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Movie journey with Mr Minio

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You can't win an argument just by being right!
Good read, Minio! I didnt know the japanese banned showing genitalia. I thought it was OK as long as there was no pubic hair? Same for manga? I dont recall seeing any pink bits in films or manga when I lived there but I remember discussing this with some uni students.

Setsuko Hara is my co-pilot
Replaced some corrupted photos in my Pinku article!

Also, the number of pinku eiga films I've seen is 68 now.

I didnt know the japanese banned showing genitalia. I thought it was OK as long as there was no pubic hair?
Yeah. Both genitalia and pubic hair was strictly forbidden. However, in contemporary porn films, they take way more liberties. For one, the censure mosaic is much smaller and less blurry. Pubes are alright now, I guess. Also, the censorship does not apply to anuses. Porno shot in Japan still has to abide these laws, but there are some studios that shoot their films outside of Japan and that makes it possible for them to totally ignore the censorship laws!
In the strictest sense lesbians can't have sex at all period.

You can't win an argument just by being right!
I found their censorship absolutely fascinating when I was there. Quite surprising for a country that historically was pretty together with nudity in art (but same as westerners. Just look at how some people freak out at OMG bewbs and peens when we'ver had beautiful nude art through the ages). It;s skin. I dont get why it freaks some people out. You know, I dont want some guy flopping his best friend out when I'm having lunch in a restaurant but I dont understand why screen nudity is offensive.

Setsuko Hara is my co-pilot
The Romances of Johnnie To

Romancing in Thin Air (2012)

Johnnie To, a Hongkong director best known for his action and gangster films, is a prolific auteur of films spanning many genres. Besides his arguably most popular and critically-acclaimed Triad films, To has a long history of dabbling in Comedy and Romance. Often made to raise money for his more personal projects, To's romances get largely overlooked by critics and cinephiles alike, finding their popularity in the general audience. After having seen more than 40 films by Johnnie To, the alleged dichotomy (both in quality and artistry) between his romances and action/crime films melts away as I find To's romantic comedies and romantic dramas an inseparable part of his oeuvre. This piece of writing is both an attempt to bring attention to the underseen world of Johnnie To's romances and analysis of an important part of his body of work.

A Moment of Romance as Johnnie To's First True Masterpiece

It's 1990 and A MOMENT OF ROMANCE is released. Directed by Benny Chan and produced by Johnnie To, the film is a huge hit. Later on, Johnnie To famously claimed that he in fact ghost-directed the movie. This is going to happen again with the films of Patrick Yau, including but not limited to the electrifying THE LONGEST NIGHT. A MOMENT OF ROMANCE is an offbeat quasi-Romeo and Juliet type of story, in which Jo Jo, a young girl from a rich home played by the beautiful Jacklyn Wu, falls for an underdog gangster Wah Dee (Andy Lau) after being taken hostage following a bank heist. Visually slick and lavishly stylish, A MOMENT OF ROMANCE explores the forbidden love using motorcycle night-rides, a stolen wedding dress, and a romantic ballad.

A Moment of Romance (1990)

Two A MOMENT OF ROMANCE sequels were made. A MOMENT OF ROMANCE II, again directed by Benny Chan, sees Jacklyn Wu in a tragic romance. Cheesy songs and Hongkong cinema's trademark blue light are used for a good measure. An unexpected Anthony Wong performance cements the film as a worthy follow-up.

Johnnie To decides to signature A MOMENT OF ROMANCE III with his name. Unfortunately, the film is easily the weakest of the three. Jacklyn Wu and Andy Lau reunite in a cookie-cutter wartime romance, which occasionally offers smooth visuals but undercuts what was most touching about the first two installments, reducing A MOMENT OF ROMANCE III to a bland ableit tolerable mess of a film. To's flashy style works pretty well for the pastoral scenes, but the second part of the movie could be summed up as Johnnie To's PEARL HARBOR, which, I believe, warrants no further explanation.

Needing You... Or Where It All Starts

For the 2000 film NEEDING YOU..., Johnnie To teams up with his frequent co-director and writer Wai Ka-Fai. Two big stars, Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng do their best in a little romantic comedy that nevertheless exhibits ideas and traits that will define future Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai romantic comedy collaborations.

Exquisitely shot by To's regular cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung, NEEDING YOU... displays To's attraction to dolly shots and free-roaming, floating camera moves, which greatly enliven the film. Romantic comedies are rarely shot with such finesse. To doesn't seem to see the difference between romances and action scenes, and he shoots both with a great amount of style. Every To film is romantic, and he shoots action scenes like romance pieces and romance pieces like action scenes.

Toward the end of NEEDING YOU..., in an unexpected turn of events, Andy Lau is helped by a ghost motorcycle rider who turns out to be Andy Lau himself (obviously a throwback to his character from A MOMENT OF ROMANCE). This otherworldly element in an otherwise realistic film, besides being a wink to the audience, is a display of magic to be found in later Johnnie To movies.

To's characters often operate on two planes - that of reality and that of fiction, freely trespassing and blurring the line between the two. The boundaries are never truly definite, and a perfectly realistic film might unexpectedly turn quasi-fantastical. To's post-modern approach allows him to not only freely move between genres (this isn't new as countless other HK directors had an affinity for genre-hotpots) but also deconstruct tropes and recycle ideas to arrive at new points.

Sammi Cheng in Needing You...(2000)

NEEDING YOU... contains yet another trait to reappear in many future films. Fate. This time represented by a lucky love charm lost by Sammi Cheng and found by Andy Lau. It takes Lau a long time to realize the importance of his finding just as it takes him a long time to realize he loves Sammi. His attempts to throw the charm out of the window of his car prove fruitless because the charm, as if carried by the wind called fate, repeatedly flies back inside his car. Yet another beautiful, slightly transcendental moment.

Another visual idea reused in future To films is when Lau writes the eponymous words on a piece of cardboard, hoping that Sammi will see it. DON'T GO BREAKING MY HEART (2011) reuses this motif when two actors separated by space (yet another trait to appear many times in Johnnie To's work) - in this case, literal space in between the buildings - communicate with emojis and short texts written on a piece of paper.

Given all the traits and ideas packed up in this entertaining yet slight piece of filmmaking, NEEDING YOU... is a fine boilerplate for future romances of Johnnie To.

Romantic Comedies and Sammi Cheng

Released one year after NEEDING YOU..., LOVE ON A DIET brings Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai, Sammi Cheng, and Andy Lau back together. This time the two stars appear in wacky suits supposed to make them look fat. A visibly artificial costume will reappear in To's Buddhist parable on fate RUNNING ON KARMA (2003), in which Andy Lau (again!) wears an odd-fitting body-builder outfit and dances in a nightclub.

Sammi Cheng sings the theme song just like she did in NEEDING YOU... and will in ROMANCING IN THIN AIR.

MY LEFT EYE SEES GHOSTS released in 2002 finds Sammi Cheng trying to cope with the loss of her husband. To make it worse, she starts seeing ghosts (if you haven't already realized it from the title). A set of both hilarious and moving scenes ensues. This time the male lead is not Andy Lau, but another To regular Lau Ching-Wan - an underrated actor of great range. The mix of comedy and melodrama works exceptionally well in this tale of coping with grief and accepting loss - a theme that will appear in future Johnnie To films (and Wai Ka-Fai's WRITTEN BY).

2003 brings us LOVE FOR ALL SEASONS. Andy Lau joins Sammi Cheng in what is perhaps To's slightest romantic comedy. A dorky romance intersected with comedy and a shameless Nike & Puma ad (making films in HK is hard) are split between high altitude mountain ranges and a more regular city.

Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai direct another romantic comedy in 2003. TURN LEFT, TURN RIGHT has Takeshi Kaneshiro and Gigi Leung - two people obviously meant for each other, kept apart by fate. The two characters are often trapped in the same frame but go without noticing each other. The invisible space separates the protagonists outside. Inside, living in the same building, they are separated by a literal wall. Once they find each other, they promise to meet again, but a cruel turn of fate separates them again. Lost and found, then lost again, the two wander, trying to find each other. Then, in a breath-taking finale of the film, an almost divine intervention brings them back together.

Sammi Cheng in My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002)

YESTERDAY ONCE MORE (2004) is Johnnie To's riff on Ernst Lubitsch's TROUBLE IN PARADISE. Two jewel thieves - Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng - divorce, and then find each other again after a set of events. Constantly playing a love-game, often using cruel jokes and trying to outsmart each other, the pair goes from one frame to another. Mr. and Mrs. To (sic!) love each other deeply but it doesn't stop them from playing dirty, misleading each other, and keeping secrets. The film is madly entertaining, and it's worth noting that some scenes take place in Italy.

All His Films Are Romantic and the Perhiperies

In 2008's LINGER, an ineffective and insipid revival of the coping with loss theme, a woman sees a ghost of her boyfriend who died in a car crash. The movie is a more serious version of MY LEFT EYE SEES GHOSTS, but has neither the charm nor power of the Sammi Cheng film. As a matter of fact, Linger might be To worst film whose sole merit was that it cleared the trail for ROMANCING IN THIN AIR.

Johnnie To directed many films in genres other than romantic drama or romantic comedy, but a certain air of romance is inseparable from his work. To finds poetry in the least expectable places. For example, a dense thriller like BREAKING NEWS (2004) contains a totally off-the-hook romantic moment toward the end. A meeting of two strangers is heightened by a sense of sentimental beauty. Similarly, RUNNING OUT OF TIME has an arresting, magical moment of the same nature.

A musical-without-songs, SPARROW (2008) might not be explicitly romantic in the usual sense, but the following scene might be To at his most alluring.

And then you have many scenes that I wouldn't call romantic, but rather magical, enchanting. Like the red balloon scene in THROWN DOWN (2004).

But these are digressions meant to show how eclectic Johnnie To is. Let's get back to our topic and deep-dive into what I consider Johnnie To's all-time best.

Romancing in Thin Air or The Power of Cinema

ROMANCING IN THIN AIR (2012) is Johnnie To's magnum opus. It takes the ideas and traits from the romances he made until now and turns them into a tour-de-force of romantic drama, adding a meta-layer and finishing on the most powerful, touching, loveable note imaginable. A film that is doubly moving. On one layer, it moves you with its story. On another, with To's belief in the therapeutic and healing power of cinema. Cinema that changes lives.

And when it comes to movies there are rules and there is an exception. Life is the rule. THE THIN BLUE LINE is an exception. The exception is still a subset of the rule, only much more visible, tangible, popular. ROMANCING IN THIN AIR, just like the late works of Nobuhiko Obayashi, balances on a thin line between the rule and the exception.

ROMANCING IN THIN AIR is a disassemblage of the romance genre and a great treatise on Johnnie's work. Sammi Cheng cannot cope with the death of her husband who got lost in the mysterious labyrinth woods next to a picturesque hotel. It's a secluded place rightly reflecting Sammi's own few-year-long retreat from acting. Meanwhile, a great star played by Louis Koo ditches his bride-to-be and appears out of nowhere in the high-altitude hotel. You can guess the rest. Sammi Cheng is a great fan of Koo and a fan of A MOMENT OF ROMANCE at that, including a motorcycle and countless gadgets and posters!

Romancing in Thin Air (2012)

Koo falls for Sammi and wants to win her heart by mimicking whatever her late husband did to win her heart. Her husband behaved like Koo does in films, and now Koo has to behave like her husband and therefore like himself in film. Sammi falls for a movie image, then falls for a man reproducing this movie image, and then falls for a man who was that movie image (he isn't that image in real life but then redoes the image so that she falls in love with him). Before Sammi would bring an image to life using a real person, she would project that image to that person. But by directing a film in which Sammi's husband didn't die, Koo brings a real person to life using an image. It's upside-down - a negative thing turned positive. And this is the true power of cinema demonstrated in one of the most sincere, powerful ways. Art can do what life cannot. “Film can change the future, if not the past” as Obayashi said. And exactly this is what makes ROMANCING IN THIN AIR To's best.

ROMANCING IN THIN AIR is an amalgamation of To's previous efforts: it has a motorcycle from A MOMENT OF ROMANCE, a high-altitude place like LOVE FOR ALL SEASONS, coping with loss through art like WRITTEN BY, coping with loss through resurrection or haunting like LINGER and MY LEFT EYE SEES GHOSTS, characters separated from each other or imprisoned within a frame like TURN LEFT, TURN RIGHT, and a strong element of fate like many To films, including NEEDING YOU. Add to those moments of poetry, beauty, and romance so apparent in all To's previous work.

Bested by loss and afraid of the chance given by fate, Sammi Cheng is trapped within a frame, in a kaleidoscope of oppressive rectangles.

But above all, ROMANCING IN THIN AIR talks about relations between people, things and space in between. Between life and cinema. Between life and image. Between popular cinema and auteur film. Between a place, an object and the sentimental value they hold for us. ROMANCING IN THIN AIR makes us simultaneously fall in love with life and film, endlessly romancing on the themes occurring throughout Johnnie To's extensive filmography. This is a film for people who love life and cinema. I love life. I love cinema.

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I must admit I am only familiar with his gangster films like The Mission, Exiled and Election. I've always seen any romance threads as peripheral sub-plots in those films. Now I am interested in exploring this aspect - where they take center stage. Asking someone who has watched dozens of To's films, what are the common tropes and/or peculiarities that you see in his oeuvre that can be linked more broadly to Hong Kong cinema?