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Back in Action

The 71-year-old Hong Kong-based film director’s comeback bears his signature bloodshed in a remake of the Japanese thriller Man Hunt

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

After more than a decade, Hong Kong movie director John Woo is back in action with a new film, a remake of the classic Japanese thriller Man Hunt. 
The original was about an innocent prosecutor framed for murder and out to clear his name. In Woo’s version – released in late November 2017 – the protagonist is a lawyer. Woo says he was keen to put his own characters and style into the remake, trying to create something different from the original. 

“I’ve always cherished the idea that gunfire in a film should have a musical rhythm,” he told NewsChina. Woo said he adored the movies of Ken Takakura, whose acting has had a profound impact on the way he shoots movies. The Japanese Man Hunt, which caused a sensation when it first screened on the Chinese mainland in 1978, starred Takakura, who died in 2014.  

Heroic Bloodshed  

If Woo’s personal experience were filmed, it would be a perfect inspirational biopic. James Wong, regarded as one of Hong Kong’s finest lyricists, has worked with Woo many times. The preface of Woo’s biography, written by Wong, states that the first half of Woo’s life was representative in Hong Kong as a typical example of a rags-to-riches story.  

Born in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, Woo moved to Hong Kong in 1950. He was five. A young Woo dreamed of being a hero but struggled after his father died of tuberculosis, and then growing up in a crime-ridden slum surrounded by violence and social upheaval. He reflects that in those days, he would take either a club or a brick with him whenever he went out in the evening.
On October 10, 1956, violence broke out between pro-Nationalist and pro-Communist factions in Hong Kong, resulting in 59 deaths and hundreds of injuries. It left an indelible imprint on Woo’s mind. “Some people placed bombs in the street, injuring many people. I saw people beaten to death with my own eyes,” he told NewsChina. 
Woo said these horrific scenes significantly influenced his future work, including the recurrent chaotic action sequences, deadly standoffs and blood-soaked heroism that permeate his works.  

His personal take on violence debuted in his first film in 1973, when a 26-year-old Woo became Hong Kong’s youngest ever film director. But the movie was banned because it featured scenes in which the villain fought with a nailed glove. Two years later, the film was recut by the famed Golden Harvest Studio and was released with the name The Young Dragons, marking the start of Woo’s 10-year collaboration with the studio. 

At the beginning, Woo directed a series of comedies requested by the studio, such as Hand of Death and Money Crazy. In 1979, Woo wrote, produced and directed the martial arts film Last Hurrah for Chivalry, which was deemed a precursor to Woo’s later works.  

But the film was not a financial success and Woo returned to comedies. It was a crucial moment of transformation in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, and the public was curious about the city’s future at a time when the British and Chinese government were negotiating the handover of the territory. In 1982, Woo produced Plain Jane to the Rescue, a comedy that dealt with themes of great social change. 

“I am probably the first director to shoot a film about the transference of sovereignty over Hong Kong,” he said. The film grossed HK$5 million (US$650,000) at the box office, despite being regarded by movie critics as “wild dreams of the highly-educated, who know little of the hardships of the average people.”  

In the mid-1980s, Woo experienced a creative bottleneck. Several of his movies were financial losses. Wu’s luck finally turned in 1986 when he started to collaborate with Tsui Hark, a master of Asian cinematography. Together they produced the blockbuster A Better Tomorrow, which was acclaimed as one of the best works of Woo’s early years as a director. Next, they made several blockbusters including A Better Tomorrow II and The Killer.  

All his movies in this golden period featured Woo’s patented action elements: combining violence and aesthetics, gunplay in churches, slow motion, setting the tone of his style and also arousing the attention of international critics. Woo is seen as the forerunner of so-called “gun fu,” an action film genre that combines dazzling gun play with Chinese kung fu. 

Artistic differences saw the two eventually part ways. In 2015, Woo invited Hark to edit the second half of the film The Crossing, after the box office failure of the movie’s first half, which was released in 2014. Featuring an all-star cast, the four-hour epic has been described as China’s Titanic. 

“Back then, I was vexed by a budget shortfall and I had to deal with plenty of special effects shots. I am deeply indebted to Hark, who perfectly solved all these problems,” Woo told NewsChina.

West and East 

With the help of Terence Chang, a producer famed in both Hong Kong and the US, Woo ventured into the US film market and became the first Chinese director in Hollywood. When shooting his debut action film Hard Target in 1993, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Woo found it hard to get used to the local filming environment, particularly the limits on violence and the production procedures. The completed movie was rated R and the studio edited the footage to produce a cleaner version suitable for American audiences. 
The rules and restrictions of movie production in Hollywood, according to Woo, make working there far more complicated than in Hong Kong. Woo said in Hong Kong, he had a far more flexible approach to production, and many scenes and even the plot were improvised. In Hollywood, however, everything needs to be arranged in advance, which was difficult for Woo to adapt to.  

After the release of Hard Target, Woo spent two years studying how the American public lives, without shooting any movies. Three years later, he made a comeback with the blockbuster Broken Arrow, which made him one of the most successful directors in terms of worldwide box office. His next film, the sci-fi action drama Face/Off, released in 1997, was critically acclaimed in film circles and became the 11th highest domestic and 14th worldwide grossing movie of 1997. Face/Off was nominated for an Academy Award in the Sound Effects Editing category at the 70th Academy Awards. Woo’s next work, Mission: Impossible 2, was the world’s highest grossing movie for 2000.
“It is ultimately an easy job to produce movies in the US. If your movies perform well at the box office, you will be recognized and given more control of your projects. Your managers and lawyers will naturally win many rights, such as the final editing rights,” he said. 

Since returning to Asian cinema in 2007, Woo has produced only two works: Red Cliff and The Crossing, both of which focus on history. “I decided to direct movies on the Chinese mainland because at that time the domestic film industry was weak. I wanted to bring the advanced technology of Hollywood to the mainland and to Chinese movie production teams,” Woo told our reporter. 

Nowadays, Woo’s guiding philosophy is to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” He confesses that he does not read the Bible regularly, nor is he a particularly devout Christian. In daily life, Woo is courteous and polite and has never fired a gun. Even though he was often exposed to bloodshed on movie sets, real violence frightens him.  

In recognition of his impressive body of work, Woo was awarded a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 2010. More recently, in October, Woo was honored for his contribution to cultural exchange between East and West at the Pingyao Film Festival. “At a time when the box office decides everything, I felt a bit lonely and helpless. This award, however, is a kind of incentive for me to continue to shoot more films,” he said when receiving the prize.
“John Woo has promoted Chinese benevolence and chivalry to the international film arena, injecting an oriental charm into Hollywood action movies. And now, he has returned with advanced overseas film-making experience,” said Jia Zhangke, one of the famed “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers and a founder of the Pingyao Film Festival.
Wu said he is nostalgic and during the past 20 years when the Chinese film industry was thriving, it was unavoidable that audiences would become increasingly younger. “But what audiences need at all times are films with romance and poetic beauty,” he said. 

He hopes to continue that tradition with Man Hunt. “The movie has a budget of more than 200 million yuan (US$30m), nearly as much as The Crossing, but I do not need to pay out of my own pocket this time because of good budget control,” he said. 
Woo told our reporter that he would collaborate with Hollywood to shoot his next film, about the story of a killer. After that, he will devote himself to a big-budget war film in China.