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In the early 1990s, Johnnie To Kei-Fung (as old friends might introduce him) looked like the only producer in Hong Kong who was keeping the flames of innovation burning. A leading director of overproduced commercial action pictures like The Heroic Trio (1993), To may have seemed an odd choice for the assignment. But his production company, Milkyway Image Ltd., formed in 1996, fueled a high-energy flashback to the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema (1985-95, approximately) by giving a group of eager young cineastes the opportunity to cut loose.

The result was an extraordinary slate of post-Tarantino, genre-bending, low-budget crime pictures, including Wai Ka-Fai's Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (1997) and Patrick Yau's Wai-scripted The Odd One Dies (1997), structurally tricky works shot on the fly on the sidewalks of Kowloon. But while Milkyway pictures made waves with fans and at global festivals, they fizzled at the local box office.

"We really wanted to make something different," To said last week, speaking partly in English and partly in Cantonese, through a translator, to promote the U.S. release of Fulltime Killer, a "globalized" wave-of-the-future release with a Japanese co-star and several languages on the soundtrack. "But the Hong Kong audience couldn't follow those movies. They didn't want to have to think." With hindsight — and with most of the recent buzz being around independent art movies like Fruit Chan's Hollywood Hong Kong — those pictures are looking more and more like a last hurrah for Hong Kong as a distinctive, and truly local, commercial cinema.

As a director, Johnnie To would rate a mention in any history of Hong Kong cinema on the strength of his tense and understated existential film noir, The Mission (1999). Even his debut feature, The Enigmatic Case (1980), with its disheveled heroes and shadowy visual style, was a landmark in the martial-arts genre, falling — along with Tsui Hark's The Butterfly Murders (1979) and Patrick Tam's The Sword (1980) — into a small group of revisionist "new wave" wuxia swordplay movies.

Though The Enigmatic Case was widely admired by students of the genre, To says that it was his initial disappointment with his own movie that sparked a creative crisis, driving him back into TV, where he'd labored for most of his 20s, for five more years of retrenchment and reflection. He returned to the big screen in 1988 as a director-for-hire for the powerhouse production company Cinema City, which enforced a strict adherence to commercial formulas.

Eventually, though, To won the autonomy to make what he calls "a completely personal film," the yuppie romance Loving You (1995), which cemented his determination to control "at least the substance" of every movie he made thereafter. Thus, Milkyway was born. Following the commercial failure of his initial slate of films as producer, Johnnie To has devoted a lot of energy to pondering the likely direction of Hong Kong cinema. "I don't think the local industry is dead," says To. But, he acknowledges, Hong Kong movies are currently on life support, sustained by intravenous infusions of foreign capital. Indeed, To's most recently completed picture, Left Turn, Right Turn, was made in Hong Kong but financed out of the U.S. (by Warner Bros.) — an increasingly common practice for American majors looking to carve off a larger chunk of the huge pan-Asian market. (Tsui Hark's Time and Tide and Black Mask 2 were bankrolled in this fashion by Sony, and Fox is footing the bill for the latest Bollywood outing of Company auteur Ramgopal Varma.)

"The problem now," To says, "is how to do something new. One thing I know is that there is no more new energy in Hong Kong. The audience wants only easy entertainment. We are thinking more and more about [mainland] China. There are a lot of good new directors there, young people who are still excited about making movies."

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