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John Woo - Bullets, Battles and Doves

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

John Woo is a legend. Simply put, he is one of the most successful and influential directors working today in Asia, Hollywood, and indeed the world. Known for his slow motion, two-handed gun battles, he almost single-handedly revolutionized the action genre at home and abroad, and launched the heroic bloodshed form which is still being copied today. After a somewhat rocky start to his career, Woo has been responsible for some of the most enduring classics of Hong Kong Cinema, including the likes of A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard Boiled to name but a few. On top of this, he has succeeded where countless other Asian directors have failed by managing to conquer Hollywood and become firmly lodged on its A-list. His career has recently seen him come full circle by returning to China to make Red Cliff, the definitive mega budget historical epic, another massive hit which again underlined his global popularity. If any further proof were needed of Woo's god-like status, it should be remembered that he is the man who made Chow Yun Fat cool.


Tough Beginnings

John Woo Yu Sen was born May 1, 1946 in Guangzhou in Southern China to a Christian family. Facing persecution and political turmoil, they fled to Hong Kong when he was five years old. Sadly, his father contracted tuberculosis and was unable to work, forcing the family to live in poverty in the Shek Kip Mei slums. Woo received a Christian education, attending Concordia Lutheran School, and as a young child he frequently sought refuge from bullying and violence in the church. After much of the neighborhood was destroyed by a fire, the church raised enough money for his family to move, though unfortunately by then the Hong Kong housing projects had become increasingly crime ridden and more hard times lay ahead.


Although as a boy Woo had set his heart on becoming a minister, he was apparently told that he was too free-spirited and artistically minded for the priesthood. His other great passion in life was for films, and he spent many of his formative years in the local cinemas watching Hollywood westerns and musicals. A shy child, he found in films a way to express himself, and immersed himself in the language of the screen, learning from such masters as Jean-Pierre Melville, Akira Kurosawa, and David Lean.


Woo's beliefs have had a lasting effect on his own films, and their influence can clearly still be seen. Christian symbolism frequently plays a large part, with churches often providing the backdrop for action scenes. Indeed, one of his best known trademarks is his use of doves, usually in slow motion, which he has explained in interviews as representing peace, love, and purity. His heroic characters display a fierce old-fashioned moral righteousness, living by a code that distances them from his villains. His early love of cinema has also shaped his direction, with many of his trademark motifs having their roots in the films he adored as a child. George Roy Hill's 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is particularly important in this respect, with the two-handed gunplay and freeze frame of its final sequence having left a lasting impression upon him. As well as the gun slinging of westerns and the poetry of musicals, Woo frequently draws upon other classic cinematic devices, such as using mirrors and walls to symbolize the moral separation and confrontation between his heroes and villains. Of course, it is deeply ironic that a director so influenced by Western films would later come to change not only the face of Hong Kong action, but also that of Hollywood.


From Martial Arts to Comedy

Woo's career began in 1969 when at the age of 23 he was hired at Cathay Studios as a script supervisor. Two years later he moved to the famous Shaw Brothers as an assistant director, mentored by Chang Cheh, the renowned director of The One-Armed Swordsman, Vengeance, and other classics, from whom he also learned editing. In 1974 Woo made his directorial debut with The Young Dragons for Golden Harvest, a fairly standard piece of kung fu cinema which featured choreography by Jackie Chan. Although controversial for its violence, the film won praise thanks to his dynamic style and fluid camera work, with most similar productions of the time being more static affairs. Over the next few years Woo helmed a number of other period and martial arts films, including The Dragon Tamers, Princess Chang Ping, and Hand of Death, which saw him again working with Jackie Chan, this time along with Sammo Hung, and which saw him introducing the themes of brotherhood and loyalty which he would return to time and time again.


Woo shifted from martial arts to comedy in 1977 with Money Crazy, a wacky vehicle for stars Ricky Hui and Richard Ng. A screwball farce with hints of old Hollywood style, the film was a hit, and so similar efforts followed such as the romantic comedy anthology Hello, Late Homecomers, Ricky Hui reunion From Riches to Rags, Chaplin tribute Laughing Times, and scattershot ghost comedy To Hell with the Devil, a remake of the film Bedazzled, which was unusual for utilizing Christian rather than Taoist methods to defeats its supernatural villains. Woo's best outing of this early period, which he himself considers to be his first real film was Heroes Shed No Tears, which was directed in 1983 but not actually released until 1986 when his career had taken off. A tale of mercenaries in Vietnam, the film was considered too violent at the time, though provides an interesting precursor to his later Bullet in the Head. Strangely enough, when the film finally was released, the producers added an extra sex scene, much to Woo's anger.


Unfortunately, by the mid 1980s, things were not looking good for Woo, who seemed then to have reached his ceiling as a director of increasingly unambitious genre productions, several of which had been box office flops. Attempting to branch out, he had taken to working for Cinema City in Taiwan for Dean Shek, often toiling on films under a pseudonym without much success. However, his next film would not only launch his career into the stratosphere, but would change the face of Hong Kong Cinema forever.


A Better Tomorrow

Through Dean Shek, Woo met top producer and director Tsui Hark, who was himself looking for another hit. After late night drinking sessions bouncing around ideas, they came up with A Better Tomorrow, a crime thriller based upon the 1960s film True Colours of a Hero, directed by Lung Kong. The plot revolved around a gangster called Ho just released from prison and trying to go straight (played by former Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung) and his younger cop brother Kit (actor singer Leslie Cheung), whose relationship is put to the test when his former triad bosses refuse to leave him alone. Further complicating matters is Ho's best friend Mark (Chow Yun Fat), who tries to persuade him to return to his old ways. The film was the first to show all of Woo's trademarks, combining slow motion gun battles and heavy emotional drama to thrilling effect. Chow Yun Fat effectively stole the show as Mark, with his sunglasses, trench coat, and toothpick quickly making him an iconic figure. The film was a massive box office hit, and with its fluid style and new definition of heroism effectively crushed the last vestiges of the old traditional martial arts cinema, much to the chagrin of many who accused him of glorifying the criminal life. The film also won Woo several accolades and nominations, including the Golden Horse for Best Director and the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Picture.


Inevitably, a sequel was demanded and arrived the following year, with Woo having initially been reluctant due to Hong Kong youths having taken to dressing like Mark. Still, he and Tsui Hark collaborated once again, with the plot this time seeing Ho reluctantly going undercover for the police in order to protect Kit. Ingeniously, although Mark had been killed off in the original, Chow Yun Fat returned as his twin brother Ken, a New York restaurant owner who shelters a Hong Kong gang boss and runs into trouble with the local mafia. Unfortunately, the production was a troubled one, with Woo arguing with the notoriously controlling Hark and the studio over the final cut - apparently the director's original cut ran around 3 hours, with Woo being adamant that the film needed more in depth characterization. Despite his apparent dissatisfaction, the film was another landmark hit, with its spectacular final shootout being hailed as one of the genre's finest moments and later being paid tribute to by maverick director Quentin Tarantino.


Next up for Woo was Just Heroes, a Shakespearean, King Lear-inspired homage to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa which was largely made for the benefit of Chang Cheh and Wu Ma. The film performed well enough at the box office, though has been largely forgotten today.


Heroic Bloodshed

In 1989 Woo and Hark teamed again for another action milestone in the form of The Killer, inspired by French director Jean Pierre Melville's 1967 classic Le Samoura/ The film starred Chow Yun Fat as super suave assassin Jeffrey Chow, who takes on one last job in order to pay for an operation to restore the sight of a woman he accidentally blinded. Unfortunately, his employers decide to have him killed, and he forms an alliance with a cop called Li (played by genre legend Danny Lee) to bring them down in a hail of bullets. The film saw Woo take his style even further, with even more slow motion and scenes of the characters diving around with a gun in each hand.


The final showdown was notable for taking place in a huge church, which came complete with the doves for which the director would become so well known. The relationship between Jeffrey and Li essentially drives the film, and provides a classic example of Woo's common themes of honour and loyalty, having two righteous men on opposing sides of the law teaming up to bring down an immoral enemy. Although not particularly popular in Hong Kong, partly due to an awkward marketing campaign which touted it as a comedy, the film was a critical success, winning Woo Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Perhaps more importantly, it was also an overseas hit, and quickly became a cult favorite in the US despite having been shorn of some of its more violent and bloody sequences.


Woo fell out with Hark over plans for A Better Tomorrow 3, the fallout from which was that the director earned himself an unfair reputation in Hong Kong for being difficult. This was quite possibly exacerbated by members of the martial arts old guard, who had been waiting for the young upstart to slip up. Tsui Hark himself directed the film in 1989, which was met with relative disinterest despite starring Chow Yun Fat and Anita Mui.


Woo had written a screenplay for the film, and after his split with Tsui Hark decided to use it for his own next outing, Bullet in the Head. By far the most personal of his films, the plot follows three young Hong Kong friends (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Jacky Cheung, and Waise Lee) who are forced to flee to Vietnam after being involved in a gang killing. Once in Saigon, they soon find things even more violent and chaotic, working with a mysterious gunrunner played by Simon Yam and getting caught up in the madness of the Vietnam War. The film is actually quite similar to A Better Tomorrow 3, though is vastly superior and far harsher. Despite Woo's usual stylistics and focus on brotherhood, the film is a dark and uncompromisingly violent affair, with the horrors of war and their effects on the characters making for harrowing viewing. The film was controversial on its original release, not least since the riot scenes were uncomfortably close to real-life events unfolding around that time. Cut by the studio from its original three hours, the film was criticized by many for its brutality, and was not popular at the domestic box office.


Disappointed, Woo decided to try his hand at something lighter in the form of Once a Thief, which starred Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung, and Cherie Chung as a gang of art thieves whose quest to steal an apparently cursed painting sets them against each other. The film was a caper in the classic Hollywood style, and gave Woo the chance to work with a love triangle instead of the usual bloody male bonding. He still managed to pack in plenty of slow motion and stylish action, though this time with dancing scenes and a winning sense of fun. The move paid off, and the film was a box office hit in Hong Kong, and won him another slew of award nominations.


The film's success allowed Woo to obtain the financing to return once again to the heroic bloodshed genre for his biggest production yet with Hardboiled. The film featured Chow Yun Fat in another iconic Woo role as tough cop Tequila, whose partner is killed during a teahouse raid on gunrunners. Desperate to bring down the crazed crime boss (played by Anthony Wong), he joins forces with Tony (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), an undercover cop who has infiltrated the gang and who leads him to their lair deep beneath a massive hospital. The film saw Woo conducting action scenes like a symphony with some of the most amazing gun battles ever committed to celluloid, including the marathon hospital shootout featuring characters diving in and out of windows and Chow Yun Fat famously rescuing a young baby during a particularly daredevil scene. Still considered by many fans to be his best film, Hardboiled proved to be his Asian swansong for the time being, as he decided to emigrate to the US and try his luck in Hollywood.


Hollywood or Bust

Woo's first Hollywood film was Hard Target, made in 1993 for Universal Studios, a variation on the classic theme of The Most Dangerous Game, with Jean-Claude Van Damme on the run from hunters in New Orleans. Perhaps inevitably, the director found it difficult to adapt to the Hollywood studio system and the influence of managers and producers, with his usual style and spectacular violence being frowned upon by committee concerns and the ratings board. Unfortunately, when he failed to produce a cut of the film which was deemed suitable for an all-important R rating, the studio took control of the production and edited it for him. As such, the finished film, whilst reasonable enough by the standards of the Hollywood genre, was clearly not representative of Woo's vision, and it performed relatively poorly at the box office.


After a three year break, during which he returned to Asia to produce the Chow Yun Fat-starring Peace Hotel, as well as Don't Cry Nanking and Somebody up There Likes Me, he took another stab at Hollywood with the thriller Broken Arrow. With big name talent on board in the form of John Travolta and Christian Slater, the desert set film was an improvement upon Hard Target and fared better at the box office, though again it suffered from studio interference and proved a frustrating experience for the director.


As a result, although an attractive follow up project appeared with Face/Off, Woo was cautious, and did not commit until the script had been rewritten to suit his plans and until he had guaranteed a greater degree of artistic freedom. His insistence paid off, and the film was his best US effort yet, with John Travolta's cop and Nicolas Cage's insane terrorist playing an explosive and entertainingly over the top cat and mouse game. The film was critically well received, both by the press and by Woo's diehard fans, and it pulled in over US$100 million, marking him as the first Asian director to land a bona fide box office smash in the West.


Established as an A-list director, after producing more action with The Replacement Killers and The Big Hit, he was handed the reins of his biggest production yet, the Tom Cruise franchise vehicle Mission: Impossible 2 in 2000. While this was the biggest grossing hit of the year, his next three films were not so successful either with critics or audiences. Windtalkers, Bulletproof Monk, and Paycheck were unfortunately all lackluster affairs which saw Woo hitting a pronounced creative slump, not least since his once innovative brand of slow motion and graceful gunplay had long become the standard, having been much copied by action directors around the world.


Red Cliff and Beyond

After dabbling with a variety of television series and video games, in 2008 Woo returned to China for Red Cliff, based on the historical battle from the immortal text Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The production was the grandest ever in Asia, with a budget of around US$80 million and with an all-star cast including Tony Leung Chiu Wai (in a role originally intended for Woo regular Chow Yun Fat), Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Hu Jun, Lin Chi Ling, and Zhao Wei. Although some critics were unconvinced by some of the liberties taken with the original text and the inevitable modernization of certain aspects of the story and characters, the film provided the Chinese epic with its most spectacular outing yet, boasting huge sets, massive battle scenes, and plenty of good old fashioned heroism and brotherhood. Released in two parts in Asia, both of which were box office smashes, the film has been re-edited into one shorter release for the West.


The film's success surely came as somewhat of a relief to Woo after his run of Hollywood disappointments, not only reaffirming his ability to produce crowd pleasing hits, but proving that he was equally at home working in the East or West. The director quite literally has the world at his feet when it comes to his next project, with a number of productions in both China and Hollywood being vying for his attention, including a big budget World War II drama which looks to have run into difficulties. Whatever he chooses, it is certain that fans can expect more slow motion, spectacular action, and of course doves for many years to come.


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Published August 29, 2009


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