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 HKCinemagic 2

Statistics :
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Interview with a new John Woo
John Woo’s style 1/1 - Page 1
Author(s) : Thomas Podvin
Date : 7/4/2007
Type(s) : Interview
 Intext Links  
People :
Jackie Chan
Chang Cheh
Chow Yun Fat
Kaneshiro Takeshi
Bruce Lee
Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Tsui Hark
John Woo
Movies :
A Better Tomorrow
Bullet In The Head
Hard Target
Just Heroes
The Killer
Last Hurrah For Chivalry
Mission : Impossible II
Red Cliff - Part 1
Run Tiger Run
The Time You Need A Friend
Companies :
Cinema City & Films Co.
Golden Harvest
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Page 2 : Red Cliff

Can a filmmaker be a tad romantic, naive and idealistic and at the same time stage some of the most mind-blowing, jaw-dropping operatic shoot-outs ever seen on big screen? Ask John Woo, the internationally-venerated master of action from Hong Kong, whose violence extravaganza seduced Tom Cruise for his Mission Impossible 2. Impossible too seemed to be Woo’s endeavor to conquer Hollywood in the early 1990s, when Chinese men in Tinseltown merely meant Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.

Woo’s a very genuine being and a true, sometimes naive, optimistic. He confessed he’s a romantic who hold a utopian vision of the world, a vision he’s tried to project into his films. First in Hong Kong in the 1980s, in a erratic and free fashion with a string of romantic gangster flicks (A Better Tomorrow; The Killer; A Bullet in the Head) where heroes loved (men or women), killed and loved to kill. This won the Guangdong-born filmmaker the name of ‘god of action’ overseas.

This vision was much more difficult to share in Hollywood though. When Woo relocated in L.A. in 1992 after making Hard Boiled, his farewell gift to Hong Kong with a body count of more than 300, he’s had to bear the US film-studios’ dictatorship, churning, at first, silly expensive entertainment fares (Hard Target; Broken Arrow). Yet, after proving his ‘bankability’, he was able to sign films in which he could fully express himself and display his favorite themes of brotherhood, loyalty, betrayal and redemption (Face/Off; Windtalkers).

After a decade in Hollywood, the influential 60-year-old chaos helmer has yearned to explore new horizons and shoot movies in the Chinese mainland. The first opportunity came in 2004, when Woo made a 25-minute segment in China as part of the 120-minute-long omnibus charity film for the United Nations Children's Fund All the Invisible Children (along with Emir Kusturica, Spike Lee, Ridley Scott…). Woo’s short tale of hope, Song Song and Little Cat, involves neither guns nor deaths, but two little girls facing extreme hardship.

For an even more high-profile return to the homeland the “god of mayhem” dusted out the big guns with Red Cliff, casting the Chinese crème de la crème (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro). The USD 50 million historical epic, which shooting started last March in Hebei Province and the Beijing Studios for a release during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is an adaptation of a chapter of the beloved Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义). The story of one of the most famous battles in Chinese history (208 A.D) concerns the opposition of the southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan to the northern warlord Cao Cao, to stop him from conquering the land south of the Yangtze River and reunifying China. Of course, such material offers Woo enough substance to fully express his talent and get his message across.

For the moment, Woo discusses below his romantic self, guns, China and cinema while offering a foretaste of his exiting Red Cliff.

John Woo shooting with three cameras


John Woo’s style

HKCinemagic: By the mid-1980s you career slowed down with The Time You Need a Friend and Run Tiger Run. Then you left to Taiwan. After being helped by Chang Cheh, who showed you were made for directing movies, Tsui Hark helped you get your commercial and critical breakthrough with A Better Tomorrow. What was your mindset at this time and your expectations? In retrospect, what do you think of this turn of event?

John Woo: I started my directing career in the early 1970s and became a pretty successful comedy director. But comedy wasn’t my specialty. I never liked making them. The movies I really wanted to make were character driven. Unfortunately, the studio Golden Harvest, didn’t want me to make the movies I liked. So I was pretty unhappy at that time even though I was continually asked to make comedies. They looked painful because I wanted to get across a serious message and the audience didn’t know how to react.

Run Tiger Run, the not so funny comedy of John Woo

I was so grateful to my mentor Chang Cheh. He always encouraged me to make the movies I aspired to make. He knew I could do it. I had never met someone who really gave me the opportunity to do the films I liked.

Then in the early 1980s my comedies weren’t working at all. So, Cinema City sent me to Taiwan to be an executive producer and produce Taiwanese comedies. I also made Run Tiger Run and The Time You Need a Friend there. I was pretty down. I still hadn’t had the chance to make the movies I wanted. Then I found a friend, Tsui Hark, who really supported my ideas. We had been friends before and when my comedies were doing well, I went to Golden Harvest and told them I believed in him and asked them to give him a chance. Then before he got popular I recommended him to Cinema City and he became successful. He turned around and repaid the favor by supporting me at a time when my movies were box office poison and I needed his help.

So, I returned to Hong Kong and Tsui Hark encouraged me to make A Better Tomorrow. He tried his best to help me make it. He produced and helped me write it. It was the first experience for he and I to make a movie based on raw emotion. No one was making movies like that at the time. In all my life, I appreciate so many people who have helped me in my career. I used the friendship between Tsui Hark and I to infuse the characters in A Better Tomorrow. It was this bond of friendship, which I truly believe in, that put the emotion into this film.

Friendship and violence in A Better Tomorrow

I have my own pride, even though I had been looked down on for many years, at that time, I gained more self respect through making that movie. It reinforced in me the drive to never give up on being the filmmaker I wanted to be. It was also a tribute to my mentor Chang Cheh. I used it to show respect to all the good friends who helped me. When we were done, we all agreed that it showed how we really felt. It was very successful and made Chow Yun Fat a big movie star. I was so grateful, so tearful. That’s why friendship is always a big theme in my movies. It proved that you can never give up your true dreams. As a director I began making films I really believed in.

HKCinemagic: Chang Cheh loved to make movies with strong male heroes. Some film critics see this as homoeroticism, especially since females have a very minor place in Chang’s stories. Your movies too feature strong male leads, from Last Hurrah for Chivalry, to Windtalkers passing by A Better Tomorrow or Just Heroes. Can you explain this? Do you plan to give more room to women in your future projects?
John Woo: My movies are always about friendship with a strong emphasis on honor and loyalty. These are universal themes. It doesn’t matter if the characters are men or women. I don’t have a bias about that. I can send the same message no matter what sex the characters are. I also like to make great love stories. It is all about the storyline. Few people know yet that I recently made a film for UNICEF called Song Song and Little Cat about two little girls in China. I was inspired by this story about the universal themes of hope, courage and friendship. The fact that the lead characters are two little girls might surprise some people who associate my work with male driven action films. I like to make movies about whatever is beautiful. Beautiful life, beautiful ideas, beautiful philosophy.

Shooting Song Song and Little Cat in China

Before Chang Cheh, all the big stories in China were about female leads. He came in and started to change that. He was making films about men with honor and it became very popular [Ed.: Chang Cheh created the “Yanggang” films, which can be translated by films with “staunched masculinity” and celebrating the Chinese concept of Yi that embody honor to your words and your friends].

HKCinemagic: Throughout your filmmaking career you have developed a great romanticism, be it on the form of a relationship between two friends, two brothers, a man and a woman etc. Why?
John Woo: I like romanticism because I am a dreamer. When I was a kid I was raised in a rough area. I felt like I was in hell. I started watching musicals. They were so hopeful, about the beauty of life and romance between people. These films reminded me that no matter how bad it can get, the world is still beautiful. Then I fell in love with the French New Wave, Italian films and Japanese films. Those French films were so filled with romanticism. But, of course, I also was strongly influenced by the Chinese aesthetic. I admire the kind of people who can bring about change in society. All these things influenced me to be a romantic. There is so much pain in the world but there are so many great people in this world, too. I still believe that. That belief is at the base of the romanticism in my films.


Romantic and tragic hero from Le Samouraï (Screenshot courtesy Dvdbeaver.com)


HKCinemagic: Windtalkers was widely criticized for its violence and its portrait of warmongering Marines. It seems to me that what you wanted to offer was actually a viewpoint against violence and war. In the film, John Enders is considered as a hero and receives many medals, but inside it’s like he’s already dead. He’s like a ghost because he follows order and have many people killed in the process. In general, many people believe you beautify violence in your films yet you are anti-war. You like the look of a Berretta but have never actually shot a real gun. Talk about this apparent paradox of yours: showing violence but being anti-war.
John Woo: This is how I tell a story. I like to use a strong visual to send a message. How do you make a drunk driver feel guilty when they crash and people die? The police will show that person the graphic picture of the people they killed. I was making a war movie, of course, it [was] going to be violent. I wanted to emphasize the cruelty of war to try to prevent it. War is violent. I want to explore that, to hold a mirror to it. So people can really see and know that we shouldn’t kill each other. When John Enders is killing people, he is already dead inside because he had already killed so many. I am sure there are so many John Enders in this world and that saddens me. He is a tragic character. But through his friendship with Ben Yazee, he becomes redeemed.


Chu Kong and John Woo on the set of The Killer


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