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For love or money?

Updated: 2013-04-17 09:16
By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily)

For love or money?

Limelight | Johnnie To

The reigning king of Hong Kong gangster movies is dipping his toes in the mainland market, prompting questions of compromise and betrayal, themes often explored in his oeuvre, Raymond Zhou reports.

Johnnie To makes movies for one of two purposes: either to express himself or to make money for his company. He just won't tell you which movie falls into which category. "You'll have to take a guess," he says, whimsically.

The trouble is, even experts disagree which of his movies lean toward art and which toward commerce. It seems he has a way of blurring the line and fusing the two.

The same goes for Drug War, his new crime thriller. As his first salvo into the mainland market, which is much larger than his native Hong Kong, To has to make a few adjustments. "I'll have to follow the rules of 'political correctness'," he admits.

By that, he means that law-enforcement officers must be given a positive portrayal and bad guys have to be punished in the end. That kind of black-and-white treatment does not leave much room for subtlety or nuance, or characterization in the gray area. "But it does not matter in this film," To explains. "What counts most is human nature."

Johnnie To is the last heavyweight Hong Kong filmmaker to enter the mainland market.

For 10 years when Hong Kong movies were no longer counted as imports and his peers migrated north en masse to cater to a much larger audience, To held out with his quintessentially Hong Kong gangster shootout and mob extravaganza - but had tantalized with two romance movies.

To has emphasized that his approach to the gangster genre is different from that of John Woo even though they share similar themes, such as loyalty and brotherhood.

While Woo is operatic and over-the-top, To likes his work to be subdued and taut.

"I started with a more romantic and stylized method. But not every movie is suitable for that style. Some can be kinetic and realistic. It all depends on the subject matter," he tells China Daily.

But sometimes, stylization can be a way to avoid the pitfall of censorship, as realistically depicted violence can be more offensive. Drug War ends with a graphic scene of the execution of the bad guy, who has exceeded the amount of illegal drugs manufactured or trafficked that warrant the death penalty and has also betrayed all of his gangster friends and colleagues.


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