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Balletic Violence Revisited
John Woo returns to his signature "gun fu" action thrillers
By Li Nan | NO. 51 DECEMBER 21, 2017

John Woo (third right) attends the rerelease ceremony of his 1986 blockbuster A Better Tomorrow in Beijing on November 13 ((COURTESY OF UNITED ENTERTAINMENT PARTNERS))

It has been 50 years since John Woo, the renowned Hong Kong director, started his career in the film industry back in 1968. Woo, now aged 71, has staged more than 30 films throughout an illustrious career which has spanned both Hong Kong and Hollywood, winning applause both at home and abroad for his distinctive style of action movies.

This winter saw two of Woo's films screened in cinemas with a rerelease of his 1986 blockbuster A Better Tomorrow and the release of his latest movie Manhunt. Woo's highly regarded film A Better Tomorrow depicts the story of two brothers, a gangster and a policeman, and has been widely hailed as the first and defining film of the heroic bloodshed genre. Manhunt tells the story of a lawyer, in the frame for a murder he did not commit, who teams up with a detective in order to restore his reputation.

The two movies may be separated by a 31-year gap, but they remain alike in their methods of story-telling and visual language. Both depict men bound by personal concepts of honor and loyalty at odds with contemporary values, each willing to fight in order to attain justice. Woo's signature narrative tools; epic shootouts, slow motion gunplay, tense Mexican stand-offs, and carefully choreographed fight sequences, are recurrent spectacles in the two films, a style described as "balletic violence" which has inspired and influenced other directors all around the world.

Yet for all the influence of the style which has become almost synonymous with his name, Woo has in fact not made a signature "gun fu" thriller for 14 years. After working on several big budget historical epics which received generally mixed reviews, Manhunt marks a return to what he does best.

"I haven't touched a gun film for more than a decade. I feel somewhat lonely without it. A director shouldn't stay away from his signature genre for too long," Woo said at the premiere of Manhunt in Beijing on October 31.

A still from John Woo’s 2017 release Manhunt (FILE)

A meteoric rise

Woo's early life helped to shape the kind of director he would later become. Growing up in a shanty town in Hong Kong, his family lived in poverty, whilst the young Woo was the frequent target of street bullies throughout his childhood. He described his feeling at the time as one of loneliness and claimed that he longed to rid himself of such miserable life. He later discovered cinema, for him a retreat from the suffering of his youth, and movies, especially musical films, began to shape his hopes for the future.

During his childhood Woo was a shy and quiet boy. Making movies thus became a way for him to explore his feelings and he was soon using film as a language to communicate his thinking and his vision of the world to those around him.

Making films also enabled the young Woo to make a lot of friends. "When I was a kid I felt lonely, I didn't have many friends. If you make a movie, then you can work with different kinds of people and make different kinds of friends. That's very important to me," said Woo.

A trademark of Woo's renowned early work is his aesthetic display of gunfights and depiction of brotherhood and justice. As a child he witnessed two riots, one in 1956 and the other in 1967, in which many Hong Kong civilians were injured or killed. During one of the incidents Woo himself watched as a man soaked in blood died in front of his door. This gruesome scene left a lasting impression on the young Woo and is a recurrent spectacle found throughout his work.

First with A Better Tomorrow and later with Hard Boiled and The Killer, Woo made several heroic bloodshed blockbusters in the late 1980s and 1990s, all of which were renowned for their graceful, dance-like shootouts crystallized in the term "balletic violence." His unique brand of action film defined Hong Kong cinema at the height of the region's golden age, and soon became a calling card for Hollywood.

In 1993, Woo relocated to the United States where he went on to make numerous films including Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2. These two productions proved to be hits at the box office and earned Woo recognition on an international level.

In 2010 he became the first Chinese director to be presented with a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival. Woo was chosen for the honor because he "has renewed action movies to the core, introducing an extreme stylization close to visual art, both in Asia and in Hollywood," the organizers of the Venice Film Festival said.

Central to Woo's action films, the sole product of neither a Hong Kong nor Hollywood tradition, is the prevalence of the heroic spirit. "I believe in justice. No matter in what era we are, justice does exist and it will eventually prevail. All of the protagonists in my films, no matter what background they come from, keep fighting for justice," said Woo at a ceremony in Beijing celebrating the 50th anniversary of his directing career on November 11.

"I've often dreamt of being a swordsman living in ancient times who has a strong sense of justice and is ready to help others," said Woo.

Bridging cultures

"When I was abroad many foreigners knew little about Chinese culture and philosophy, thus misunderstanding would occur," Woo told Beijing Review  at a ceremony in Beijing celebrating the 50th anniversary of his directing career on November 11.

Consequently, as one of the few prestigious Chinese directors to have worked in Hollywood, Woo took it upon himself to use Western narrative techniques to tell stories with a background in oriental culture.

In fact, bridging the East and West through the medium of film was a piece of advice handed down to Woo from his mentor Chang Cheh. Known as the Godfather of Hong Kong cinema, during the 1960s and 1970s Chang was one of the most prolific film directors in the industry, and throughout his career directed nearly 100 films. Woo worked as Chang's assistant director at Shaw Studios during the 1970s.

According to Woo, bridging cultures in this way is no easy task. "Making a film which can be appreciated by the domestic audience and impact overseas moviegoers at the same time is very difficult," Woo said. Nonetheless, Woo believes that common humanity can move both Eastern and Western audiences. "We share common love, a common code of ethics, but we express them in a different way," he said.

No matter the genre of the film, a constant feature of Woo's style is the highlighting of emotional links between individuals. "When working in Hollywood, they expected me to make some Hollywood style films. I hoped to find some common ideas between the Chinese and American cultures and project them onto the screen," said Woo.

This conviction played out in 1997 whilst Woo was shooting the Hollywood sci-fi action movie Face/Off. He insisted on adding a scene evocative of the traditional Chinese value of family at the end of the film, an addition which ultimately helped prop up the rating of the film in the previews according to critics.

"I hope that my films can become a bridge linking the East and the West, showing the real core of Chinese culture to the world," said Woo. "Although I am not 100 percent successful yet, I will keep trying to make our culture known to the world."

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

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