20 Essential Johnnie To Films You Need To Watch

7. Running Out of Time (1999)

Running Out of Time

One of Milkyway’s greatest commercial hits up until that time, Running Out of Time is a wonderfully entertaining action thriller, which despite some major plot holes, manages to be thoroughly engrossing through its stylish direction, great chemistry between the two lead characters and great pacing.

Andy (Andy Lau), a master thief, discovers that he has only a few more weeks to live. As a result, he
decides to revenge his father by taking more risks than he has ever done before and by making tenacious police inspector Ho (Lau Ching-Wan) his unknowing accomplice in an attempt to play an elaborate trick on one of Hong Kong’s major triad bosses. What ensues is a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse between the thief and the inspector, who starts suspecting that there might be more than meets the eye to this audacious jewel thief.

An immensely fun film to watch, Running Out of Time finally got Andy Lau some critical respect as he won the Best Actor Award as the Hong Kong Film Awards that year. But Lau Ching-Wan is in equal good form and the two lead characters do a fine job turning this action mystery into a sort of buddy movie as their relationship develops throughout the film. Light but great entertainment.


6. Life Without Principle (2011)


A fairly unique film in Johnnie To’s filmography, Life Without Principle is an ironic and satirical drama with a healthy does of social commentary, dealing with the Global Financial Crisis and its effects on various citizens in Hong Kong.

Told in a non-linear fashion, the film alternates between various storylines which ultimately intersect in one way or another. There’s the story of a cop (Richie Ren) who is investigating a murder as his wife is planning to buy an expensive apartment. Then there’s Teresa, a bank employee who is pressured into making more not-so ethical sales as well as low-level triad Panther (Lau Ching-Wan) who is experiencing some financial troubles whilst he has just started broking stocks. As all of this is occurring, the stock market takes a serious tumble, leaving these characters in some seriously difficult positions.

Weaving a rich tapestry with his ensemble cast and their various storylines, Johnnie To manages to create a tense yet insightful drama, in which certain events are shown repeatedly as they are seen from different characters’ perspectives. Well acted, intricately told and directed with a steady hand, Life Without Principle is To’s most overt topical thriller and he delivers in spades.


5. Mad Detective (co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai – 2007)

mad detective

When frequent collaborators and colleagues Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai direct a film together, the results tend to be either more commercial or more whimsical and esoteric than To’s solo offerings. Mad Detective clearly belongs in the former category.

Lau Ching-Wan stars as inspector Bun, who claims he can see people’s “inner personalities” as they present themselves as different characters to him, which allows him, in combination with his knack of re-enacting crimes, to solve complex criminal cases. But when he cuts off his ear and presents it as a present to his boss, it is quickly decided that he might simply be bat-shit crazy and Bun is discharged from the police force even though he has solved many a case in his own idiosyncratic way.

As Bun can now no longer use his special gift to solve crimes, he feels utterly useless and starts losing the plot even further. Five years later however he is asked by inspector Ho to help with the case of a missing police officer. But when the prime suspect turns out to be a schizophrenic and the even more ideosyncratic Bun consequently sees and reacts to all seven of his personalities, inspector Ho starts to have serious doubts whether he made the right decision in asking for the old officer’s help.

Not you average crime procedural by a long shot, Mad Detective is a highly original piece of work with some serious wacky and fantastical elements. The premise of Bun being able to see people’s “inner personalities” as manifestations of different characters is not only used to solve mysteries but also to explore the inner complexities inside all of us and the effects such a gift has on Bun. If you’re willing to go a bit more esoteric than the many crime thrillers on this list, Mad Detective is a gem.


4. PTU (2003)


A highly stylized and moody crime thriller that takes place over the course of one night and which seems to do the impossible by making Hong Kong appear like a desolated blue neon lit and even spacious city.

The story revolves around sergeant Lo (Lam Suet in a rare lead performance although he has probably been in nearly every movie on this list) or more precisely his gun, which goes missing after he has an scuffle with a local gang. Assuming that one of the criminals has taken off with it, Lo asks PTU (Police Tactical Unit) leader Mike (Simon Yam) for help. Mike decides not to report the matter straight away and tries to help his friend find the gun during the course of that night. But as internal affairs is hot on their heels and as the thug who might have taken the weapon is killed and his triad boss father is out for revenge, possibly starting a gang war in the process, matters complicate rather quickly.

Beautifully shot in widescreen and seemingly random in its events at times, PTU is Johnnie To’s modern day Hong Kong version of a film noir. Extremely moody and with minimal dialogue and a deliberate pace, this is certainly no action film but a slow burn thriller where the tension is bubbling constantly right under the surface.


3. Election I & II (2005 & 2006)


Okay, I’m cheating here by including two movies as one entry on this list but the films were made almost consecutively and really present one extended story. Often quoted as Johnnie To’s best works, it’s easy to think of these movies as the Hong Kong equivalent to the first two Godfather films.

The plot of both films is too intricate to go into detail here but the first film primarily deals with the power struggle between two individuals as one of Hong Kong’s biggest triads is looking to select a new leader, whilst the second film picks up two years later when the victor is supposed to give up his position again to allow new blood to take his place.

Don’t expect action-packed crime thrillers here. The Election films are intricate procedurals of the inner-workings of triad leadership and the process of succession. The first film is the more accessible of the two as the audience is presented with two protagonists caught up in a power-struggle. And whilst the second film doesn’t have this type of clear set-up, it does up the stakes when it comes to the underhanded intricacies needed to play the game in such shady organisations. The Election movies are To’s most serious gangster films and any self-respecting fan of the genre should make sure to see them.


2. The Mission (1999)

the mission

Johnnie To’s most controlled effort and the film that really introduced him in the West by way of various festivals, The Mission is often cited as To’s masterpiece. Far removed from the bombastic Heroic Bloodshed films of John Woo, The Mission is marked by ‘stillness’ and subverts plenty of conventions of the crime thriller genre.

After a failed assassination attempt on triad boss Lung (Ko Hung), it is apparent that he needs more professional bodyguards and that there might be a mole in his organisation causing his brother (Simon Yam) to recruit five outsider experts (Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet and Jackie Liu). Whilst the men start out with their own loyalties and friendships, they soon start to bond and create a tight unit, which ultimately will be tested even further after their initial mission has been completed.

Featuring some stunning highly original and interesting set pieces which display how the team works as a well oiled machine, the best example of which might be the shoot-out in a mall where only a few bullets are fired, Johnnie To delivers a unique gangster film here, which is perhaps best described as ‘minimalist’. The characters are given plenty of time to develop and in true Johnnie To style more is shown than told in often slightly idiosyncratic character moments . With all actors delivering stand-out performances, a highly stylized look, controlled direction which goes from kinetic action to meditative stillness and underlying themes of loyalty, friendship and brotherhood, The Mission is a classic in its genre and a must-see for all Hong Kong fans.


1. Running On Karma (co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai – 2003)

running on karma

The best example of many of the things which make Johnnie To such a utterly unique director, Running on Karma is a highly original piece of work which effortlessly blends various genres with striking results. An emotionally complex, thought-provoking, multi-layered and sophisticated film, which manages to be highly entertaining and fun at the same time.

The film tells the story of Big (Andy Lau), a stripping bodybuilder, who used to be a Buddhist priest. Big has a unique gift as he can see people’s “karma”. He gets visions of their previous lives and therefore can deduce how their karma will catch up with them in their current life. One night he is busted at for indecent exposure at a strip joint where coincidentally a murder has also taken place. As he is arrested by beautiful rookie cop Yee (Cecilia Cheung) he notices her bad karma from a previous life. Against better judgement he decides to help her with the murder case and tries to avoid the effects of karma from her previous life as Yee is clearly a good person in her current one. But will he able to so?

Running on Karma might upon first glance appear to have more in common with some of the over-the-top comedies directed by To and Ka-Fai. But nothing could be further from the truth. Even though it stars one of Asia’s biggest super stars, Andy Lau, running around in a muscle suit for most of the movie, and has plenty of bizarre and fantastical elements, the movie deals with some pretty complex and ultimately even dark themes, whilst simultaneously also seeming to skip between a myriad of genres effortlessly.

Sometimes you are watching a comedy, sometimes a gruesome thriller, sometimes a fantasy kung-fu movie, sometimes a mystery, only to end up with a denouement which is best described as that of a thoughtful and emotionally beautiful art film. Whilst the film is a lot to take in, especially for Western audiences, this might be in fact Johnnie To’s real magnum opus. A truly unique film which refuses to be categorised and seems to live in its own sphere of existence, Running on Karma is Milkyway at its very best.

Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.