Woo who?: TIFF showcases Johnnie To's tenure as king of Hong Kong crime films

By Jim Slotek

When John Woo went Hollywood, somebody had to step up as his heir apparent in the Hong Kong crime thriller genre. With his stylish approach to violence, comic touch and knack for cool criminal characterization, Johnnie To was the guy.

To - a frequent invitee to the Toronto International Film Festival - is in town this week to introduce three of his greatest works that are screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox retrospective Johnnie To: Expect the Unexpected (Oct. 26-Dec. 28).

 Simon Yam in Johnnie To's 2005 classic Election

Simon Yam in Johnnie To's 2005 classic Election

His first introduction tonight is for The Mission, the 1999 film that launched his career atop the genre.

A rather jaunty tale of revenge, deceit and gun-bonded friendship, The Mission introduces us to four goofballs-for-hire, Roy (Francis Ng), Shin (Jackie Chung-yin Lui), Mike (Roy Cheung) and Fats (Suet Lam), who are commissioned by a mob boss (Eddy Ko) after a nearly successful attempt on his life.

The whodunit is actually the least important part of the movie, the narrative being a series of noisy encounters with various interested parties, from which our boys always just barely emerge unscathed, but in good spirits regardless. (To break the tension, they do things like slip each other exploding cigarettes).

And tension is a To go-to. The build-up to each bout of violence can be endless and stomach-tightening, with random close-ups of everything from gun cartridges to water dripping from a sports car exhaust. This was a stylist just getting started.

Put The Mission on steroids and you have Election, probably To’s most internationally-popular movie (which he’ll intro on Friday along with its sequel, Election II: Harmony Is A Virtue) The 2005 film is about the process of filling the vacuum atop a 50,000-strong Hong Kong Triad – the top candidates for which represent two wildly different approaches to running a criminal organization.

Cool and rational Lok (Simon Yam) is the kind of boss who puts the “organized” in organized crime. Meanwhile, Big D (Tony Ka Fai Leung) is a hot-tempered type whose tenure would involve solving problems with extreme violence. The elders in the Triad favour Lok for obvious reasons. But Big D has his own plans.

The result is more characters, more violence and a bigger canvas for To’s signature style.

Some 19 films are on offer in Johnnie To: Expect The Unexpected, including some that are unexpected indeed. Case in point, on a mellower note: 2015’s Office, a satirical musical set in a corporate office tower, featuring Sylvia Chang (from whose play the movie was adapted) as a ranking exec sleeping with the Chairman (Yun-Fat Chow).

Meanwhile, the chairman’s daughter Kat (Yueting Lang) is adored by a wide-eyed entry level employee employee Li Xiang (Ziyi Wang).

Seen two days apart from The Mission, Office, which screens Oct.28, provides an odd perspective on To’s career – from his earliest work to his near latest.

It’s almost too much To to digest at once.