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by Jay Seaver

"No substitute for actually watching Johnnie To's movies."
3 stars

Like many documentaries about films and filmmakers, "Boundless" will likely eventually end up as the extra disc in a box set (in this case of Johnnie To films), which is fine: That would get it to its audience and it's not necessarily worth paying for on its own. It is a decent enough look at where To is now and a fair attempt at using his career as a surrogate for the last twenty years of the Hong Kong film industry, although there is probably a better movie to be made asking those lines.

Director Ferris Lin Ze-Qiu starts out by showing where To was quite literally at one point, in China's Yunnan Province shooting Romancing in Thin Air, and not having a great time of it: It's much colder than the crew from Hong Kong are used to, and that group is augmented by a bunch of mainlanders who, in To's eyes, mainly get underfoot. He even seems a bit cranky when he's interviewed on that particular set, and it sets up a potentially interesting way for the film to proceed - how does a man whose personal and artistic identity is so tired into Hong Kong specifically handle how the vast but restrictive People's Republic of China is pulling at his industry like a gravitational force?

It's an issue Lin and company touch upon, though mostly indirectly - it's one thing for a world-renowned director to get frustrated by new staffing practices; it's quite another for him to make comments about language restrictions or censorship that might get a market of a billion people who seem to really like movies cut off from him (this goes double for Lin, a film student making this documentary as a thesis project). So this major influence on Hong Kong and its film industry is tiptoed around to an unfortunate extent; the most forceful words on the subject come from critic/scholar Yau Nai Hoi, who says that a city like Hong Kong losing its distinct voice in film and culture would make it "pathetic". It's also note that in 1997, a year in which To's fledgling Milkyway Image production company nearly collapsed, only about 70 films were made in Hong Kong - which sounds pretty impressive for a small city-state of five million people, but was well below what it did at its peak.

Fortunately, enthusiasm for Hong Kong as a unique place let's Lin focus on some of To's best qualities as a person and a filmmaker. There are moments when the discussion of specific HK events and locations go on a bit too long without context for those of us who only know the place through film, but they do eventually lead to a nifty visual demonstration of how To captures the place's character both despite and because of his limitations in filming (he and frequent collaborators like actors Simon Yam & Lam Suet and stunt coordinator Yuen Bun talk about filming at night out of necessity) as Lin contrasts real locations with how they appear in To's films. It shows how he both shots a place as it is and reduces it to its essence, which dovetails with the idea of him placing a premium on community.

Other juxtapositions don't quite work out so well - there's a point where discussion about how much of The Mission was scripted on the fly is followed relatively quickly by a clip from Exiled that is clearly the work of someone who plans every detail. The way he talks about the Election movies also suggests that he puts a great deal of thought into his films, much more than one might expect for genre movies that don't visibly subvert the audience's expectations. There's also a plainly but modestly stated thread about how To is constantly looking to try new things, from the stuntwork in Lifeline to the long take at the start of Breaking News to the greater scale of the recent Chinese co-productions. It makes me wish that remake of Le Cercle Rouge had happened, to see what he'd come up with working in/with Europe.

Of course, it also makes me want to watch the "Election<" movies again, this time with the context of an institution with democratic principles having them diminished firmly in mind. And watch "Sparrow" again because it's so damn beautiful, or "The Mission" and "Throwdown"> because the clips shown look amazing. "Boundless" may not be the best examination of Johnnie To's life and work, but it certainly makes it clear that he's worth one's attention.

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originally posted: 06/21/14 10:41:46
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Directed by
  Ferris Lin Ze-Qiu

Written by

  Johnnie To

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