Monday, November 4, 2013

Johnny To: 10 Films Streaming on Roku

Katherine Spring, recent author of Saying It With Songs: Popular Music and the Coming of Sound to Hollywood Cinema (congrats, Katherine!) posted an interesting link on her Facebook page to Ranked: The Films of Johnnie To From Worst to Best. Almost everyone commenting on the link agreed that there were problems with the rankings (that is true of all such lists, and that is why people keep making them), but nearly everyone agreed that the list itself was ambitious. While many fans in the West know To for his action and triad films, this list does a good job recognizing his romance and comedy output as well.  While I'm a personal fan of Running on Karma (2003), I'm not sure if I would place it at #3 among the films that I've seen so far, but then again clearly Jake Cole at has seen more of To's overall output than I have. His list has 49 titles, of which I have seen 20, most of which are the action films (and most are at the top of his list).

What inspired me to follow up on this list with a blog entry today was Cole's placement of Romancing in Thin Air (2012) at number 1 on the list. It's one I hadn't seen, or even heard of. Cole points out that while it has not been released in theaters or on DVD in the United States, it is currently available on Hulu (free Hulu in fact, not just Hulu Plus).  I did a little more digging and discovered it is also available on Amazon Prime Instant Video, for those who want to avoid Hulu's ads.

Romancing in Thin Air is certainly a charming, if somewhat predictable, romance. While watching it I was reminded how To has viewed his output as one film to keep Milkyway Studios going strong, then one film for the critics.  Certainly this film is for a general audience, it's well crafted and acted and certainly worth a look for those who are less familiar with this significant part of To's output.  I'm not as crazy about it as Jake Cole at, but it does fit in interesting ways into To's recurring themes in his non-triad work. Also streaming on Amazon Prime Instant Video is the #16 film on Cole's list, Don't Go Breaking My Heart (2011, co-directed by Wai-Ka Fai), which I also hope to catch up with in the near future.

The other recent To films hat have received more attention from the critics currently are also worth checking out. Drug War has several interesting genre twists that really get you just when you think you know where the film going, and its third act really punches you in the gut. Life Without Principle is a clever network narrative following several characters on the day of a global financial meltdown. It features some abrupt shifts in tone that only To seems to be able to pull off effectively (or perhaps only To is allowed to get a away with).

I did a March, 2011 blog entry on To films streaming on Netflix, but while those links still bring you to the film's Netflix page (the links are not broken), very few of those titles are still streaming.

Posters and Synopses from The Movie Database unless noted.

Romancing In Thin Air (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2012, 111 minutes)

Amazon Instant Video: After a popular actor is jilted at the altar by an actress he travels to the mountainous area of Yunnan province. There, he finds true love with a heartbroken woman who is also a secret fan of the actor.

Drug War (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2012, 105 minutes)

The taciturn police commander Zhang leads an undercover drugs team and in his continuous battle against the ubiquitous drug barons, takes up arms against his arch enemy, Timmy Choi. When he gets hold of Choi, he makes a deal with him: in exchange for his life (in China you can get the death penalty for producing only 50 grams of drugs) the young criminal will help the police infiltrate a sizeable drug network.

Life Without Principle (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2011, 87 minutes)

A criminal, a bank clerk and a police officer find their destinies entwined when a loan shark gets assaulted after having withdrawn $10 million from the bank in the midst of the world financial crisis.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Johnny To & Wai Ka-Fai, Hong Kong, 2011, 115 minutes)

Mainlander & financial analyst Cheng Zixin (Gao Yuan-Yuan), who followed her then boyfriend Owen (Terence Yin) to Hong Kong, runs into her ex-boyfriend while riding the bus. Owen is now with his pregnant wife and when his wife spots Owen talking to his ex she she freaks out. Cheng hurriedly gets off the bus and, being in a daze, is almost run over by a car. A haggard drunk named Fang (Daniel Wu) then saves Cheng. Meanwhile, in a nearby car, sits CEO Cheung Shen (Louis Koo) who watches everything that transpires. CEO Cheung Shen is a playboy who also works in an office building directly adjacent to Cheng Zixin. Cheung Shen soon starts to woo Cheng Zixin by sending messages to her through the window of his office building. The drunk haggard Fang, who saved Cheng Zixin's life, runs into Cheng Zixin a few weeks later. It turns out that the drunk haggard is a Canadian-born top architect going through personal problems. They soon become friends.

Vengeance (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2009, 108 minutes)

François Costello arrives in Hong Kong to avenge the death of his daughter and her family, who were murdered by hired killers. Twenty years before, Costello was a professional hitman... As Costello's memory is fading away, three professional killers, Kwai, Chu and Lok, are sought to help him complete his revenge plan.

Triangle (Johnny To & Ringo Lam & Tsui Hark, Hong Kong, 2007, 101 minutes)

Small-timer Fei (Louis Koo), his harried buddy Sam (Simon Yam), and antique store owner Mok (Sun Hong Lei) are all in desperate need of money. Fei wants his friend to drive a robbery getaway car but Sam backs out, throwing Fei in trouble with the triads. As the three are arguing, a mysterious man leaves them a map, leading them to an unlikely treasure under the Legislative Council building. All their financial woes seem to be solved after a late-night heist, but they are being tracked by shady cop Wen (Lam Ka-Tung), who is carrying on an affair with Sam's emotionally unstable wife, Ling (Kelly Lin), and has connections with Fei. When the twisted relationship tangles come to light, the brotherhood dangerously breaks down and the treasure ends up in the wrong hands.

Mad Detective (Johnny To & Wai Ka-Fai, Hong Kong, 2007, 89 minutes)

A rookie cop teams up with a former detective with a supernatural gift to hunt down a serial killer.

Exiled (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2006, 110 minutes)

A friendship is formed between an ex-gangster, and two groups of hitmen - those who want to protect him and those who were sent to kill him.

Election (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 2005, 115 minutes)

A drama-thriller centered on a democratic election within an organized crime society.

The Heroic Trio (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 1992, 88 minutes)

Tung and Ching were both adopted by the same master. But later Ching was abducted by the eunuch-Chan. Ching grew up and became scientist Li's assistant and Tung married officer Lau. Chat had escaped from Chan at 15 and became a thief-catcher. During Chan's intrigue the trio united to become "The heroines of the East".


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