“JohnWoos Evolution Of A Director”JohnWoo John Woo hasre-mixed the basic ingredients of the Hong Kong action film and created a newrecipe that others try to emulate. Like a great chef he has cooked up hautecuisine using the same basic materials as his contemporaries, but has shiftedthe measurements so that the final result is finer and more complex. Heincorporates the techniques learned from directors he has worked with and/oradmires while putting his own unique stamp on the action films he creates. Woocredits his distinctive style to various events early in his life, thesefactors have influenced the theme and focus of those films that we most closelyassociate with the Woo technique.
In an interview conducted at a filmretrospective shown at the Seattle Art Museum, John Woo offered extensiveinsights into the ingredients and influences of his upbringing that we nowrecognize as the essence of his directorial style. I truly believe infriendship. When I wasyoung, I got a lot of help from a friend. I guess Im pretty traditional. Inold Chinese stories, people sacrifice themselves for friends.
They have so muchhonor and sense of morality. These are qualities Ive always admired. When Iwas kid, our family was living in the slums. We lived in a very badneighborhood, with drug dealers, gamblers, prostitutes. My family was very poorand couldnt afford to send me to school.
And then when I was nine, I gotsupport from an American family and from church. They paid for my school feesand thats how I got educated. So Im very appreciative of the people who havehelped me. I grew up wanting to do things that paid back society, to help. Inhigh school, I wanted to be a minister, but it didnt work out for some reason.But Ive always believed in friends helping each other, appreciating each otherand caring about each other. When I was in high school, I was part of a group.We couldnt afford to go to college, so all we did was get together and learnfrom movies.
The people who knew more than I did introduced certain movies tome; we made experimental films together. This really helped me to learn aboutmovies. I still keep in touch with some of these people. When I startedin the film business, when I became a pretty strong comedy film director, Ialso helped a lot of young filmmakers, to help them get jobs, find movies towork on. And before “A Better Tomorrow,” when some of my moviesflopped and I was at a low point, one of those young directors helped me out.Without peoples help, I couldnt have made it. Everything in my movies, aboutfriendships, family — it all comes from real life. Of course, not the stuffabout gangster wars; actually, I dont know much about gangsters.
As is evidencedby this quote the themes of friendship, loyalty and honor are the basictouchstones of Woo™s outlook on life and they have become the primary themesthat we associate with the power of his films. John Woo™s entry into the filmindustry did not follow the same path as that of his contemporaries. Unlikemany of the Hong Kong directors of his generation he did not attend filmschool.
While some Chinese directors who are his contemporaries studied at filmschools in the West and others acquired their formal film education in HongKong, Taiwan and China, John Woo learned his craft on the job in the factorylike system of the Hong Kong studios. He started his career working as aproduction assistant at Cathay and then moved to Shaw Brothers in 1971. At ShawStudios John Woo worked with director Zhang Cheas an assistant director. Wooattributes Zhang with teaching him how to manage action sequences. It is fromZhang that he learned the art of directing violent swordplay and kung-fuscenes. Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979), can be recognized as an homage by Wooto Zhang™s style and influence.
Young Dragons (1973) was the first film thatWoo directed. Financed by his friend Ronald Lui, this independently producedfilm gave Woo the opportunity to move into directing at the young age of 27. At this earlystage in his career, the seeds of Woo™s future violent films were alreadyevident. This early film, Young Dragons, contained elements that wouldeventually become Woo™s trademark; elaborately choreographed action sequences(arranged by a young and unknown Jackie Chan) and fluid camera work. The moviewas banned by the Hong Kong censorship board due to its extreme violence.
Fortunately, Lui was able to sell the film to Golden Harvest Studios. Studioexecutives were impressed with what they saw and, despite shelving the film fortwo years, offered Woo a contract as a director. It was as a salaried directorthat he proved himself an extremely versatile filmmaker. He directed Kung-fufilms, such as Shaolin Men (1975), comedies such as Money Crazy (1977), andeven a Cantonese Opera film, Princess Chang Ping (1976). From the late 1970s tothe mid 1980s Woo directed mostly comedies, such as From Riches to Rags (1977)and Plain Jane to the Rescue (1982). In this period of time, Woo™s filmsreflect the directives of the studio rather than his own artistic direction. Within thestudio factory? environment, Woo was unable to maintain the impact with whichhe had started.
When his popularity began to dwindle, the studio sent him toTaiwan where he continued to work on comedies of mediocre quality. The films hemade while in Taiwan did not do well. Woo had lost his touch and by themid-1980s it seemed as if he was a has-been. His films during this period wereduds at the box office.
It was at during this low ebb in his career that hesought funding for a pet project, A Better Tomorrow (1986). Fortunately, Woo™sproject caught the attention of producer/director Tsui Hark. With Tsui Hark™sbacking he was able to direct his first his gangster/hero film, which broughtinternational fame to both him and then local television icon Chow Yun-fat.This film also changed the look of Hong Kong cinema. Prior to A BetterTomorrow, Hong Kong studios produced mostly comedies and kung-fu films. Gunplaywas considered sloppy and boring compared to martial arts and swordplay. Woochanged the look of the gunfight through the filmic techniques that he hadperfected in his previous films; dollying in and out, the use of slow motionand freezing the action and the use of tracking shots were among the varioustechniques that he utilized. Woo transformed the image of gunplay from death ata distance to a choreographed art form in which he integrated the acrobatics ofmartial arts and the deadly face to face grace of classic swordplay.
By makinggunplay intimately violent in the hands of highly skilled killer and/or copprofessionals Woo added the gunslinger into the lexicon of the Hong Kong actionfilm. Following thesuccess of A Better Tomorrow, Woo made more of these gangster/hero films suchas A Better Tomorrow II (1987), The Killer (1989), and Once A Thief (1990).From 1986 to 1992 Woo directed films in Hong Kong while winning internationalrecognition. The film Hard Boiled (1992) typifies what it is specifically thatmakes a John Woo film. The film is book ended with two scenes of extremeviolence. The opening of the film takes place in a Hong Kong teahouse.
WhenPolice Inspector Tequila (Chow Yun-fat) and his partner try to bust an illegalweapons deal, all hell breaks loose. Criminals and police fire guns in achoreography of violent grace as people begin to die, including Tequila™spartner. People start to panic and flee when the melee begins, and that onlyadds to the apparent mayhem that Woo so masterfully choreographs. Here, Wooused his signature filmic techniques to draw out the violence of the scene. Hisuse of slow motion and quick cutting simultaneously shows the chaos of theviolence while retaining the fluidity of the gunplay.
Another of Woo™strademarks, a character shooting two guns at once while flying through the air,also is used in this scene. This signature style of his first appeared in ABetter Tomorrow. Since that film, this two gun technique has appeared again andagain in Woo™s films. Countless people are killed in the opening scene alone. Ascene like this could only take place in Hong Kong, and this is very importantto Woo. Criminals running through a paved alley could take place in any city inthe world, but only in Hong Kong could we find this type of teahouse. Hong Kongbecomes a focal point subject within his film, not just a setting.
The teahousegives the audience a brief glimpse of life in the colony. Woo brings us intothe community and shows us a comforting, albeit busy scene of people enjoyingeach other™s company and the sound of their birds before shattering thismundane hubbub with an explosion of gunfire. Hard Boiled was the last film thatWoo directed in Hong Kong. Soon after completing this film, he moved to LosAngeles in anticipation of 1997. It was uncertain what would become of HongKong after 1997. Scenes like the one of the teahouse become a snapshot ofcontemporary Hong Kong as seen by Woo. But this opening scene is just a tasteof the violence that comes at the climax of the film, a 45 minute ballet ofblood at the criminals weapons depot; a local hospital.
Where at the beginningof the film, there is an explosion of violence amongst people, the film endswith a literal explosion as the arms cache of the criminals blows up. Here, Wooshows his distaste for violence. In one comical moment Tequila covers the eyesof a baby he is rescuing from the maternity ward to shield him from thebloodshed around them, saying X-rated violence.? In an interview with Empire Film Magazine, Wooexplained this dislike of violence and how he uses that distaste to give hisfilms that touch that make them so fascinating. Sometimes I™m shooting anaction sequence and I can relate to it.
I get very emotional. I relate it towhat™s happening in the real world. For example, if I™m shooting a scene wherethe hero is fighting with some bad guys and I™ve heard on the radio about somelittle child getting murdered by some maniac or some people getting killed inthe streets it makes me very angry.
I get pretty upset. And I™d bring that intothe scene. I™ll look at the bad guys as the murderer and then I™m thinking, Let™sbeat him harder, let™s hit him with more bullets?. These films won him criticalacclaim as well as a solid fan base. Hong Kong audiences, accustomed to thecookie-cutter look of locally produced films, reacted enthusiastically to Woo™sbreakthrough approach. Critics also reacted favorably to this new directorialstyle, catapulting Woo to onto the international film scene.
His gangster filmsbecame widely popular both within Hong Kong and internationally. Hard Boiledwas not only a critical and financial success, it was in fact created as aportfolio piece by Woo to court Hollywood executives. Woo™s Hong Kong gangsterfilms were more than just shoot-?em-up bloodbaths. Unlike most of Hollywood™saction heroes, Woo™s characters are more three-dimensional, thereby creating ahyper-realistic persona. The antagonist and protagonist in a Woo film willtypically have an intertwined relationship that goes beyond the usualantagonist/protagonist relationship of the genre.
He does this in order toemphasize his core themes of loyalty, friendship and honor. These themes couldnot be fleshed out without the audience understanding the complexity of thecharacters. In The Killer (1989) the assassin Jeff (ChowYun-fat) and the cop Eagle (Danny Lee) have many a conversation and end upbecoming friends in the end. Each is bound by duty and honor to fulfill hisobligation, but that does not stop him from doing what is right. Eagle stilltries to arrest Jeff.
Jeff, on the other hand goes out of his way, risking hisfreedom and even his life to help the innocents that have been accidentallyhurt by his violent actions. In his later Hollywood films, the closeness of theprotagonist and the antagonist is even more pronounced when he goes beyond anintertwined relationship to an intertwined history, fractured by betrayal.Broken Arrow (1996) and Mission: Impossible II (2000) have the main charactersat one time working on the same governmental agencies.
The antagonist typicallybegins as a good guy who has gone bad. In Broken Arrow, Major Vic Deakens (JohnTravolta) and Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater) are B-3 pilots. Deakenssteals a nuclear weapon and it is up to Hale to stop him. Although the plot isweak, Woo™s style is clearly evident in many of the action scenes. In a boxingmatch at the start of the film, Woo utilizes the editing style for which he hasbecome famous. This match ends with Deakens beating Hale, setting up thereprisal of the fight at the climax of the film; the final showdown between thetwo. The film ends with Hale heroically saving thecountry by preventing Deakens from detonating the nuclear weapon.
The finalconfrontation comes to fisticuffs, echoing the beginning of the film. Deakensis finally killed, crushed by the bomb he intended to hold the nation hostagewith. Fight scenes such as these occur in many films, however Woo™s signatureslow motion and guns literally flying through the air give the action sequenceshere a feel that is distinctly ?WoIn Face/Off (1997) the screenplay and Woo™sstyle are linked in a way that makes this the ultimate Woo movie produced inAmerica. From his early action films in Hong Kong, Woo has always shown us theintertwined history and/or relationship of the antagonist and protagonist. InFace/Off the main characters literally become intertwined, each taking on theother™s characteristics and faces. The sense of honor and duty is so strong inthe protagonist FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), he willingly undergoessurgery in which his own face is removed and replaced with that of his worstenemy, Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage) in order to obtain necessary information. So closelymarried is the screenplay to the Woo style of direction that it is hard tomaintain the distinction of the two while watching this movie. In his mostrecent film, Mission: Impossible II (2000) the aspects of broken loyalties,gunplay, and aerial acrobatics are brought to the extreme.
Technology gives Woothe freedom to push his choreography to the extreme. Location, so important inHard Boiled, becomes secondary to the technology available to both thefilmmaker and the characters within the film. Woo has moved from colonial HongKong teahouse to an international stage in which any large urban area willsuffice for the plot of the movie.
John Woo has come full circle in the filmindustry. Growing up inHong Kong, he was a fan of western films. He especially enjoyed the works ofsuch directors as Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorcese and others.He was also influenced by musicals like West Side Story (1961) and The Wizardof Oz (1939). Now, as an accomplished director in the east and the west, he isinfluencing a new generation of directors, such as Robert Rodriguez and QuentinTarantino.
Rodriguez pays homage to Woo in the barroom gunfight scenes inDesperado (1995) and Tarantino™s use of cross fading between Vincent (JohnTravolta) and Jules? (Samuel L. Jackson) faces while they pump a person full oflead in Pulp Fiction (1994) echoes Woo™s use of this technique in The Killer.Like all great artists, Woo™s impact is not only felt in the films that hehimself creates, but in the influence of his style and technique on the worksof others.-M