John Woo Evolution Of A Director

By | February 28, 2017

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John Woo: Evolution Of A Director John Woo has re-mixed the basic ingredients of the Hong Kong action film and created a new recipe that others try to emulate. Like a great chef he has cooked up haute cuisine using the same basic materials as his contemporaries, but has shifted the measurements so that the final result is finer and more complex. He incorporates the techniques learned from directors he has worked with and/or admires while putting his own unique stamp on the action films he creates. Woo credits his distinctive style to various events early in his life, these factors have influenced the theme and focus of those films that we most closely associate with the Woo technique. In an interview conducted at a film retrospective shown at the Seattle Art Museum, John Woo offered extensive insights into the ingredients and influences of his upbringing that we now recognize as the essence of his directorial style. I truly believe in friendship. When I was young, I got a lot of help from a friend. I guess Im pretty traditional. In old Chinese stories, people sacrifice themselves for friends. They have so much honor and sense of morality. These are qualities Ive always admired. When I was kid, our family was living in the slums. We lived in a very bad neighborhood, with drug dealers, gamblers, prostitutes. My family was very poor and couldnt afford to send me to school. And then when I was nine, I got support from an American family and from church.

They paid for my school fees and thats how I got educated. So Im very appreciative of the people who have helped me. I grew up wanting to do things that paid back society, to help. In high 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 other and caring about each other. When I was in high school, I was part of a group. We couldnt affor! d to go to college, so all we did was get together and learn from movies. The people who knew more than I did introduced certain movies to me; we made experimental films together. This really helped me to learn about movies. I still keep in touch with some of these people. When I started in the film business, when I became a pretty strong comedy film director, I also helped a lot of young filmmakers, to help them get jobs, find movies to work on. And before “A Better Tomorrow,” when some of my movies flopped 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, about friendships, family — it all comes from real life. Of course, not the stuff about gangster wars; actually, I dont know much about gangsters. As is evidenced by this quote the themes of friendship, loyalty and honor are the basic touchstones of Woo?s outlook on life and they have become the primary themes that we associate with the power of his films.

John Woo?s entry into the film industry did not follow the same path as that of his contemporaries. Unlike many of the Hong Kong directors of his generation he did not attend film school. While some Chinese directors who are his contemporaries studied at film schools in the West and others acquired their formal film education in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, John Woo learned his craft on the job in the factory like system of the Hong Kong studios. He started his career working as a production assistant at Cathay and then moved to Shaw Brothers in 1971. At Shaw Studios John Woo worked with director Zhang Che as an assistant director. Woo attributes Zhang with teaching him how to manage action sequences. It is from Zhang that he learned the art of directing violent swordplay and kung-fu scenes. Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979), can be recognized as an homage by Woo to Zhang?s style and influence. Young Dragons (1973) was the first film that Woo directed. Financed by his friend Ronald Lui, this independently produced film gave Woo the opportunity to move into directing at the young age of 27. At this early stage in his career, the seeds of Woo?s future violent films were already evident. This early film, Young Dragons, contained elements that would eventually become Woo?s trademark; elaborately choreographed action sequences (arranged by a young and unknown Jackie Chan) and fluid camera work. The movie was banned by the Hong Kong censorship board due to its extreme violence. Fortunately, Lui was able to sell the film to Golden Harvest Studios. Studio executives were impressed with what they saw and, despite shelving the film for two years, offered Woo a contract as a director. It was as a salaried director that he proved himself an extremely versatile filmmaker. He directed Kung-fu films, such as Shaolin Men (1975), comedies such as Money Crazy (1977), and even a Cantonese Opera film, Princess Chang Ping (1976). From the late 1970s to the 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 films reflect the directives of the studio rather than his own artistic direction. Within the studio ?factory? environment, Woo was unable to maintain the impact with which he had started. When his popularity began to dwindle, the studio sent him to Taiwan where he continued to work on comedies of mediocre quality. The films he made while in Taiwan did not do well. Woo had lost his touch and by the mid-1980s it seemed as if he was a has-been. His films during this period were duds at the box office. It was at during this low ebb in his career that he sought funding for a pet project, A Better Tomorrow (1986). Fortunately, Woo?s project caught the attention of producer/director Tsui Hark. With Tsui Hark?s backing he was able to direct his first his gangster/hero film, which brought international 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 Better Tomorrow, Hong Kong studios produced mostly comedies and kung-fu films. Gunplay was considered sloppy and boring compared to martial arts and swordplay. Woo changed the look of the gunfight through the filmic techniques that he had perfected in his previous films; dollying in and out, the use of slow motion and freezing the action and the use of tracking shots were among the various techniques that he utilized. Woo transformed the image of gunplay from death at a distance to a choreographed art form in which he integrated the acrobatics of martial arts and the deadly face to face grace of classic swordplay.

By making gunplay intimately violent in the hands of highly skilled killer and/or cop professionals Woo added the gunslinger into the lexicon of the Hong Kong action film. Following the success of A Better Tomorrow, Woo made more of these gangster/hero films such as 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 international recognition. The film Hard Boiled (1992) typifies what it is specifically that makes a John Woo film. The film is book ended with two scenes of extreme violence. The opening of the film takes place in a Hong Kong teahouse. When Police Inspector Tequila (Chow Yun-fat) and his partner try to bust an illegal weapons deal, all hell breaks loose. Criminals and police fire guns in a choreography of violent grace as people begin to die, including Tequila?s partner. People start to panic and flee when the melee begins, and that only adds to the apparent mayhem that Woo so masterfully choreographs. Here, Woo used his signature filmic techniques to draw out the violence of the scene. His use of slow motion and quick cutting simultaneously shows the chaos of the violence while retaining the fluidity of the gunplay.

Another of Woo?s trademarks, 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 A Better Tomorrow. Since that film, this two gun technique has appeared again and again in Woo?s films. Countless people are killed in the opening scene alone. A scene like this could only take place in Hong Kong, and this is very important to Woo. Criminals running through a paved alley could take place in any city in the world, but only in Hong Kong could we find this type of teahouse. Hong Kong becomes a focal point subject within his film, not just a setting. The teahouse gives the audience a brief glimpse of life in the colony. Woo brings us into the community and shows us a comforting, albeit busy scene of people enjoying each other?s company and the sound of their birds before shattering this mundane hubbub with an explosion of gunfire. Hard Boiled was the last film that Woo directed in Hong Kong. Soon after completing this film, he moved to Los Angeles in anticipation of 1997. It was uncertain what would become of Hong Kong after 1997. Scenes like the one of the teahouse become a snapshot of contemporary Hong Kong as seen by Woo.

But this opening scene is just a taste of the violence that comes at the climax of the film, a 45 minute ballet of blood at the criminals? weapons depot; a local hospital. Where at the beginning of the film, there is an explosion of violence amongst people, the film ends with a literal explosion as the arms cache of the criminals blows up. Here, Woo shows his distaste for violence. In one comical moment Tequila covers the eyes of a baby he is rescuing from the maternity ward to shield him from the bloodshed around them, saying ?X-rated violence.? In an interview with Empire Film Magazine, Woo explained this dislike of violence and how he uses that distaste to give his films that touch that make them so fascinating. Sometimes I?m shooting an action sequence and I can relate to it. I get very emotional. I relate it to what?s happening in the real world. For example, if I?m shooting a scene where the hero is fighting with some bad guys and I?ve heard on the radio about some little child getting murdered by some maniac or some people getting killed in the streets it makes me very angry. I get pretty upset. And I?d bring that into the scene. I?ll look at the bad guys as the murderer and then I?m thinking, ?Let?s beat him harder, let?s hit him with more bullets?. These films won him critical acclaim as well as a solid fan base. Hong Kong audiences, accustomed to the cookie-cutter look of locally produced films, reacted enthusiastically to Woo?s breakthrough approach. Critics also reacted favorably to this new directorial style, catapulting Woo to onto the international film scene.

His gangster films became widely popular both within Hong Kong and internationally. Hard Boiled was not only a critical and financial success, it was in fact created as a portfolio piece by Woo to court Hollywood executives. Woo?s Hong Kong gangster films were more than just shoot-?em-up bloodbaths. Unlike most of Hollywood?s action heroes, Woo?s characters are more three-dimensional, thereby creating a hyper-realistic persona. The antagonist and protagonist in a Woo film will typically have an intertwined relationship that goes beyond the usual antagonist/protagonist relationship of the genre. He does this in order to emphasize his core themes of loyalty, friendship and honor.

These themes could not be fleshed out without the audience understanding the complexity of the characters. In The Killer (1989) the assassin Jeff (Chow Yun-fat) and the cop Eagle (Danny Lee) have many a conversation and end up becoming friends in the end. Each is bound by duty and honor to fulfill his obligation, but that does not stop him from doing what is right. Eagle still tries to arrest Jeff. Jeff, on the other hand goes out of his way, risking his freedom and even his life to help the innocents that have been accidentally hurt by his violent actions. In his later Hollywood films, the closeness of the protagonist and the antagonist is even more pronounced when he goes beyond an intertwined relationship to an intertwined history, fractured by betrayal. Broken Arrow (1996) and Mission: Impossible II (2000) have the main characters at one time working on the same governmental agencies. The antagonist typically begins as a ?good guy? who has gone bad. In Broken Arrow, Major Vic Deakens (John Travolta) and Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater) are B-3 pilots. Deakens steals a nuclear weapon and it is up to Hale to stop him. Although the plot is weak, Woo?s style is clearly evident in many of the action scenes. In a boxing match at the start of the film, Woo utilizes the editing style for which he has become famous. This match ends with Deakens beating Hale, setting up the reprisal of the fight at the climax of the film; the final showdown between the two. The film ends with Hale heroically saving the country by preventing Deakens from detonating the nuclear weapon. The final confrontation comes to fisticuffs, echoing the beginning of the film. Deakens is finally killed, crushed by the bomb he intended to hold the nation hostage with. Fight scenes such as these occur in many films, however Woo?s signature slow motion and guns literally flying through the air give the action sequences here a feel that is distinctly ?Wo! In Face/Off (1997) the screenplay and Woo?s style are linked in a way that makes this the ultimate ?Woo? movie produced in America. From his early action films in Hong Kong, Woo has always shown us the intertwined history and/or relationship of the antagonist and protagonist. In Face/Off the main characters literally become intertwined, each taking on the other?s characteristics and faces. The sense of honor and duty is so strong in the protagonist FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), he willingly undergoes surgery in which his own face is removed and replaced with that of his worst enemy, Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage) in order to obtain necessary information. So closely married is the screenplay to the Woo style of direction that it is hard to maintain the distinction of the two while watching this movie. In his most recent film, Mission: Impossible II (2000) the aspects of broken loyalties, gunplay, and aerial acrobatics are brought to the extreme. Technology gives Woo the freedom to push his choreography to the extreme. Location, so important in Hard Boiled, becomes secondary to the technology available to both the filmmaker and the characters within the film. Woo has moved from colonial Hong Kong teahouse to an international stage in which any large urban area will suffice for the plot of the movie. John Woo has come full circle in the film industry. Growing up in Hong Kong, he was a fan of western films. He especially enjoyed the works of such directors as Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorcese and others. He was also influenced by musicals like West Side Story (1961) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Now, as an accomplished director in the east and the west, he is influencing a new generation of directors, such as Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Rodriguez pays homage to Woo in the barroom gunfight scenes in Desperado (1995) and Tarantino?s use of cross fading between Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules? (Samuel L. Jackson) faces while they pump a person full of lead 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 he himself creates, but in the influence of his style and technique on the works of others. Bibliography: Books Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Magnusson, Thor. ?Automatics for the People.? Empire Film Magazine. Issue 102. (December 1997) Web Resources Boyce, Laurence. ?Getting Away With It?: Violence and Masculinity in the Films of John Woo. Online.

Available: http://www.netribution.co.uk/features/essays/johnwoo.html. (April 2002). Im, Soyon, Dave Davies, Chris Brown. The Big Bang: Interview With John Woo. Online. Available: http://www.godamongdirectos.com. (April 2002). ?John Woo Essay from Voyager?. Online. Available: http://www.godamongdirectors.com/woo/faq/wooessay.html. (April 2002). Leong, Anthony. The Films of John Woo and the Art of the Heroic Bloodshed. Online Available: http://users.aol.com/aleong1631/johnwoo.html. (April 2002) -C

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