John Woo

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John Woo

John Woo (Template:Zh-cp) (born May 1, 1946 in Guangzhou, China) is a Chinese film director known especially for the ballet-like violence in his movies.



When Woo's Christian parents were faced with persecution, his family fled to Hong Kong when he was five years old. During this time, the Woo family led a hard life in the slums since his father had tuberculosis and could not work. In 1953, the family was made homeless when their house was burned to the ground in a brush fire. It was only thanks to donations from Christian charities that his family were able to move into another house. Unfortunately, by this time, a wave of crime and violence was beginning to infest Hong Kong's housing projects. One of Woo's most vivid childhood memories was of seeing a man being killed on his front steps.

In order to escape his dismal surroundings, Woo would retreat to the local movie theater. It was through musicals like The Wizard of Oz —a film that still stands as his all-time favorite—that the young Woo came to realize that the world was not just filled with violence and suffering; it could be beautiful and happy as well.

Woo has been married to Annie Woo Ngau Chun-lung since 1976 and they have three children. He plans to stay in the United States.

Hong Kong career history

In 1969, when he was 23, Woo got a job as a script supervisor at Cathay Studios. In 1971, he became an assistant director at Shaw Studios, where the famous Chang Cheh took him under his wing. In 1974 he directed his first feature film The Young Dragons (Tie han rou qing). Choreographed by Jackie Chan, it was a Kung fu action film that featured dynamic camera-work and elaborate action scenes. The film was picked up by Golden Harvest Studio where he went on to direct more martial arts films. He later had success as a comedy director with Money Crazy (Fa qian han) (1977), starring Hong Kong comedian Ricky Hui.

By the mid-1980s, Woo suffered a burnout. His films were failures at the box office and he retreated to Taiwan in exile. John Woo— once called the new comedy king of Hong Kong— seemed to be on the way out. It was then that director/producer Tsui Hark provided the funding for Woo to film a longtime pet project called A Better Tomorrow (1986). The story of two brothers— one a cop, the other a criminal— the film became a sensational blockbuster. A Better Tomorrow singularly redefined Hong Kong action cinema with its emotional drama, slow-motion gun-battles and gritty atmosphere. The film's trenchcoat/sunglasses fashion sense, and combat style of using a gun in each hand in close quarters— often referred to as 'Gun fu'— would later inspire Hollywood filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski brothers.

Together with leading man Chow Yun-Fat, John Woo would make several more Heroic Bloodshed films in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His violent gangster thrillers typically focused on men who were steadfast in their honor and friendship, even though such values forced them to become outcasts in a rapidly-changing world that was more concerned with money and progress. In this respect, Woo's characters were modern-day knights who used guns instead of swords.

The most famous of these movies would be The Killer (Die xue shuang xiong) (1989), which brought Woo international recognition. Often called the best Hong Kong movie ever made, it was widely praised by critics and fans for its action sequences, acting and cinematography, and often referred to as "the perfect action film." With The Killer becoming the most successful Hong Kong film in the U.S. since Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon (1973), John Woo became a cult favorite.

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood took notice. By this time, John Woo had many American admirers, including the likes of Martin Scorsese, and Sam Raimi - who compared Woo's mastery of action to Hitchcock's mastery of suspense. Enormously impressed with his work, American executives green-lighted a contract for Woo to work in America. With the 1997 handover of Hong Kong fast approaching, Woo decided that it was indeed time to leave.

John Woo's last Hong Kong film was Hard Boiled (1992). It featured a Hollywood-scale spectacle in its second half with policemen and criminals waging war inside a hospital - while helpless patients are caught in the crossfire. The film climaxes with supercop Chow Yun-Fat singing a lullaby to a baby while gunning down incoming gangsters.

United States career history

In 1993, John Woo found himself in a new land with a new culture. He was commissioned by Universal Studios to direct the Jean Claude Van Damme film Hard Target. While Woo was used to creative freedom in Hong Kong, he was forced to deal with a compressed production schedule. He also faced studio-imposed restrictions such as how many people could be killed in each scene, how many bullets Van Damme could pump into somebody, how Van Damme could behave and so on. When initial cuts failed to yield an "R" rated film, the studio took the film from Woo's hands and pared it down themselves in order to produce a cut that was "suitable for American audiences".

It would be three long years before Woo made another American directorial attempt. Starring John Travolta and Christian Slater, Broken Arrow was a frantic chase-picture with a bigger budget. Unfortunately, Woo once again found himself hampered by studio interference and editors who did not share his sense of aesthetics and filming style. What resulted was a film that, despite modest financial success, lacked Woo's trademark style.

Still smarting from his bitter experiences, Woo cautiously rejected the script for Face/Off several times until it was rewritten to suit him (by shifting the futuristic setting to a modern one). With Paramount Studios offering him significantly more freedom this time around, Woo set out to craft a complex story of two enemies— a law enforcement agent played by John Travolta and a terrorist played by Nicolas Cage—who embark on a fantastical surgical procedure that allows them to switch faces. Trapped in each other's identities, they play a cat-and-mouse game that allowed Woo to do what he did best: emotional characterization and elaborate action. Face/Off opened in 1997 to critical acclaim and performed well at the box office, grossing over $100 million in the United States alone. As a result, John Woo became the first Asian director to hit mainstream, paving the way for other Asian filmmakers to follow in his footsteps.

John Woo has made three additional Hollywood films: Mission: Impossible II, Windtalkers and Paycheck. While Mission: Impossible II was a huge hit in 2000, Windtalkers and Paycheck have been box office duds that were lambasted by critics. It is unclear whether Woo will be able to bounce back from these disappointments.


  • One of Woo's trademarks is doves. He was quoted in the June 2000 edition of Premiere magazine:
"I love doves. I am a Christian. Doves represent the purity of love, beauty. They're spiritual. Also the dove is a messenger between people and God... When I shot The Killer, these two men, the killer and the cop, they work in different ways, but their souls are pure, because they do the right thing. In the church scene, I wanted to bring them together. I wanted to use a metaphor of the heart. I came up with doves —they're white. When the men die, I cut to the dove flying —it's the soul, rescued and safe and also pure of heart. So the dove became one of my habits: I used it in Hard Boiled, Face/Off, and in Mission: Impossible II".
  • In the anime series, R.O.D the TV which features three girls named after real life Hong Kong action stars, 'John Woo' is the name of a mysterious carrier pigeon.
  • Quentin Tarantino has been quoted in reply to a studio executive who said "I suppose Woo can direct action scenes" as saying "Sure, and Michelangelo can paint ceilings!"
  • When Jean-Claude Van Damme was trying to get Woo for Hard Target he described him as "the Martin Scorsese of Asia".
  • In another anime series, FLCL, two characters can be seen watching the climactic end sequence of an action movie. Although the screen in not visible, it can be surmised that it is indeed a John Woo film, as one of the film's characters exclaims, "What are all these pigeons doing in here?" and a multitude of flapping wings heard. The screen was then broken, and a flock of white doves flew out of the TV set.
  • At some point the main characters see and talk to each other using mirrors.


See also

External links

fr:John Woo ja:ジョン・ウー zh:吴宇森


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