Yes, we were waiting for him. The amazing Johnnie To came to the 30° Mar del Plata International Film Festival and left his mark. But not on the beach or the pavement, on the memory of all his fans, who enjoyed him twice: in a Master Class held at El Puente and in the presentation of Office, his latest film, screened at Panorama: Authors.
Most people got pictures and autographs from our guest of honor. Always smiling and in a good mood, Johnnie answered all the questions people asked him. His simplicity was complemented with the warmth with which he explained every answer he gave the audience.
Johnnie To was born in Hong Kong and made his first film in 1978. "I felt I wasn’t ready to get into cinema. For seven years, I worked in soup operas. Only in 1986 I made my second film. At first I only did commercial films. In Hong Kong, if you don’t start with a commercial hit, it’s hard for you to keep shooting. We didn’t have much creative freedom. The real stars were the actors, who made all the decisions regarding production”, declared To. "I only started having some control when I created Milkyway in 1996. Next year will be the 20thanniversary of its creation”.
Office is the director’s first incursion in the musical genre, a filmmaker who usually goes for the action genre. But Johnnie always surprises us and he also makes a justified and optimal use of 3D technology. "In this case, 3D was only a test. It’s a future preparation”, he humbly stated.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in the class and the interviews was when he confessed he works with incomplete scripts and never uses storyboards. This is striking, considering To is an artisan of action genre and sequence shots. Breaking News’s opening scene is absolutely outstanding and unforgettable, where the main conflict is presented with no cuts. "It was a prank”, he admitted. "It was only going to last one minute but it wasn’t enough so I extended it. I’d never done such a long shot. It was a creative challenge and it took us three days to rehearse it”.
"I realized I don't control the film. The film controls me".
Johnnie To is a fan of his profession, though he confessed he only does it so as not to stay at home, bored, feeling useless. Every time his wife gets home, she asks him: "When are you going to go to work?”. The director stated that it is the only thing he knows. "Cinema is amazing. It’s alive. I’d like to keep doing films until I’m 90”.
For the director, going from one genre to the next is not difficult. In fact, he says he only makes action films when he is inspired. Though he sometimes shoots two or three films per year, the time it takes him to complete them is relative: "I made a film in three years and another one in one month. There’s no limit”.
"If I'm not inspired, I make other genres”.
Regarding the direction of actors, he considers himself a lazy person. "I don’t like to cast and I find it boring to start new relationships. My favorite actor is Anthony Wong because he does exactly what I tell him. Every actor is different, some are more accessible than others and easy to direct”.
One of the most recurring questions was whether he had been asked to direct a film in Hollywood. "Yes, but I never liked the scripts they presented me”, answered in a very economical way. "I don’t work in an exemplary way. I don’t use scripts, I go and I shoot. I don’t plan the shooting days. That’s why I could never work there. In fact, when I co-direct a film is because a director continues my work as I begin another shooting”.
Though he is often compared with Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone, he says he does not know exactly where those influences are, yet he admitted he was offered to do the remake of The Red Circle. The story is Buddhist and the original film is very good. They wanted me to make a faithful version, but I wanted to make my own non-Buddhist reading. I don’t want to be Melville’s shadow”. And though his comedies have similarities with Lubitsch’s or Hawks’ slapstick, he says he does not know the genre or those directors. His only influence is Akira Kurosawa: "there is not a single Chinese director I like”.
Johnnie To proved to be a simple and humble person, lover of good food: "In all of my films the characters eat because it’s something human. I love eating and I’m enjoying Argentine meat”.
He does not consider himself a political director though he admits his films have a certain criticism. He is, however, tough on the distribution systems in his country: "The bigger the budget, the less chances you have to shoot freely and that impacts the shooting process. I made a film in a very short time in a single shot, I edited myself in 3 days and distributed it”. However, he says he never hurries his cinematographers up during shooting: "When the light is ready we shoot, but I never tell them anything”.
To round it off, he spoke a bit about two recurrent issues in his filmography: the stock-market and the universe of triads, the Chinese Mafia.
"The crisis was very tough and I lost a lot of money. It was an important but difficult time in my life”, he admitted. But his interest for gangster films is more personal: "I always lived very near the triad zone and I know it well. It’s something very real to me. I always read about it”.
So, here was Johnnie, with humor and good mood, enjoying Mar del Plata’s whether and cinephile atmosphere. A guest of honor to close the Master Classes of this 30° edition.