John Woo, one of Hong Kong’s most famous and respected action director, has long been a cult favourite in the United States. John Woo is a Chinese film director known especially for the ballet-like violence in his movies. Woo’s films are also often tragic and sentimental, engaging with themes of loyalty and honour and the place of the loner hero in a world full of corruption and violence.
Woo was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1946, and moved to Hong Kong with his family at age four. He was educated at Matteo Ricci College and, at age nineteen, began making experimental films. In lieu of film school, Woo sought entry-level positions in the flourishing Hong Kong film industry.
It is identified that the bread-and-butter of the film industry is the action movie. Every season audiences can expect to see car chases, gunfights and explosions, and studios can expect to see millions and millions of dollars in return. Though most viewers and critics see these movies as “fuzz” entertainment, there is one director, John Woo that puts as much heart and soul into his “fluff” as any number of talented directors put into their “serious” movies.
He is the best contemporary director of action films working anywhere in the world. One of Woo’s most vivid childhood memories was seeing a man killed on his front steps. After his family was aided by a local church (who allowed Woo to attend school there), he envisioned a different kind of path. He wanted to become a priest, but the fathers saw something different in him. John Woo’s illustrious career as a filmmaker began in Hong Kong, where he spent over two decades at the centre of a thriving film industry directing nearly 30 feature films. He was known primarily as a comedy specialist until the mid-1980s when he created a series of inspired romantic and violent gangster dramas that broke box-office records.
John Woo turned to the movies, which were a refuge for him from his earliest memories. As a teenager, with borrowed film equipment, Woo and several of his friends began experimenting with the items and by the time he was 22, Woo was making his own movies. In 1969 Woo landed his first “real” job as a script supervisor at Cathay Studios.
In 1971, Woo moved to the prestigious Shaw Bros. studio, where he worked under the well-known martial-arts director Chang Cheh, who taught Woo many things (the most important being editing). By 1973, Woo started working on his first film as director, The Young Dragons, a fairly nondescript martial-arts film that also had a young Jackie Chan working on it (as the fighting coordinator).
The film was thought to be too violent and was shelved for two years. Upon release of The Young Dragons and its success at the box office, Woo was hired by Golden Harvest, which, while viewed as a young upstart at the time, would go on to become one of Hong Kong’s biggest studios in the mid-1980’s.
Woo went on to write and direct several more martial-arts films, including Hand of Death (1976) which not only starred Woo himself but also reunited him with Jackie Chan (who was in a starring capacity this time out) and featured future Hong Kong superstar Sammo Hung. Hand of Death was an important step in Woo’s career and for introducing Woo’s ideals about dictators and revolutionaries and brotherhood and loyalty (shown by Chan’s character).
After his initial kung-fu phase, he made a comedy called The Pilferer’s Progress (1977) which became a huge success and gave Woo recognition as a comedy director. The one exception was Heroes Shed No Tears (1983), where Woo escaped from the kung-fu and comedy genres in an ultra-violent tale of mercenaries sent to capture a drug lord deep inside Vietnam. He has called it his “first real movie”.
There is something deeper to the obvious joy Woo finds in filmmaking and the intense bonds fostered on the film set. More important to Woo than being applauded for his maverick style, is the pleasure in collaboration with his crew and actors, the thrill of making movies and paying tribute to a lost chapter in American history
Woo discussed his own reasons behind making the movie: Comedies and Kung Fu films dominated Hong Kong cinema in the mid-eighties. Other genres rarely got the support of the studio and the audience. And also, right before ‘A Better Tomorrow,’ he shot two films in Taiwan, that were commercially unsuccessful; so it seemed quite impossible for him to make the films. He felt that Hong Kong at that time was seriously lacking in moral values. So he wanted to make an uplifting film to highlight the lost traditional values, including the values of family, friendship, tolerance etc.
and Hark continued to team together and produced some of the landmark titles of the “heroic bloodshed” genre, which combined Scoresian-style relationships and themes, such as friendship and loyalty, with Peckinpah-style “ultraviolence.”ABT” also (probably permanently) linked Woo with leading man Chow Yun-Fat. With the success of ABT, He eventually moved on to create Just Heroes (1987) as a sort of benefit project for his aging mentor Chang Cheh.
The film, a loose retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear set within a Triad “family,” was actually a joint project between Woo and his friend Wu Ma (who was having financial troubles at the time). As such, even though it features big Hong Kong stars such as Danny Lee and Woo’s now-typical explosive gunfight sequences, the film lacked the focus of ABT and was a disappointment for Woo. He did enjoy some aspects of filming Just Heroes. After Just Heroes, Woo struggled to find another project.
He wanted to stay away from ABT, but the film’s popularity (teenagers took to dressing like Mark Gor, something which got Woo in trouble with politicians, who accused him of glorifying the Triad lifestyle) and Tsui Hark’s constant prodding eventually convinced Woo to do the sequel. “ABT2” features a high-powered finale with one of the highest body counts per minute recorded on film and was another huge hit for Woo. However, things behind the scenes were not so rosy.
Woo felt the characters in ABT were under-developed and were against any changes. Despite its status now as a classic, The Killer (which is Woo’s favourite movie, since he feels that the characters are fully developed) flopped in Hong Kong. Many people thought the film is too serious and just not very “fun” to watch. However, Woo was gaining international recognition. At the age of 44, his contemporaries were calling Woo a “wunderkind” and he finally started to think of him as a success.
After a series of disputes over “A Better Tomorrow III”, Woo and Hark parted ways. After being virtually blackballed from most of the major studios, Woo eventually formed his own production company with his new business partner Terence Chang.
Woo used his new company to produce his version of the “ABTIII” script, which he reworked into “Bullet in the Head”. BITH is, by Woo’s own account, his most personal film to date. While BITH is regarded as one of Woo’s best films, again the local audience didn’t like it.
This time, the intense riot scenes were just too much for a people still reeling from the Tiannemen Square Massacre. Woo was forced to shoot another ending only a few official copies of Woo’s original vision survive today. Woo’s next film was 1991’s Once a Thief, a breezy comedy/action/romance.
While not a huge hit, Once a Thief did well enough at the box office to gain Woo funding for his next movie, “Hard-Boiled” (1992). Again though, Hard-Boiled was not popular with the Hong Kong people. Many felt Woo was becoming too dark and over-the-top, however, as with Woo’s previous films, Hard-Boiled has become known as a classic in the action genre, both in Hong Kong and around the world.
After attracting Hollywood’s attention, John Woo was invited by Universal to direct the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target in 1993. Woo clashed with the studio heads many times during the making of the picture, mostly due to the fact that his initial edits failed to produce a “R” rated picture.
Eventually, Hard Target was taken out of Woo’s hands and chopped down by the studio itself (after even “the muscles from Brussels” Van Damme had a shot in editing the film) to produce a “suitable” cut. In 1996, after receiving CineAsia’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, he finished working on Broken Arrow, which teamed him with American pop icon John Travolta.
Face/Off (1997), which would go on to surpass the “hit” mark for American movies film awards, winning the “Best On-Screen Duo” and “Best Action Sequence” at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. He has directed two pilots for television, John Woo’s Once a Thief (based on the Hong Kong movie) and Blackjack, and has become an executive producer, lending his name to The Replacement Killers (which was Chow Yun-Fat’s American debut) and The Big Hit.
The influence of Woo’s films is quite easy to see, especially in his native Hong Kong; by 1988. In western countries such as America, the effects were more subtle. For example, the “mindless killing machine” personified by John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in 1985’s Rambo.
The trend continues today; very rarely do we see a hero in American films such as Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan (a virtual icon for 1970’s and 80’s American action movies) who kill with no remorse.
The Killer as one of his favourite movies. In fact, the “black suits with skinny ties look” popularized by Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was first used in Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II (as an interesting side note, two characters in the Tarantino-scripted film True Romance are watching ABTII on television during one scene in the movie).
Woo is also known for the “Mexican standoff,” where one or more characters have a “dead lock” on one another. Woo’s innovative editing techniques, such as the use of “wipes” and freeze-frames (which were considered by many American editors to be “hokey” and “too TV”) have also become mainstays of American action cinema, as has Woo’s use of slow-motion to add dramatics to his action sequences. It is because of all of these influences that many consider John Woo to be an auteur.
John Woo, after many years of hard work, has become known as the world’s best action film directors. His action sequences have become the stuff of legend and are now the basis from which all other action movies are judged. More importantly, along with the bloodshed, Woo has proven that he can create real characters with real emotions that the audience can sympathize with. Perhaps that is his greatest talent, and perhaps that is why he will become known as an auteur in the years to come.
1) Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin. Film Art: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill, New York, 1994; pp.492-495.
2) Brieglieb, Volker. hardboiled.de. Internet document. Found at: http://www.hardboiled.de/man.
Cinema of Vengeance, directed by Toby Russell. Xenon Home Video, England, 1994.
3)Gaschler, Thomas. E-mail conversations conducted with the author, September 2000.
Hard Boiled, DVD commentary and notes from John Woo and Terence Chang. Criterion, United States, 1998.
4)Hoover, Michael and Odham-Stokes, Lisa. City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. Verso, New York, 1999; pp. 38-64
 John Woo’s illustrious career as a filmmaker began in Hong Kong, where he spent over two decades at the centre of a thriving film industry directing nearly 30 feature films. He was known primarily as a comedy specialist until the mid-1980s when he created a series of inspired romantic and violent gangster dramas that broke box-office records.
 John Woo made his reputation as an action film director in Hong Kong during the 1980s, but since 1992 has worked in Hollywood directing big-budget thrillers such as Face/Off (1997, with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage) and Mission Impossible.
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