2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Defining the popular auteur, or
what it means to be human within the machine
review by Caroline Guo
Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film by Stephen Teo (Hong Kong University Press, 2007). 294 pages.
Juxtaposed side by side, the two scenes appear to have nothing in common. However, they both make up Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s repertoire, with the former taking place in his critically acclaimed action film The Mission (1999) and the latter in his recent romantic comedy Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011).
Stephen Teo’s book Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film follows To’s works up to 2007 (Exiled), celebrating the filmmaker as an auteur and offering detailed analyses on his ability to modify generic standards. While To’s contemporaries such as John Woo and Tsui Hark have long been hailed as auteurs, Teo claims that To has often been unjustly overlooked. As a result, Teo contends throughout the book that To is largely responsible for rejuvenating the Hong Kong action genre with his personal, idiosyncratic contribution, creating films that transgress conventions and defy clear-cut classification.
At the same time, no trace of the stylistic panache and fatalism in The Mission remains in the feel-good romcom Don’t Go; gone are the references to his native Hong Kong—even the location shifts from Hong Kong to mainland China and the language from Cantonese to Mandarin. It would appear to be the logical route to go, as romantic comedies are much more likely than action films to secure mainland funding and reel in large audiences, thus proving more profitable vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China. In effect, Don’t Go grossed nearly 10 million yuan in China on its opening day and heralded To’s biggest box office opening to date. [open endnotes in new window] It seems that in more recent years, To has increasingly looked to reach mainstream, international audiences in order to maximize economic profit (with his most recent 2012 theatrical release Romancing in Thin Air also featuring a romantic storyline).
What does it actually mean, then, to be an auteur, especially in terms of a filmmaker working within the generic systems of popular cinema? And would the turn to a romantic comedy such as Don’t Go, which deviates from his overall reputation as an action director, somehow diminish Teo’s claims of To as a stand-out auteur of Hong Kong cinema? I intend to explore these questions with respect to not only Teo’s assertions supporting To’s particular auteurism but also his definition of the auteur, and especially the popular auteur.
The figure of the auteur was famously raised in François Truffaut’s 1954 manifesto in Cahiers du Cinéma, in which he recognized filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and Jean Renoir as true “men of the cinema”—ones who had the audacity to raise film to an art form (39). Individual filmmakers are thus singled out as artists exercising distinct world views and seeking to challenge the standing conventions of filmmaking. While Teo partly follows in the vein of classical auteur theory by distinguishing To’s unique stylistic trademarks that challenge the norms of the Hong Kong action genre, he takes a more relational approach in contemplating the auteur. That is to say, he argues that To’s auteurism is one that thrives within the constraints of genre cinema; necessitates collaboration with other producers, directors, and writers; and straddles the line between generic standards and personal style.
In fact, as Teo claims, To’s identity as an auteur only becomes evident when his films are considered within the overarching framework of genre cinema. For instance, the static positioning in the aforementioned scene in The Mission proves remarkable when viewed with respect to a larger body of Hong Kong action films. Teo explains:
“The inaction-within-action principle has a relevance which can only be appreciated when we pitch it against the maxim of speed and fast-paced action that is standard practice in the Hong Kong cinema” (119).
Teo thus implies that any analysis of To’s specificity must include an understanding of the wider context of Hong Kong genre cinema: auteur and genre do not only inform each other, but also must be contemplated with respect to one another. As a result, I find that one of the most striking implications of Teo’s book is the contemplation of popular auteurism—or the attempt to situate where the auteur stands amidst the systems of industry and genre.
In his article titled “The Auteur Theory Reexamined,” Donald E. Staples in Cinema Journal (1966) claims:
“In film…the artistic variables are so numerous and so constantly changing from one production to the other that it is difficult to establish a one-to-one ratio and discover who the auteur of any film really is” (4).
Films (especially industry productions) are inevitably group creations, involving an assembly line of roles that includes not only those making the film but also those in marketing, exhibition, distribution—potentially implicating the industry as a whole. Consequently, Staples’s statement suggests that the finished product should be attributed more to the exchanges between these groups than to the input of any one individual.
In effect, Teo emphasizes the importance of To’s founding of the Milkyway production company in 1996 and his role as the “creative producer” and “nucleus” alongside groups of writers, directors, and producers (67). In conjunction with other filmmakers (Wai Ka-Fai, John Woo, and Patrick Leung for example), To began to create his more notable works, or what Teo calls “line of products,” which better connotes the economic and mechanical aspects of filmmaking (67). As the word “nucleus” also suggests the existence of a constellation of forces surrounding the nucleus and feeding off one another, this term seems to signify the importance of collaboration in To’s films. The influence from other filmmakers is undeniable; hence, while To may function as the engine jump-starting the creative process, the look of the resulting product comes from the efforts of a larger machine at work.
However, while acknowledging the importance of the Milkyway company, Teo looks to distinguish To as the principal figure, or the auteur at the head of these productions. Although To is often credited as an associate director or producer and sometimes not credited at all, Teo claims that he actually played a leading role in most of the productions, proving his auteur status. Apparently, as the “creative nucleus,” To is described as the main individual responsible for both upholding the company’s reputation of originality and developing the films’ distinct style and themes.
Tellingly, this tension between the presence of the “machine” (the company) and the figure of the human individual (To) emerges throughout the book—not only in describing the workings of the Milkyway company and Hong Kong film industry, but also in analyzing one of To’s major thematic threads. In tracing his films over time, Teo claims that one of the themes prevalent throughout is the conflict between individuals and reigning societal structures:
“[F]ate in To’s films is akin to the “Destiny-machine”, a term employed by Tom Gunning to refer to ‘larger, impersonal and often sinister systems’ bearing down on the characters” (11).
The idea of the “Destiny-machine” thus refers to the impossibility of escaping one’s fate, as characters in To’s films are frequently enclosed within fatalistic circles and circumstances. Furthermore, these circumstances are often pre-prescribed systems condemning individuals to their destinies, such as triad laws, police duties, and firefighter obligations. Although these systems have been set into place and enforced by their human agents, they have grown too powerful for mere individuals to confront, ultimately determining said individuals’ actions.
This eternal struggle against the Destiny-machine resonates with the bigger struggle outlined in Teo’s book, which is the position of the auteur working within the institutions and codes of the production company, industry, and genre. Constantly vacillating between mastery and loss of control, autonomy and dependency, both the fictional onscreen characters and off-screen filmmakers appear to find themselves defined by systems that surpass them in scale.
Teo’s book vacillates between extremes as well, as he initially declares To as an “outsider who doesn’t quite fit into the scheme of things” (25) yet concedes by the end:
“[To] is experimental as a result of working within the system of genre cinema and the industry which produces it. He does not work outside of the system and probably would not be able to function if he did” (210).
Evidently, there remains a certain tension between acknowledging To’s interaction with other filmmakers while aiming to prove him as the leading creative force, and between considering him a product of the system while demonstrating his defiance of this very system.
At the same time, I find that such contradictions prove conducive in demonstrating the difficulty of clearly defining the popular auteur entrenched in the commercial and industrial machine of genre cinema. Perhaps, then, it is this very ambivalence that best characterizes the notion of “Johnnie To the auteur,” as he ultimately exists as a stand-in for an amalgam of filmmaking facets rather than as a single director exercising his personal voice. Teo states:
“In referring to To as the auteur, I mean that he encompasses a variety of roles and egos: he possesses the egoistic elements of the writer, for example (in his case, he has a team of writers working to his specifications); he controls the actors and the director of photography; directs the production designer, determines the set-ups and the mise-en-scène; and, as producer, has final cut on most of his pictures’ (14).
Beyond just “encompassing” these roles, I would argue that To’s auteurism is also based in representing these roles: meaning, the extent to which he is personally responsible for all of these aspects of filmmaking may remain debatable, but what is significant is that he has come to embody the delivery of these tasks.
As a result, the contradictions and multiplicity that make up Teo’s analyses of To’s auteurism signal the popular auteur as an individual who stands as a figurehead for the various parts and gears involved in the filmmaking process—a process, in the case of To’s Milkyway company, concerned with creating products that follow expectations of certain genres yet manage to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. Thus, To’s auteurism does not only imply coexisting with production procedures, popular generic systems, and conditions of the Hong Kong film industry, but also coalescing with such factors.
Unevenness and the flaw of being human
Upon viewing To’s most recent, romantic works, it would seem that he has moved on from being one of the key auteurs of Hong Kong action cinema (Exiled, the last film Teo analyzes, is an action film and also features much of the “inaction-within-action principle” showcased in The Mission.) However, Teo argues that signs of unevenness and inconsistency should be regarded as virtues and essential components of auteurship: for Teo, unevenness reflects the filmmaker’s ability to dabble in diverse genres and styles, displaying a constant, unpredictable evolution. After all, Don’t Go isn’t the first time that To has forayed into romantic comedy (the first being Needing You in 2000), and the fact that he has explored (is exploring, and most likely will still explore) such a wide range of genres should be celebrated instead of condemned.
Furthermore, while The Mission couldn’t appear more different from Don’t Go in terms of genre, style, and cast (the former is male-dominated while the latter features a female protagonist), there remains an underlying theme tying them together, which is the destabilizing potential of human flaw and weakness. In The Mission, the youngest member of the gang makes the mistake of sleeping with the boss’s wife, which breaks down the bonds of the tight-knit group; in Don’t Go, the “other” man’s sexual capriciousness and violent impulses disturb the woman’s more secure, stable relationship with her eventual fiancé. Also, in other films made after the publication of Teo’s book, the protagonists continue to display similar tendencies: in Sparrow (2008), the gang members find themselves both physically and emotionally weakened by the charms of a pretty woman working for the rival gang, and in Mad Detective (2007), the genius investigator who ends up cracking the case through his quirky methods also falls victim to his own mental instability.
Teo points out that this theme of “flawed humanity” constantly runs alongside that of the Destiny-machine, eventually undermining the smooth running of a given system (55). Indeed, flaws are frequently highlighted—not necessarily as negative attributes, but instead as sources of diversion and entertainment. For example, the youngest gangster’s seduction of the boss’s wife in The Mission forces a suspenseful rift within the gang, and the third man’s intrusive behavior in Don’t Go manages to keep the couple from becoming too picture-perfect.
And, like the Destiny machine, the presence of such flawed humanity could apply to the individuals both onscreen and off: even when To appears to be inconsistent, he is continually expanding on his current body of work and, most importantly, providing us with more varied forms of entertainment. Furthermore, especially with a film like Don’t Go that is centered on the heartbreaks of a female character and features a fairytale “happily ever after” ending, To breaks from his reputation as a macho, fatalistic filmmaker.
In fact, such “breaks” have always been occurring throughout To’s career: he showcased a female character as a central protagonist in his 2008 film Sparrow and his earlier Heroic Trio (1993) boasted an all-female fighting trio. As Teo succinctly concludes, “[t]he function of the auteur is to be unpredictable” (208). Difficult to tell what direction he will head next, To and his Milkyway company’s constant shifting allows for a dynamic exploration of the cracks within the system. That is to say, while each genre may pose constraints, it is the combination of roles and genres—the “and”—that defines To’s multi-faceted auteurism: writer and director and producer of commercial and art-house and action and melodrama and romance and comedy and…?
This lingering and—this hint of future fluctuation and discovery—proves worthy of further examination if we continue in the direction of Teo’s study of To’s role as popular auteur. If no longer predominantly an auteur of Hong Kong action cinema, perhaps a more detailed study of his recent forays into romantic genres should follow. The potential for flaw and inconsistency thus becomes a quality not to be dismissed but instead foregrounded as the telltale sign of the director in action—a director who might function as an engine, but not one without a heartbeat.
2. See John Hess’s explanation of Truffaut’s manifesto in “La politique des auteurs, part 2: Truffaut’s manifesto,” Jump Cut, no. 2 (1974): 20-22.
Staples, Donald E. “The Auteur Theory Reexamined.” Cinema Journal vol. 6 (1966-1967): 1-7.
Teo, Stephen. Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007.
Truffaut, François. “Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français.” Cahiers du Cinéma no. 31 (January 1954): 15-29.
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