EVEN FOR THE CAREER of prolific filmmaker Johnnie To Kei-fung, these last few months have been busy. An exhausting city-by-city tour of the mainland to promote his gripping narcotics drama Drug War was followed by a whirlwind trip to the Cannes Film Festival to bang the drum for his latest offering, Blind Detective – a genre mash-up that blends everything from film noir to slapstick.
So it’s no wonder that, during the interview in the grounds of the Grand Hotel –with the 58-year-old Hong Kong auteur dressed in an orange puffer jacket and navy trousers – To’s body clock is playing havoc.
It’s mid-afternoon, the day after Blind Detective’s midnight premiere in Cannes.
“Because of the time difference, midnight is already very early in the morning for me.
So it’s not very easy for me right now,” he says. But he’s happy with how the film was received the night before.
For his sixth outing in Cannes, he seems content not to be in the competition this time. “I have no burden, no pressure. I never expected this film to be selected,” he says. “To me, a festival is an arts event, an exchange of ideas. My film is more entertainment and quite commercial. Of course, I’m very happy to be selected but at the same time I was quite surprised to see a commercial film selected. It’s quite unexpected.”
Blind Detective is his first collaboration with Andy Lau Tak-wah and Sammi Cheng Sau-man in nearly a decade, marking their seventh screen pairing, and their fourth collaboration with To. While the filmmaker worked with Cheng last year, on Romancing in Thin Air, he hasn’t worked with his longtime collaborator Lau since 2004’s Yesterday Once More, which was the last time this so-called box office “dream team” were all together.
While that “classic romance”, as To puts it, saw Lau and Cheng starring as newly divorced jewel thieves, Blind Detective takes a different approach. “This time, they [Lau and Cheng] wanted me to put in a new element. So we put in the detective story, with the elements of investigation,” To explains. “Also, we tried to put things in we’ve shown before in the previous three films [we did together] and mix them together to become a new film.”
It’s a melting pot technique that gives Blind Detective its crazy energy, as Lau plays Chong (or Johnston in the film’s English subtitles), a former cop who went blind four years earlier and was forced to leave the Hong Kong police. Like a sightless Sherlock Holmes, he retains a remarkable ability for deduction. Together with Cheng’s rookie cop, he works on a series of long-since abandoned cases, their madcap methodology including a series of crazy costume changes to re-enact the crimes.
It was Lau who suggested the idea – though initially he said his character should be a blind lawyer. After giving it some thought, To and his long-time collaborator, producer-writer Wai Ka-fai (one of Blind Detective’s four credited screenwriters), decided to change his occupation as “lawyers only talk, there’s no movement”.
While Chong is not the first blind detective to hit the screens – the short-lived US television show Blind Justice saw Ron Eldard play a sight-impaired cop – To knew exactly how he wanted the character to play out.
“He went blind four years ago; so he is not as blind as a blind man,” says the director, of the companion piece of sorts to 2007’s adventure Mad Detective.
“He knows what colour is. He knows human faces. So we wanted this blind man not to be isolated from the real world, because he lived in the world before and he knows what it is.”
Still, with Chong communicating with the ghosts of murder victims, To could hardly claim to be going for realism here.
Try telling that to Lau, though, who – stating this was one of the most challenging roles of his career – attended classes for six weeks at a centre for the visually impaired.
The director remains impressed with the actor he first met on the set of 1990’s A Moment of Romance, which he produced.
“Of course, we have been collaborating for more than 20 years. We started when he was twenty-something. Now he’s fiftysomething.
But with this long-term collaboration, we understand each other well. It is very smooth.”
In a way, you’d expect nothing less. To runs his operation with almost militarylike precision; since he and Wai formed production house Milkyway Image back in 1996, he’s produced, directed or codirected more than 50 films.
When asked what drives him, he gives an enigmatic answer. “Film is like a game for me, a toy. I can play with different kinds of toys when I make different films. And a lot of people play with you while you’re making a film. Of course, you earn money as well,” he says.
Yet there’s also an air of world-weary cynicism about the filmmaker that, at times, suggests he’s been in the business for too long (he made his first film – The Enigmatic Case – in 1980).
“Of course, I’ve made many different movies,” he says, “but I hope in the future I will make a film that I really like.”
He says he can count on one hand the films – The Mission, PTU, Exiled, Sparrow and Life Without Principle – that he enjoyed making. The rest were “business projects”.
Perhaps it’s that To has never quite achieved mainstream international recognition. Or that he never reached the great heights of those who influenced him when he was growing up – Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa and Jean-Pierre Melville.
“I saw these movies in my teens. At that moment in your life, you are most influenced by things. So my style now is taken most from that era.”
There is also the feeling that the Hong Kong film industry is gradually becoming absorbed into the mainland. “Mainland movies are at the very beginning. They have a lot of potential to go up. But if you’re talking about freedom, and the way to produce a film, Hong Kong is still quite different from [the rest of] China. Hong Kong provides freedom.”
His time on Drug War, dealing with bureaucrats and their underlings, and then yet more underlings, has clearly coloured his view.
On Blind Detective, To had an easier time, shooting some scenes meant to be set on the mainland in Hong Kong, and some in Macau. Yet despite some evident feelings of gloom, To hasn’t given up fighting to realise his personal visions. He has plans to make a third Election film by 2015, a decade on from the original dip into the Hong Kong underworld.
He’ll be 60 then – still five years away from his planned retirement, when he will hand over the reins of his company. Given his work rate, he probably deserves a rest.
Blind Detective opens on July 4