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Milkyway: The Star of Hong Kong Cinema

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although the Hong Kong film industry has according to many critics been suffering from a crisis of creativity and quality for at least a decade, through these wilderness years one production house has remained a beacon of distinction, namely Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai's Milkyway Image. From humble origins, the company has gone from strength to strength and has now become a recognized brand name which for many guarantees superior entertainment. This critical and commercial success has not only been at home but also abroad, and recent years have seen a number of Milkyway films enjoying praise at prestigious festivals such as Cannes and Venice. Whilst Milkyway made its name through dark, character-driven thrillers and crime stories, and indeed continues to rule the genre roost with recent hits such as the Election series, it is sometimes overlooked that it has in fact produced successful films of almost every type, from comedy through to romance. Certainly, one of its most recent releases, Mad Detective, directed by To himself is a decidedly eclectic and eccentric affair, being an off kilter psychological mystery featuring a protagonist with apparent psychic powers.

The Seeds of Innovation

Director Johnnie To and his frequent cinematic partner Wai Ka Fai formed Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd. in 1996 as a production company. At this time, To was known as a commercially successful director who had been working his way up through the ranks, having had hits with the likes of The Heroic Trio and All About Ah Long, for which he was nominated as Best Director at the 1989 Hong Kong Film Awards. Wai had then mostly been working on and writing television productions, as well as on a few cinematic outings such as the Chow Yun Fat vehicle Peace Hotel, which he also directed. The two, who had previously collaborated on the 1990 melodrama Story of My Son, decided to form the company as a means of efficiently producing good quality films and for fostering young cinematic talent. Perhaps more importantly, it was also seen as an opportunity for the two to win more control over their films and to be able to have more personal input into productions, something which they had both apparently suffered a lack of in the past.

Dark and Difficult Beginnings

The early years for Milkyway were undeniably rocky. Its first wave of productions, including Beyond Hypothermia, Final Justice, Too Many Ways To Be No. 1, and The Odd One Dies, all proved unpopular at the Hong Kong box office. This was likely due to their grim and pessimistic tone and the fact that instead of offering up crazed and senseless action, they were thoughtful works, well crafted and featuring genuine attempts to add a layer of depth to their characters and predicaments, combining a certain amount of soul searching and a marked distrust for authority along with the usual bullet battles and explosions.

Whilst most domestic audiences were not accustomed to such a mixture, genre fans were impressed, and the films did find themselves a certain following. The same was true of the 1998 films Expect the Unexpected and The Longest Nite, neither of which made much money, though the latter has since come to be hailed by many as one of the best Hong Kong crime dramas of all time. Interestingly, both of these films, along with The Odd One Dies, have long been the subject of speculation as to who actually helmed them. Although Patrick Yau is officially credited as their director, rumours have long persisted that it was To in the director's chair, something To has alluded to himself in interviews. The truth of this can perhaps also be seen in the fact that Yau received an odd "associate director" credit on the later jailbird drama Where a Good Man Goes, which featured Lau Ching Wan as a convict trying to find his way in Macau. Whatever the case, To finally stepped up to direct in a more official capacity with A Hero Never Dies, a Sergio Leone-influenced triad drama starring Leon Lai, which did manage to attract a little more attention, though true commercial success remained elusive.

The following year saw Milkyway lighten the tone of its productions somewhat with To's ensemble piece The Mission, which boasted the unbeatable cast of Francis Ng, Anthony Wong, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, and Jackie Lui as triad hitmen. The film was decidedly more upbeat than previous films from the company, whilst still retaining the same level of stylishness and gritty underworld poetry. It proved a critical success, winning To and Milkyway their first Best Director prizes at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Film Festival. Interestingly, despite this acclaim The Mission managed to attract more attention overseas than it did back in Hong Kong, having since found its niche as a popular cult favourite in the West. The company also attempted to diversify somewhat with the modern love story Sealed with a Kiss by director Derek Chiu (who recently helmed the Five Tigers reunion piece Brothers) and starring Louis Koo, though this failed to make much of an impact.

Success and Andy Lau

Thankfully, the company finally had its first proper blockbuster hit with Running Out of Time in 1999. Directed by To, the film pitted frequent Milkyway performer Lau Ching Wan as a hostage negotiator against dying criminal Andy Lau in a deadly psychological game of cat and mouse. Although the film itself was a bit of a departure in that it featured very little in the way of action, relying mainly on tightly woven suspense, it was almost certainly the presence of superstar Lau that drove it to box office success. As such, it is unsurprising that the film proved to be a definite turning point for Milkyway, as the production house branched out and away from the crime genre into other areas. Many of the resulting efforts saw Lau reteam with To, such as the 2000 hit romantic comedy Needing You, which also featured actress and singer Sammi Cheng. The two stars proved to be a popular pairing, and they collaborated again in 2001 for the wacky fat suit comedy Love on a Diet, another profitable hit. Cheng and To also worked together on more comedies in the form of Lunar New Year offering Wu Yen, the supernaturally themed My Left Eye Sees Ghosts in 2002, and romantic comedy Love For All Seasons in 2003.

Given their irresistible commercial viability, the company understandably during this period tended to focus more on similarly light productions, usually featuring at least one popular star, such as the hospital set farce Help!!!, which starred Ekin Cheng and Cecilia Cheung, and the New Year gambling comedy Fat Choi Spirit, which brought together Andy Lau, Lau Ching Wan, Gigi Leung, and Louis Koo. These aside, there were also a few excursions into fare with a little more substance, such as the oddly titled teen drama Spacked Out and the slice-of-life youth film Gimme Gimme. Thankfully for fans of the studio's original line in innovative crime drama, Fulltime Killer came in 2001, teaming Andy Lau this time with Simon Yam and Japanese actor Takashi Sorimachi in an eccentric and wistful though grandiose slice of hitman action.

Still, many were unconvinced by Milkyway's new direction, disappointed that it now seemed to be placing box office success ahead of its previous dedication to pushing the envelope, bringing about the age old criticism of To and Wai having sold out. Whilst to an extent this may well have been the case, as To, whose career has always seen him display the ability to strike a balance between directing artistic and intellectual films with those intended more for mass audience consumption, once stated in an interview with Asia Pacific Arts, "It's probably too hard to survive in this field if we [directors] only make films that we like. I like to help my company make profits too, and create movies that are geared towards audience members. But when time allows it, I explore my own creativity."

A Return to Roots and a Coming of Age

2003 proved to be another milestone for the company, with To and Wai by this time feeling that it was established enough and had enjoyed enough financial success to branch out once more into more personal and challenging films, whilst at the same time still producing more accessible money earners. The first of these was To's tense thriller PTU, which featured Simon Yam, Lam Suet, and Maggie Siu in a complex and fractured tale of a special police unit revolving around a missing gun and the usual triad trouble. It was followed in the same year by his rather bizarre Running on Karma, a difficult to categorize thriller which saw Andy Lau don a muscle suit as a body building monk who becomes involved with a police investigation.

Both films saw Milkyway garnering considerable critical praise and a number of awards around the world, with To being in the interesting position of winning Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards for PTU, whilst also being nominated for the same award for Running on Karma. Interestingly, whilst the two films did to an extent hark back to the earlier Milkyway crime dramas in that they saw a focus on character and complex, tense storytelling, they were individualistic pieces which were arguably more ambitious, particularly in the case of the abstract Karma. These, and indeed many of To's later films, were also seen by many critics as sneaking in social commentary and political allegory. At the same time, the studio also produced the more commercially friendly comedy thriller Looking for Mister Perfect from director Ringo Lam, with Shu Qi and Simon Yam, and To's own offbeat romance Turn Left, Turn Right, which starred Takeshi Kaneshiro and Gigi Leung.

By now To was becoming admired as one of Hong Kong's leading filmmakers and was enjoying considerable international acclaim. 2004 was a great, not to mention busy, year for the director, with his media-savvy thriller Breaking News playing out of competition at Cannes and winning him Best Director at the Golden Horse Festival, and his highly personal Akira Kurosawa tribute, the judo film Throw Down, screening at Venice. In tune with the company's new ethos, he also directed the more lightweight Yesterday Once More, which reunited Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng for another popcorn-style romantic comedy caper.

From Election and Exiled to Mad Detective

2005 saw Milkyway continue to thrive critically and commercially with To's impressive and original triad drama Election, headlined by Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka Fai as two gang leaders vying for power, backed up by a rich supporting cast which included Louis Koo, Nick Cheung, Eddie Cheung, Lam Suet, and Gordon Lam. Praised for its complex plot and political subtext, the film screened in competition at Cannes as well as enjoying a worldwide release, and saw a slew of awards, including another win at the Hong Kong Film Awards for To. It was quickly followed by a sequel in 2006, which was equally well received both at home and at festivals.

The year proved to be a red letter one with the release of To's long-awaited Exiled, his follow-up to The Mission, which brought back Simon Yam, Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, and Lam Suet as the same band of disparate yet personable killers. The film proved to be everything fans had come to expect from the new generation of Milkyway productions, being thoughtful and even philosophical whilst still managing to thrill, and it went down well both domestically and internationally, even managing a rare theatrical release in the West. The company kept up its policy of dividing its output between genres, producing the comedy 2 Become 1 from frequent To collaborator Law Wing Cheong. Although undeniably slight, the film, which starred Miriam Yeung and Richie Jen, did attempt something a little different and more substantial by tackling the uncomfortable subject of breast cancer, showing that Milkyway had lost none of its desire to challenge at the same time as entertain.

The company's seemingly never ending run of form continued unabated in 2007 with a series of excellent films including the police surveillance drama Eye in the Sky, which marked the directorial debut of Milkyway screenwriter Yau Nai Hoi and featured the familiar team of Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka Fai, and Hooked on You from Law Wing Cheong, a socially minded comedy starring regular screen partners Miriam Yeung and Eason Chan. The year also saw the release of the much-touted Triangle, a fascinating thriller project that was directed jointly by To, Tsui Hark, and Ringo Lam, with each of the three taking on one segment of a continuing story. After Triangle came yet another sterling effort from the ever busy To in the form of Mad Detective, which follows Lau Ching Wan as the titular character, an investigator with weird psychic powers who the police call out of retirement to help them with a series of killings linked to a missing gun. The film sees the director doing what he and Milkyway do best, offering fans a unique twist on the usual crime formula, which succeeds in being both entertaining and confusing - albeit in the best possible fashion.

The company's latest release was To's romantic drama Linger, which stars Vic Chou and Li Bingbing and revolves around a troubled woman whose late boyfriend suddenly seems to reappear. A departure from his usual fare, the film did not fare so well either with critics or fans, mainly due to an overly familiar plot and little in the way of real or engaging drama. Of course, like almost anything from To, the film is not without value, and still manages a few effective tugs at the heartstrings.

The Future

So where now for the ever-versatile Milkyway Image? Needless to say, fans still have plenty to look forward to, first of all with To's pickpocket drama Sparrow, headlined again by Simon Yam. Apparently similar in tone to Throw Down rather than being an action piece, the film has already been enjoying success at European festivals, managing a Golden Bear nomination at Berlin, clearly signaling that it will be adding yet another feather to Milkyway's already dangerously over-burdened hat. From here, whatever Milkyway and To choose to try their hand at next, one thing viewers can be sure of is that given the calibre of both the production house and the director himself, it is a safe bet that it will be anything but ordinary.

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Published March 17, 2008

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