by Wagner James Au
If you're lucky, your first experience with a John Woo movie will include at least one instance of floating joy. These come at different times for different people, when so much glorious mayhem reaches some sort of critical mass, culminating in a single perfect moment that leaves you helpless and floating. Like in "The Killer," say, when Chow snatches two Berrettas skittering across a church floor only to rise among the pews and empty both guns point-blank into an oncoming villain, fixing him there in a slow-motion whirl.
You're sure you've seen something like all this beforeyou're sure you've never seen anything like this in your life. Guns you've seen, and gangsters too. But never like this, cascading at you in a way that is merciless and achingly heartfelt at the same time, so richly cast in the language of filmmaking.
Woo's vision is at once unique and grounded in several distinct film traditions. His genius lies in the ways in which he synthesizes these traditions into a coherent vision all his own. I caught Woo, who has quite suddenly become an A-list director in Hollywood, somewhere between a trip to England for the U.K. premiere of "Broken Arrow," the shoot for the pilot for Fox's "Once a Thief," an adaptation of his Hong Kong caper comedy in series form, and location-scouting for "Face Off," his upcoming film starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage.
SIFUS OF SPEED AND MOTION
Woo is best known for his mastery of the action sequence. He captures action using several cameras positioned to intersect the blaze from multiple angles, moving at a range of speeds. The end result is a chaotic orchestration of diverse fragments; a precise flurry of images bombards the viewer.
Exactly what causes the wonderful sense of vertigo that happens during the best moments in Woo's films? Knowing something about the directors who influenced him may give you a clue.
Woo owes a debt to several directors, most notably Kurosawa, especially his "The Seven Samurai." He is also indebted to the more contemporary Scorsese for his action sequences in "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver." But the direct correlation is surely to Peckinpah, who, in "The Wild Bunch," turned his innovation and mastery of the multi-camera, multi-speed action scene into a swirl of fever dreams of ascending anarchy.
AU REVOIR, SHIMSHATSUI
Paris and Hong Kong are the cosmopolitan epicenters of culture and sophistication for their respective hemispheres. Their citizens hungrily import the latest in American music and film, then set about reshaping what they've brought over to fit their own particular sensibility.
One of Woo's greatest influences is the French director Jean-Pierre Melville. Little seen in the States, Melville's do-it-yourself filmmaking and his willingness to play with American genres made him an inspiration to the French New Wave, which also made a powerful impact on Woo's own work. You will catch flashes of Godard and Truffaut throughout his films.
Movies such as "Bob Le Flambeur" and "Le Doulos" confirm Melville's TK as master of the French noir. Like noblemen gone to seed, to whom keeping up outward appearances is of the utmost importance, Melville's gangsters dress in crisp suits and wear clean wool coats and an air of pragmatic sophistication. This is a look that Woo translated virtually thread for thread in"A Better Tommorow." And Melville's "Le Samourai" (1972), starring Alain Delon, made a deep impression on Woo, who acknowledges that the actor was an inspiration for Woo's portayal of Chow in "A Better Tommorow" and "The Killer".
"The Killer" and "Le Samourai" both begin in the same universeone of contract killers and ruthless cops, not to mention a murder that takes place in a nightclub. In both films, a young woman crosses the path of the assassin, and as she casually meets his gaze she changes him forever.
Whereas Melville's portayal of the criminal underworld is an end in itself, and actual gunplay is impressionistic and over in a quick barrage of flashes, for Woo, the Triad subculture is more of a means to an end, merely a stage for his classic dramas of brotherhood and virtue reclaimed, in which Beijing Operas of gunfire bring these conflicts to a head. Appropriately, Chow goes about executing his assignment at least four times more voraciously than Melville.
In the early years of his film career, Woo apprenticed under Chang Cheh, who was a director for Hong Kong's famous Shaw Brothers studio during the late 1960s and 1970s. Along with his peer King Hu, Chang brought a Western film sensibility to very Eastern stories valueing honor, chivalry, and brotherhood among warriors. Both these sensibilities, and their accompanying values, are integral to Woo's vision; his movies are full of imagery and themes that resonate with the influences of his teacher Chang Cheh, his first film sifu.
Chang's heroes, like most heroes in Asian mythology, find themselves surrounded by armies of enemies that pounce on them from every side. Somehow the hero manages to drive his enemies back, carving whole armies into heaps of corpses. He possesses a transcendent inner force that makes his defeat inconceivable (until a protracted struggle, at the very least). In this tradition, all of those dozens of thugs who keep coming after him and dying by the boatload exist only to demonstrate the adamantine perfection of the hero's moral character.
In a scene from Chang's 1969 "Vengeance," David Chiang, who is wearing white, the color of death and mourning in Asia, has just avenged the death of his brother, leaving piles of bodies in his wakeonly to be betrayed by his own allies. Woo's hero in "The Killer" is also a warrior in white but according to the Christian iconography of the director's adopted religion, this is the color of purity. The images of the statue of Mary in the film are also references to Woo's faith. Like Chiang, the killer is hemmed in by a horde of heavily armed opponents who don't stand a snowball's chance against him.
For most cinemaphiles, their first encounter with one of Woo's movies is also the viewer's first experience with Hong Kong movies in general. Or else their knowledge of the form may begin and end with the mangled remains of atrociously dubbed, pan-and-scan Bruce Lee flicks of the 1970s.
But to fully understand Woo's films, it's important to see them in the context of the industry that produced them. Prior to directing the six movies that are well known to Western devotees, Woo made more than a dozen standard comedies and Kung Fu films that are all almost entirely bereft of his personal voice. Then, in 1986, came "A Better Tomorrow," an artistic breakthrough that paralleled the evolution of the Hong Kong movie, which, after more than a decade of cheesy, preliterate schlock comedies and 1970s martial arts roustabouts, broke out with a fierce creative energy that was labeled Hong Kong's New Wave.
The central unifying figure and driving force of this movement was Tsui Hark. A director and/or producer of dozens of films, his contribution to the New Wave was how he integrated Hollywood film styles and production values with distinctly Chinese narratives, both old and new. His passions are shared by Woo, and the two, both at the beginning of their careers as true auteurs, made ideal artistic and professional collaborators: Tsui produced "A Better Tomorrow" and its sequel, along with "The Killer."
GOTTA DANCE, GOTTA KILL!
"West Side Story" is one of John Woo's all-time favorite films. Making the link between Woo's bullet-slashed world and this prancing cream puff of a movie may seem like a stretch. The most apparent connection is perhaps the naked emotionalism of Woo's melodramas, which often escalates to the flushed pathos of the musical. But the real contribution of Woo's work is the precise, criss-crossing angles of movement and the gymnastic flourishes of its dance choreography. Woo incorporates this dynamism into his gun fights, turning them into something much more than rote action; something fluid, and lithe. In "A Better Tomorrow," two heroes stand alongside each other; they swing their guns up and fire simultaneously, sending two gangsters gracefully arcing backward. In its sequel, Chow and his opponent enter a room from opposite sides, back to back, then whirl around, back-pedaling, firing furiously.
These moments are akin to the street-level grace and Balletics that choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins worked into "West Side Story." Robbins makes full use of wide-screen composition to create a concretic effect, blooming outward. During the hospital siege that was the finale to "Hard Boiled," Woo also uses a similar circular movement in his staging.
What "West Side Story" and its MGM predecessors share with Woo's films is the desire to express emotion and conflict on the grandest scale of human physicality. This merges nicely with the tradition of Beijing Opera, in which martial narratives are enacted to the sound of clanging cymbals and to the vision of dancers in vibrant costume turning somersaults. Together, they merge into a portrayal of violence that is for Woo excessive, but never gory, extravagant, but never cruel.
In "Hard Target" and "Broken Arrow," Woo retains the blueprint of his style even within the choked confines of the Hollywood system. But with more credibility in the American market will come more opportunities for Woo to express the full-blown range of his artistry. That's the hope, at least. Although the general American audience may never be able to digest the Woo of his classic Hong Kong films.
But things change quickly. Woo has already served as a conduit for the entrance of other Hong Kong talent into Hollywoodfrom Jackie Chan to "Chungking Express" director Wong Kar Wai to "City On Fire" director Ringo Lam. As Woo gains ever-growing numbers of enthusiasts among American filmmakers and film lovers, our expectations for our movies will be remade in his own imagery. And when, finally, he is able to make the same kind of films in the U.S. that he once conjured up in Hong Kongimporting his vision without restrictions or tariffs into an industry bankrupted by a severe creative deficitit may seem nothing other than inevitable. </end>
Wagner James Au lives in San Francisco where he spend the days watching tons of Hong Kong films.