One nagging question about John Woo's The Killer comes up again and again: The movie chews over questions of honor and virtue, about the line separating men from animals. But the title character kills people for a living. Isn't there something morally questionably about this?
Terence Chang: "I think John is a very interesting person because he's full of contradictions. That's certainly reflected in his films. I mean, John, the Chow character, kills people for money. But to John, he also represents justice. I see a contradiction there."
The movie is in part an exploration of this contradiction: An unusual cop, whose emotions and idealism set him apart from the jaded, cynical norm of his profession, recognizes the yearning for peace in his supposed enemy - and recognizes himself.
The conventions of genre movies sometimes run, not contrary to real world morality, but parallel to it. The killer's dilemma can be an extreme metaphor for the kinds of choices a lot of people are faced with. How many of us have been forced to carry on in a line of work we can no longer justify to ourselves, in order to fulfill personal obligations?
The Japanese have terms for the two impulses involved: One is giri, usually translated as duty or obligation. The other is ninjo, or "feeling," encompassing any unself-conscious human impulse: love, friendship, pity, even the hunger for revenge.
The conflict between giri and ningo, often unresolvable, dictate the downbeat endings of many Japanese samurai and yakuza pictures. John Woo's movies often delve into similar issues.
For John Woo, "Sidney is a tragic figure." He is John's best friend, but, as John himself understands, Sidney lives by a gangster code that rigidly dictates behavior. A hitman who is spotted on the job has to be rubbed out - and his go-between has to pull the trigger.
One of Woo's stated goals in The Killer was "to show that even the most different people can have traits in common. Even though we are walking a different path, we must have something in common. I made it a cop and a killer so that they would be extremely different characters, with one thing in common. That's why I wanted to make it a triangle love story, at first."
John Woo: "The killer is a man who does bad things, but he wants to be good. That's why I put him in a church at the beginning. He is fed up with killing and he wants to stop. He goes there like I didn't in my childhood. I always liked to sit in the church, I liked the peace. I was thinking about God, thinking about fate, asking who is controlling my fate, God or myself?"
Woo: "Whatever I do, I never think about the audience. The first thing I think of is the character, the actor and I, how we feel. To me the gangster films are just like Chinese swordplay pictures. To me Chow Yun-fat holding a gun is just like Wang Yu holding a sword. All I intend to glorify is the hero. Not violence, not the Triad societies, just the behavior of the hero."
Woo: "When the audience reacted to the movie, I was surprised. They were so serious about it! It made me realize I have to be more concerned about how people will react. I think I care too much about romanticism. In the future, my films have got to look deeper into people. "Bullet in the Head" was an experiment to do that, which is why the film was made without a hero."
Chang: "The success of The Killer overseas made a lot of filmmakers and even film critics in Hong Kong jealous. it created a certain kind of resentment in the film industry there. After The Killer was bought by TriStar for an American remake, and John went off to America to make an American picture, the resentment grew. It's very unhealthy."
Chang: "One thing I can say for sure, the American, European, Japanese, Korean and even the Taiwanese audience and critics appreciate The Killer a lot more than people in Hong Kong."
J. Hoberman, Premiere, August, 1990: "Chow Yun-fat plays something like a benign Terminator - a wistful, avuncular, superbly tailored murder machine...The Killer starts with over the top and then, like some non-stop cartoon freak out, blasts through the roof. (This is the sort of movie that can incite an audience to screams of incredulity). John Woo's high-octane mixture suggest Magnificent Obsession remade by Sam Peckinpah."
Dave Kehr, Chicago International Film Festival, 1991: "Just as Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s gave a new shot of life to a dying American genre, so do John Woo's Hong Kong gangster films revive a fading American myth through the stylistic innovation and fresh moral perspective of an outsider."
Kehr: "But where Leone was mournful and cynical, Woo is a delirious romantic; his movies are male love stories in which the emotional and erotica charge is carried by extravagant violence. As the body count rises...so does Woo's wild exultation, as he whips the emotions into a range somewhere on the far side of grand opera."
Kehr: "Convinced that cliche is the surest route to truth, Woo constructs his outrageous plots from half-remembered Hollywood conventions. The Killer, his masterpiece to date, mingles "Magnificent Obsession" with "Point Blank"...The unlikely love triangle that develops finds its resolution during an extravagant shoot-out in a chapel, filmed by Woo as the ultimate wedding in blood."
Tony Rayns, Monthly Film Bulletin: The Killer is inescapably a self-conscious commentary on its own genre...Woo told Hong Kong interviewers last year that he originally intended the film as an homage to Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville..."
Rayns: "What Woo's American fans have missed, doubtless because they failed to pick up on Honk Kong genre cinema last time around, are the film's equally deep roots in the Chinese wuxia pian ('martial chivalry' genre) of the 1960s."
Rayns: "The film harks back with overwhelming nostalgia to the swordplay epics of Woo's adolescence. The Wang Yu character in Chang Cheh's Golden Swallow (Jin Yanzi, 1968) is a virtual role model for Chow Yun-fat's John: exquisitely tailored, stoic in adversity, disdainful of anesthetic when treated for wounds, and given to slaughtering literally dozens of (deserving) foes whenever challenged."
Rayns: "The film is, in every sense, full-blooded. It has an almost flawless thriller plot (no holes no glaring implausibilities, no hard-to-take coincidences)...In its serenely overstate way, it is as resonant and emotive as the 'classics' it refers to."
The scene in The Killer in which Chow's John enters a night club and enjoys a moment of eye contact with a girl singer before killing a man in a back room, is a direct homage to a famous sequence in Melville's "Le Samourai."
If Sam Peckinpah's most characteristic sequences look like blood ballets, John Woo's are Chinese blood operas. The interludes of slaughter are really arias, epitomizing and discharging the tensions that have been building up in the "recitative" passages of character development.
When John Woo was one of the youngest established directors in Hong Kong in the early 1980s he helped several other young turks get into the industry. One of them was Tsui Hark, who had made three impressive but uncommercial independent features: "The Butterfly Murders", "Don't Play with Fire", and "We Are Going to Eat You." Tsui owed his first studio contract, at Golden Harvest, to his friend John Woo.
Several years later, when Woo's career was at a low ebb, Tsui Hark returned the favor. Chang: "John was in Taiwan for two years, and made two comedies that were not successful, "The Time You Need a Friend" (1984) and "Run, Tiger, Run" (1985). He wanted to go back to Hong Kong but he had a contract with Cinema City and at the time those people thought he was washed up as a director. And then his friend, Tsui Hark, helped him."
Chang: "Tsui had become a very successful producer and he had left Golden Harvest and had a deal at Cinema City. It was his insistence that got "A Better Tomorrow" made."
Woo jumped at the chance to make the sort of film he's been thinking about for years a Chinese gangster picture more in the spirit of the old Chinese tales of brotherhood and loyalty among swashbuckling "wu shu knights."
A lifelong devote of American, European and Japanese movies, Woo's thinking about "A Better Tomorrow" was also shaped by Jean Pierre Melville's mournfully elegant Alain Delon gangster vehicles, and by the yakuza (Japanese gangster) films of Takakura Ken.
Delon and Takakura are models of heroic grace under pressure, but without muffling insensitivity. They don't persist through all obstacles because they've become numb to the horror. They feel every bit of it and have the fortitude to act anyway - particularly to stand up for a friend.
Chang: "A Better Tomorrow" was based on a Cantonese film made in the mid-60s, in black and white, called "True Colors of a Hero." John's film isn't exactly a remake because he added or changed a lot of characters. John always wanted to make a film about friendship. I think this is the theme of all his films."
Woo fought to case Chow Yun-fat, an actor who had been a TV idol and was known mostly ass a romantic leading man, in the pivotal role of Mark Lee, the film's highs-spirited paragon of chivalric virtue.
Woo: "Chow Yun-fat has a very special quality as an actor. His acting is so natural and so true, from his heart. Also I like his personality, his real character. He likes to help people. He's a real shining knight to me."
Woo: "Chow reminded me of Alain Delon and Takakura Ken, so he's my kind of hero. He has an image as a real Chinese man, a real Chinese hero. Usually when Chow and I work together, we put our real feelings into the characters. When you see Chow Yun-fat in one of my movies, you see me. I put myself into his characters."
Chow learned his lessons well His panache with a pistol is today unequaled.
In 1986, "A Better Tomorrow" broke Hong Kong box office records and became the kind of tidal hit that changes the face of a popular culture forever.
As the soulful Triad mobster who goes down fighting for "brotherhood" and honor, spouting crimson in slow motion from a dozen bullet hits Chow Yun-fat became an idol for sneeringly cool young Hong Kong males. They copied chow's swirling duster overcoat and his designer shades and most importantly his self-deprecating killer grin.
The brand of designer shades that Chow wore constantly in the role - Alain Delon's signature brand imported from France - sold out in the colony the week after "A Better Tomorrow" opened. The French actor sent the Hong Kong actor a card thanking him for his inadvertent promotional effort.
When "A Better Tomorrow II" duplicated the success of the original, Woo fielded rich offers from several Hong Kong producers. He turned them down out of loyalty to his good friend Tsui Hark.
Tsui, however, was still fuming over fights that had broken out during the editing of "A Better Tomorrow II" and wasn't planning to let Woo direct again for his company.
Chang: "John proposed to do a prequel set in Vietnam, but they turned him down. Then he proposed what became "Once a Thief," and that was turned down as well. John was very frustrated and he remembered that he had always wanted to do something like "Le Samourai," the Jean-Pierre Melville film."
Woo: "After the big success of "A Better Tomorrow," Part One and Part Two, I was confused, wondering who I am, what kind of movies I should make. I was established as an action director, but now I wanted to change people's impressions of me. I knew that my movies were not only action, that I put a lot of ideas into them, but people just didn't notice."
This medieval novel, "Chronicles of the Assassins," a historical fiction based on four real-life killers of the Ming dynasty was a Woo favorite. It began a lifelong fascination with the fictional possibilities of men who live by bloodshed, but yearn for something better.
Woo: "Also I was fascinated by a Japanese movie in the 1960s, I forget the name. Takakura Ken was the star; it was shot in Hong Kong and Macau. Takakura was a killer who had principles, he only killed bad people. But he goes to Hong Kong to do a job, and discovers that he has been used by a gang to kill a good person."
Woo: "So the killer tries to find out who set him up and take revenge on the whole gang. And somehow he met a Japanese woman, a prostitute, who had TB and wanted to get back to Japan. He promises that after he takes revenge, he will take her home."
Woo: "So takakura Ken goes to fight with the gang, and he gets killed. And then there was scene in the morning, the girl still waiting on the dock, and the hero never comes to take her home. So this movie I loved very much, and tried to get some of that spirit into The Killer."
For all the richness of its conception, The Killer too, was initially turned down by Film Workshop, and was only made because actor Chow Yun-fat wanted the part and went over Tsui's head to the directors of the studio, Golden Princess.
The Killer was made at Film Workshop, but it was not made, like _A Better Tomorrow_, with complete autonomy. The first thing that was tinkered with was Woo's original opening:
Woo: "The original opening was in a jazz bar, the killer and the singer are there, she's blind and they're in love already. The singer was performing a jazz song, and the killer was playing the saxophone. There were a lot of flashbacks to show how he wounded the girl and fell in love with her."
Woo: "But Tsui Hark objected. He said the Hong Kong audience doesn't know about jazz. So in the second draft of the script I had to change it to a Chinese song the kind that's always used in Hong Kong movies. But it is still a good song and a good lyric, about how we are all wandering and chasing after love and hope. And a few years later I used the jazz opening in "Hard-Boiled!"
Chang: "The studio, Golden Princess, was very good, and very good with filmmakers. They are honest people, so as long as we didn't lie to them, if we told them honestly how much we thought it would cost, they left us alone. And on John's movies, you know, they were not allowed to see any of the movie, not a single frame of film until the final release print."
Chang: "John shoots for a long time by Hong Kong standards. He shot 130 days on "Hard Boiled" Apart from Jackie Chan, whose films involve a lot o stunts, which always take a long time to shoot, John had the longest schedules in Hong Kong"
Woo was already working on the script for "A Better Tomorrow III" when Tsui Hark told the press that he, not Woo, would be writing and directing Part III, a prequel set in wartime Vietnam. The announcement took Woo completely by surprise and effectively ended his relationship with Tsui.
Tsui Hark's "A Better Tomorrow III: Life and Death in Saigon" was released in 1989.
John Woo reworked his own Vietnam script and filmed it in 1990 as "Bullet in the Head."
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