John Woo is a paradoxical figure. A true pop icon on the one hand (celebrated by Tarantino, Gans, Kassovitz and many other incorrigible young directors) and a veritable auteur on the other (full dossier on Face/Off in Les cahiers du cinéma # 516, september 1997), his filmography – constituted of paroxysmal action films, with references both liturgical and chivalrous, occidental and oriental, taking the appearance of thrillers to narrate the tragedy of the last men of honor – has always been qualified as violent even though the protagonists that populate it always come out sanctified. How can all-out shooting sprees rhyme with purifying martyrdom? More so, how does the King of the Gunfight on celluloid manage to also be one of the most sensitive filmmakers of his time? Basically, how does one become John Woo (his artistic pseudonym) to redeem the soul of Yusen Wu (his birth name)?
Born in 1946, in Guangzhou (Canton), South China, John Woo grows up poor and miserable in Hong Kong. Following the terrible fire that destroyed part of the city in 1953, his family is forced to live on the street. His gravely ill father spends ten years in the hospital before passing away and his mother must works extra hard to raise her children alone. His stay in the streets, rubbing elbows with crime and violence, inspired in the young John Woo some of his future obsessions. Amongst others, the perdition of values (notably honor) in a chaotic world. Also seeing the day is one of his principal creative impulsions: revolt.
In 1967, a providential intervention by the church allows Woo to study at Matteo Ricci College. His gratefulness is such that, like a certain Scorsese, he hesitates for a while between cinema and priesthood. But his natural aesthetical inclinations won’t be able to resist to the promise of European and America cinema, which he discovers with amazement after trading in classrooms for movie theaters. While his top ten favorite films include such diverse titles as West Side Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Seven Samurai and he acknowledges the influence of Peckinpah, Leone and Demy, it’s with the work of French director Jean-Pierre Melville that he identifies the most vividly, as much for the universe it shows with lyricism and suaveness than for its philosophy (honor code, male bonding, the fatality of fate, etc.).
In 1971, John Woo joins the Shaw Brothers studios, famous for its Wuxia and Kung Fu films (to which Tarantino pays explosive homage with his Kill Bill), and becomes first assistant director of Chang Cheh. Consequentially, his service under the man behind the cult One Armed Swordsman flicks introduces him to the internal elaboration of frenzied expressive mechanisms, of which he’ll make brilliant use in his future films. Woo evokes his mentor with words quite similar to those used by his own aficionados: “(…) not only Chang Cheh’s depiction violence on screen but his incomparable way with emotions and chivalrous qualities.” They worked together on four pictures: Water Margin in 1971, Boxer From Shantung in 1972, Four Riders in 1972 and Blood Brothers in 1973.
Finally, the same year as Blood Brothers, Woo helms his first film, Farewell Buddy, the only merit of which is that it was banned by the censors and was only released two years later, reedited and retitled as The Young Dragons. Thus begins a period in which the future revolutionary action filmmaker multiplies forgettable work for hire, mostly Kung Fu movies such as a shitty 1976 Jackie Chan vehicle entitled Hand of Death. The only salvageable film from these weak years is the powerful Last Hurrah For Chivalry (1978), a Wu Xian Pan epic that announces his more personal films, where ancestral heroes, brothers in arms and lethal confrontations elope with stunning maestria from the hack that everyone stubbornly mistook him for.
Hong Kong will still have to wait until 1986 to get the smash that would change its cinema forever, courtesy of three audacious craftsmen who would become legends. Indeed, when Tsui Hark, producer and founder of the unavoidable Film Workshop, offered John Woo the opportunity to shoot A Better Tomorrow with Chow Yun Fat, they permanently affected the genre. With this first stylish polar, the filmmaker finally gave body to the melvillians ghosts in search of redemption that have long haunted his tormented imagination and develops his inimitable trademark: martial choreographies and ballistic blasts infinitely renewable and intensely evocative. The film also makes Chow Yun Fat into a star who will then hop from one shoot to the next at a vertiginous pace. This is mostly the beginning of an indefectible complicity between the actor and the director, in the manner of De Niro/Scorsese, Russell/Carpenter, Hauer/Verhoven, of which the ultimate feat remains to this day the mythical The Killer (1989), a masterpiece that pays homage without complex to Melville’s Samouraï. Chow Yun Fat’s character actually has the same name and executes the same profession as Alain Delon did in 1967.
1986-1992 constitutes what critics and fans refer to as the “Hong Kong period”. A Better Tomorrow I and II, The Killer, Bullet in the Head and Hard-Boiled are so many masterworks bursting with the virtuosity of John Woo that conquer a large audience worldwide and also attract the attention of the Occident upon the rest of the rich and unbridled local production. Indeed, nowadays even the profane can recognize the master’s imprint. Whether it be the use of slow-motion to stigmatize the signification or the aesthetic of the action, the doves gracefully flying in the midst of apocalypse or the other key figures repeated from film to film, Woo’s signature is manifest. Of all these figures, one in particular symbolizes the Hong Kong period: the Mexican Stand Off (two men, face to face, mutually pointing guns to each other’s head). From A Better Tomorrow to Hard-Boiled, John Woo tirelessly explores stories of dual melancholy outcasts, the crook and the cop, crossing paths in battle (gun pointed at the head), recognizing that they share a code of honor (face to face)beyond law and uniting against a common enemy (the modern world negating the values of the past). Said modern world is always represented by the mob and its armies, which the heroes will decimate by the hundreds through dantesque gunfights that make the conjugated accomplishments of Schwarzenegger and Stallone look like mere slingshot blows.
In 1992, fleeing the upcoming 1997 retrocession, John Woo expatriates himself to Hollywood and enters his American period with Hard Target, which many erroneously consider a disgrace. Surprisingly, the Hollywoodish corset, far from choking the artist, forces him by its conventions to operate a demobilization of his obsessions, i.e. abandoning the antagonism between his heroes and the world to explore the duality in one’s own soul, torn between good and evil. Whereas you can’t mow down countless extras in Hollywood like in Hong Kong, any respectable action flick needs a serviceable Nemesis. From that point, Hard Target, a minor film with a Van Damme more ridiculous than ever, nonetheless constitutes a virtual theater where Woo sketches a new key figure in his cinema which, in the vein of the Mexican Stand Offs for his Hong Kong period, will perfectly define his American period: the hero and his Nemesis, back to back, separated by a wall, discoursing while reloading their weapon before turning around and shooting at one another point blank. Of course, the greatest example of such forceful duel is reached in the astonishing Face/Off (1997), with the sublime Cage/Travolta duo, where two lifelong enemies, Sean Archer (the painful incarnation of all the sacrifices of good) and Castor Troy (the demented allegory of all the ecstasy of evil), who switched faces earlier, position themselves in that key figure, but with a double-sided mirror instead of a wall separating them. Hence, when they turn around towards their reflection to open fire upon their adversary, they discover with horror the traits of the other in place of theirs. Needless to say that whole pages of analysis would be necessary to decrypt the countless possible interpretations of such a schizophrenic scene. By the time the film reaches its climax, with a hysterical Cage overcome by a Tavolta on the verge of madness, John Woo purges himself inexorably of his demons and et imperceptibly makes his cinema slip into a new period.
His next film comes in 2000, with the further adventures of Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible 2. Despite a difficult shoot and clashes with star Tom Cruise, Woo delivers a particularly Zen action film. He orchestrates original, feverish action sequences as always, but with little of the moral and spiritual conflicts of his previous films. Apparently healed by art, the genius cineaste has been substituted by a brilliant craftsman, whose Windtalkers (2002) and Paycheck (2003) don’t deny his finesse and savoir-faire. Sure, to critics for whom cinema only has worth through the auteur theory, this can appear like degradation, but the cinephile open to the diversities of art, this is only a new transition. Today’s John Woo is like an old maker of samurai swords whose blades are still sharp but aren’t meant to kill. After confronting the world and himself, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him soon tackle the Grim Reaper itself, a logical and inevitable (all filmmakers get there sooner or later) continuation of what he’s always pursued. So, friend’s advice, don’t miss the next transition, because it risks being, in the image of the others, unforgettable.