2014 Honorary Doctorate
Mr Johnnie To has produced and directed over 50 films and received many accolades, including six “Best Director Awards” from Hong Kong Film Critics Associations and three “Best Director Awards” at each of the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan. His work has also been honoured with more than 20 international film awards, including “Lifetime Achievement Awards” at the Udine, Stiges and Locarno International Film Festivals.
Mr To entered the television industry at 17 as an office assistant with TVB. Five years later, he was Producer and Director of its Drama Department, and in 1979, at the age of 24, he made his directorial debut with The Enigmatic Case, which made history as the first Hong Kong film to be shot entirely on location on the Mainland. Feeling the need to improve his craft, Mr To returned to television and made a number of breakthrough features and drama series characterised by their cinematic approach and structure, including No One Is Innocent, The Flying Fox of Snowy Mountain, Fatal Assignment, The Iron Butterfly, and Story of Nam. In 1986, Mr To returned to the silver screen with a bang, helming a number of blockbusters for Cinema City & Films Co. and Cosmopolitan Film Productions Co. Ltd.(a division of Shaw Brothers). Titles include Seven Year Itch, Eighth Happiness, All About Ah Long, A Moment of Romance (three installments), The Heroic Hero (Parts I and II), and Justice, My Foot!, which took in HK$48 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing film of 1992. In 1995, Mr To made Loving You, which he considers the first film in which he attempted to assert a personal directorial style and vision – the hallmarks of filmmaker as auteur.
After making Lifeline in 1996, Mr To concentrated on directing and producing only for Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd., a company he had set up in 1993 with screenwriter Wai Ka-fai. Their prolific output includes Too Many Ways To Be No.1, The Odd One Dies, The Longest Nite, Expect the Unexpected, A Hero Never Dies, and The Mission. Unfortunately, the creation of his production company coincided with a downturn in attendances at Hong Kong cinemas, so while the films received critical acclaim they did not perform well at the box-office. In 2000, Mr To made Needing You..., a romantic comedy set in the workplace starring Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau, a sleeper hit which became a smash hit. Since then, Mr To has been balancing his output between mainstream madcap comedies for the commercial market and police/crime thrillers with a distinctive, personal style.
These thrillers stand comparison with the best on the international stage, being held in high regard by critics and scholars in the West and highly prized by international film festivals in Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Among the titles are PTU, Running on Karma, Breaking News, Throw Down, Election, Election 2: Harmony is a Virus, Exiled, Mad Detectives, Sparrow, Life Without Principle and Drug War. Drug War was the first of his films to be screened in the USA and made it onto the top-ten list of many American critics for 2013.
In the last decade, Mr To has devoted himself to nurturing a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers. In 2005, he took up the chairmanship of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s Film and Media Arts Group, and founded the Fresh Wave Short Film Competition to encourage aspiring young filmmakers to create and present their work. Nearly ten years later and the event has grown to become the Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival with entries from both tertiary institutions and the public. In recent years, the festival’s winning shorts have received invitations for screening at film festivals in Paris and Italy.
Mr To has contributed greatly to The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts by running many seminars and masterclasses. In 2006, he hosted a retrospective on the late Japanese master Akira Kurosawa in collaboration with the Academy’s School of Film and Television. In 2012, he and Milkyway Image co-financed the production of A Complicated Story, the first thesis production of the Academy’s Master of Fine Arts Degree in Film Production. Over the years, a number of Academy graduates have launched their filmmaking careers at Milkyway Image as Sound Designers, Assistant Directors, Production Managers and Screenwriters. Some of these Academy alumni have gone on to pick up coveted awards.