This article appeared originally in the all-Hong Kong issue of Bright Lights #13 (1994).
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Hong Kong’s master of balletic blood ‘n bulletplay speaks
John Woo, one of Hong Kong’s most famous and respected action directors, has long been a cult favorite in the United States. Known for his breathtakingly choreographed action sequences featuring balletic shoot-outs and spurting exit wounds, Woo’s films are also often tragic and sentimental, engaging with themes of loyalty and honor and the place of the loner hero in a world full of corruption and violence. A Better Tomorrow (1986), hailed by many as the film that reinvented the Hong Kong action genre, broke box-office records in Hong Kong, relaunched Woo’s career (he had been making moderately successful comedies and musicals since the mid-1970s), and introduced him to fans in the West. Less than ten years later Woo has left Hong Kong and moved to Hollywood. Hard Target (1993), the first film by an Asian director to be released by a Hollywood studio, brought Woo critical acclaim and much public recognition. But for many fans it is still his Hong Kong masterpieces such as A Better Tomorrow, A Better Tomorrow II (1987), The Killer (1989), A Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard-Boiled (1992) that are considered his best work to date. As eloquent in words as he is in images, Woo graciously agreed to conduct the following interview by fax, in spite of his incredibly hectic schedule. He talks about his vision of a better world, growing up in the slums of Hong Kong, and how witnessing violence first-hand has shaped his work. I started by asking Woo about his move to Hollywood, particularly in light of the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
Why did you decide to move to Hollywood, and how do you find life in the United States?
My family and I enjoy it here very much. We do not plan on going back to Hong Kong for a while. For me, it has always been a dream to work with different people from different cultures. I can learn so much more. That is what I aspire to do – always keep learning. When I stop learning, than I become stuck in the same old thing. I can never do that. I must always keep growing … That is what keeps the spirit in my films.
What kinds of opportunities are available to filmmakers in the United States that are difficult or unavailable in Hong Kong?
In Hong Kong it was much simpler to make a film. The studio knew me and my work. There weren’t any interferences or interruptions from them. I have a good reputation with them and even if my projects went over budget, they always made money from them. Also, the studio is never allowed to see any footage. Just the final print. There is a lot of great talent there. But not really enough. It is also very difficult because we didn’t have all the resources available. We couldn’t afford the best or the most expensive. However, we always made it work. Even the most difficult shots. We had a great spirit. In Hollywood, there are so many games, meetings, and politics. It is not that they do not have confidence in me, but it is just the way the system is. I do, however, enjoy working here very much. There is so much dedication in this business. I am constantly impressed by the hard work and talent that are making films in the United States. From the producers, actors, and even the crew – everyone is devoted. The goal is to make a good movie. For instance, in Hong Kong it is not unusual for an actor to work on several movies at the same time. Here everyone is very focused, once you get past the countless meetings and start making a movie. What I also didn’t realize until I came to Hollywood was what great support I had here and abroad. I have so much support and friendship from the studios, writers, and producers. I think I appreciate this above all.
Do you think you would have continued to make your films in the way you would like in Hong Kong after 1997?
In 1997, I think things will become even more limited. There will not be as much freedom for creativity or speech. I am not so concerned with “luxury living.” What I’m asking for is to have creative luxury. That is most important to me. Creativity is very limited in Hong Kong. Films there must either be action or comedy. There is not much support for artistic films. It is also impossible to do anything political. Since the topics are so limited, it is not a very creative environment. When I began to receive offers from Hollywood, I decided it was a good opportunity for me to learn more about techniques from filmmakers here.
How do you feel about the success of your films in the West?
In 1989 The Killer was shown at the Toronto Film Festival. It got a lot of attention from critics and received great reviews. Cinephiles loved my film. I was so surprised! I had not been to a film festival before and was unaware how many fans and friends I had. Then in 1990 The Killer was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and received more attention. Only this time it was from the film industry also. Filmmakers, studios, and producers all became interested in my style and action technique. From that film I gained a lot of friends and received tremendous support. Both of which I am constantly surprised and grateful for. While A Better Tomorrow was made in 1986 and was a huge success in Asian countries, it was not a Western film. For me everything started in the West with The Killer.
Many of your films star Chow Yun-Fat. Do you have any plans to work with him again?
When I first met Chow Yun-Fat, I only knew him as a popular television star. His movies were not very successful. Before A Better Tomorrow, I never knew him directly. When we did the casting for A Better Tomorrow, I had in my mind’s eye what I wanted. I wanted a modern knight. Someone with a real personality and human qualities. I read in the paper that he did a lot of work with orphans. This is what I was looking for. A strong man with a good heart. The image he portrayed to me was one of Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, Alain Delon, or Humphrey Bogart. I can see all of these characteristics in him. I was not disappointed when I met him in person. He has a natural ease and unique talent. It is very important to me that the script enhance the actor’s own experience and characteristics. In this case, it was very easy to do. Whenever I travel, in the United States or abroad, everyone is always inquiring when we might work together again. He is very busy right now doing promotional work for his film Treasure Hunt. He also has two more films to fulfill his contract in Hong Kong. Currently we are looking for the right project to introduce him to the audiences in the United States. Maybe in 1995 or 1996.
You have mentioned in other interviews that you are antiviolence, yet your films make violence seem so beautiful. How do you reconcile the seductive appeal of violence with its very real destructive power?
As a child, I was raised in the slums of Hong Kong. I saw too many people killed in disasters and by gangs. Growing up in the slums is like growing up in hell. In the ’50s and ’60s, there were riots, and I witnessed people killed by police right outside my own door. I also was very active during the Vietnam War. On the one hand, I so admire those men who went away to fight for their country. But also I was very against war, killing, and fighting… in any respect. I always dreamed of a better world. Another place where there is no violence and only peace and love exist. I have seen enough violence. In actual life, I hate violence! But the world is not like I dreamed; there is violence and crime everywhere. My ideal is that there is always some sort of justice. Violence is defeated. In my films, the heroes use their strong will and discipline to combat the violence and injustice. It is through the violence that I show the real qualities of a human. And I have always thought of my action sequences as more like a cartoon or a unique musical that is carefully choreographed. My characters have a code of honor and loyalty. Life is so precious, and I want to show this. My kind of hero is chivalrous. Asian or western, these ideas can be understood. They are universal. Violence is not the only thing. There is something more in human nature and in the human spirit. I believe it is goodness and loyalty. My hero possesses these qualities but he is always misunderstood. My heroes are lonely and tragic, like myself I see myself as lonely and tragic. Of course, it is hard to be lonely with so many friends!
Many of your films do have this recurring theme of the lonely and tragic hero. Do you think it is, in some way, a theme that is particularly meaningful in Hong Kong, or can it apply to other cultures and people?
I have always wanted to explore the common point among people through films. Different people walk different paths. Each has a different culture, background, and thought, but I believe there are some things that are universally common. We all want to believe there is justice, love, morality, and beauty in this world. I always worshipped the chivalrous behavior of ancient knights, the loyalty of the Samurai spirit and the French romantics. A real knight should come and go like an autumn leaf He does not look for recognition. It is unimportant to him that those around know of him. Only his actions are important. He will sacrifice everything, even his life, for justice, loyalty, for love and his country. His life is like a cloud, it could disappear in an instant. I think there is something beautiful about this. Even if there is only one beautiful moment in life – it is worth it just for that moment.
Do you feel like you have had to make any compromises since moving to Hollywood, or that you may lose some of your individual style?
I believe that rather than a loss of individuality, my acceptance in Hollywood now gives me the freedom to express my own personal style. My films are like my children. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses and I love each one of them individually. I treat my films like an artist and his painting or a writer and his poem. I think of how the poem will be written or a painting painted. How the story is told is important. With the acceptance of Hollywood, I now feel that I will be able to incorporate my own sense of film and art into my next project.
There are rumors that you will direct the next Star Wars film. Is this true?
No, I am afraid it is completely false! Although it would be an honor to work with someone as talented as George Lucas.
So what are you currently working on?
Currently we are in preproduction at Twentieth Century-Fox. It is a story about five Americans who (due to circumstances beyond their control) become stranded in the Amazon Rainforest. Each has to battle the elements and their own weaknesses to survive. I am very excited about this project. There are things that will be quite challenging for me – the rainforest, underwater scenes, crocodiles, and thousands of extras! We are also planning a project based on a story by me called Full Circle. The director Michael Cimino will be writing the script. The project will have a similar style to The Killer.
Thank you, John Woo.