed for the Milkyway fan boys and it delivers in spades. A classic over-the-top Hong Kong gangster extravaganza.

 

 

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  • Nathan J.

    Amazing List! I wonder if you have seen the To co-directed “The Big Heat” (1988). It was very brutal and violent, even for HK action standards.

  • Brice

    I was expecting to see the movie “Vengeance” on the list, but the list is great.

  • Snow

    Running on Karma at no 1?! That’s a joke.