Personal Info - Awards - Film Credits - Biography
Born: 22 September 1948, Guangzhou, China
Birth Name: Yusen Wu
• Lion Rock Productions
• Creative Artists Agency
8 wins & 8 nominations
The bread-and-butter of the film industry is the action movie. Each summer, audiences can expect to see car chases, gunfights and explosions, and studios can expect to see millions and millions of dollars in return. Though most viewers and critics see these movies as "fluff" entertainment (and rightfully so), there is one director that puts as much heart and soul into his "fluff" as any number of talented directors put into their "serious" movies. His name is John Woo. Even though you may not have heard about him, he is widely considered to be "the best contemporary director of action films working anywhere." In this essay, I will show you an overview of John Woo's career thus far, the impact and influence his films have had, and how he will come to be known as an auteur in the years to come.
The Glass Beads (short) - Producer 2005
All the Invisible Children - Director (segment "Song Song and Little Cat") 2005
Paycheck - Director, Producer 2003
Bulletproof Monk - Producer 2003
Hostage (short) - Director 2002
Windtalkers - Director, Producer 2002
Mission: Impossible II - Director 2000
Psycho - Special Thanks 1998
The Big Hit - Executive Producer 1998
The Replacement Killers - Executive Producer, Technical Consultant (uncredited) 1998
Face/Off - Director 1997
Yit huet jui keung - Police Chief 1997
Lang man feng bao - Executive Producer, Producer 1996
Broken Arrow - Director 1996
Woh ping faan dim - Producer 1995
Hard Target - Director 1993
Hard-Boiled - Director, Writer (story), Mr. Woo (night club owner), Editor 1992
Shuang long hui - Priest (as John Wu) 1992
Zong heng si hai - Director, Writer (also story), Stanley Wu (uncredited) 1991
Party of a Wealthy Family - Man on Stairs 1991
Yong chuang tian xia - Kwong 1990
Die xue jie tou - Director, Producer, Writer, Police inspector, Editor 1990
A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon - Producer 1989
Yi dan qun ying - Director 1989
The Killer - Director, Writer (written by) 1989
Gam ye sing gwong chaan laan - Father Fan 1988
A Better Tomorrow II - Director, Writer 1987
Ying hung boon sik - Director, Producer, Writer (written by), Inspector Wu 1986
Ying xiong wei lei - Director, Producer, Writer 1986
Heng cai san qian wan - Man in Bed 1985
Liang zhi lao hu - Director, Producer 1985
Xiao jiang - Director, Producer, Writer 1984
Ba cai Lin Ya Zhen - Director, Writer (also story), John Wu 1982
Hua ji shi dai - Director (as Wu Hsiang-fei), Writer 1981
Mo deng tian shi - Director, Writer, Editor 1981
Qian zuo guai - Director, Writer (also story) 1980
Da sha xing yu xiao mei tou - Director, Writer, Miss Chen's father 1978
Ha luo, ye gui ren - Director, Co-producer, Writer 1978
Hao xia - Director, Writer 1978
The Brave Lion - Director (as Ng Yu Chen) 1977
Fa qian han - Director, Writer 1977
Shao Lin men - Director, Writer, Scholar Cheng 1976
Dinü hua - Director (as Yusen Wu), Writer (as Yusen Wu) 1975
Nu zi tai quan qun ying hui - Director, Writer 1974
Tie han rou qing - Director, Writer, Actor 1974
Fists of the Double K - Director 1973
Chi ma - Assistant Director 1973
Nian qing ren - Assistant Director 1972
Seven Blows of the Dragon - Assistant Director 1972
Ma yong zhen - Assistant Director 1972
Accidentaly (short) - Director, Young Man 1968
Sijie (short) - Director (co-director), Writer (as Ng Yu Chen), Young Artist 1968
Born in Guanzhou, Canton in 1946, young Wu Yu-Sen (Woo's given name) lived a meager existence, due to the fact that his father had tuberculosis and could not work. In fact, his family was homeless for a time in 1953 (two years after they had moved to Hong Kong) when their home was burned to the ground during a brush fire which swept through most of the city.
Even when Woo's family had money (they benefited periodically from donations from a Save the Children-like charity), times were tough. Hong Kong's housing projects were already becoming notorious for the crime that surrounded and dwelled in them. One of Woo's most vivid childhood memories was seeing a man killed on his front steps. After his family was aided by a local church (who allowed Woo to attend school there), he envisioned a different kind of path -- one of the cloth. He wanted to become a priest, but the fathers saw something different in him. As Woo said in an interview: "One priest, who I really admired, told me I was too free-spirited and artistic to become a priest. I was devastated but deep down I knew he was right."
The doors of religion closed to him, Woo turned to the movies, which were a refuge for him from his earliest memories. Since children could attend for free, his mother brought him to see movies often, and it was these first movies that instilled a love for cinema in Woo, as he stated in an interview:
"When I was 11, even though we were poor, my mother was a fan of movies from the west. She used to bring me to the theatre. At that time, a parent could bring a child to the theatre for free. I was fascinated by the musicals, I think they influenced me the most. Also a lot of Fred Astaire...I loved movies and I wanted to be a filmmaker some day."
As a teenager, with borrowed film equipment, Woo and several of his friends began experimenting with the items and by the time he was 22 (with no formal film education, since he could not afford to go to a four-year college) Woo was making his own movies. In 1969 (when he was 23) Woo landed his first "real" job as a script supervisor at Cathay Studios. In an interview, Woo described his beginnings in more detail:
"It was hard to get work in films so I began on the stage...I wanted to be an actor [because] I was really shy...I stuttered and spoke slowly. In acting you train to speak fluently and express your emotions. That was my first purpose. I also overcame my fear of meeting people...when I was on stage I was totally different. At that time I never dreamed about working in movies...I always found my dreams in movies...I was mostly influenced by the French New Wave and French gangster films. After high school, I couldn't afford to continue my education and [at the time] Hong Kong didn't have a film school. So I stole film books from the library. Theories on editing and directing. Books on technique...art books, philosophy books. So that is how I learned film theory and film as a spiritual art. I also learned by watching many, many movies...then I joined a group of young people who were crazy about movies. We all made experimental films. At that
time, Hong Kong films were really bad...I wanted to make films that looked good. The second inspiration was the French New Wave. The idea of director as auteur. It was revolutionary. The crews were smaller...with a single camera and small budgets and they made good movies. This encouraged me by showing me that I didn't need a lot of money or a big crew to make good movies. So I was determined to become a film director. I was twenty."
In 1971, Woo moved to the prestigious Shaw Bros. studio, where he worked under the well-known martial-arts director Chang Cheh, who taught Woo many things (the most important being editing). By 1973, Woo started working on his first film as director, The Young Dragons, a fairly nondescript martial-arts film that also had a young Jackie Chan working on it (as the fighting coordinator). The film (or more specifically, a fight featuring a Freddy Kruger-like knived glove) was thought to be too violent (a problem Woo would and does encounter throughout his career) and was shelved for two years.
Upon release of The Young Dragons and its success at the box office, Woo was hired by Golden Harvest, which, while viewed as a young upstart at the time, would go on to become one of Hong Kong's biggest studios in the mid-1980's. Woo went on to write and direct several more martial-arts films, including Hand of Death (1976) (a.k.a. Countdown in Kung Fu) which not only starred Woo himself but also reunited him with Jackie Chan (who was in a starring capacity this time out) and featured future Hong Kong superstar Sammo Hung. While it may be viewed as slow-moving and cliched today, Hand of Death was an important step in Woo's career as he was able to both write and direct the film, quite an accomplishment in the Hong Kong film industry (which was still under a form of the 1930's Hollywood studio system that favored experience rather than talent) for someone so young. Woo said "it was a great honor to be able to do the movie...most directors were in their forties and I was still in my twenties." Hand of Death was also important for introducing Woo's ideals about dictators and revolutionaries (as shown by Woo's character) and brotherhood and loyalty (shown by Chan's character).
After his initial kung-fu phase, he made a comedy called The Pilferer's Progress (1977) which became a huge success and gave Woo recognition as a comedy director. While Woo enjoyed success with comedies, by the early eighties he started to tire of comedy (having to produce several films a year was quickly taking its toll) and his films suffered because of it. Woo took to working clandestinely under various pseudonyms with Dean Shek's small studio Cinema City in Taiwan just to have something more productive to do. However, even the Taiwanese "excursions" could not help matters back at home, and Woo took to drinking heavily, teetering on the edge of becoming an alcoholic. He spent his days in disgust working on films he didn't care about.
The one exception was Heroes Shed No Tears (1983), where Woo escaped from the kung-fu and comedy genres in an ultra-violent tale of mercenaries sent to capture a drug lord deep inside Vietnam. Woo was satisfied with the film (he has called it his "first real movie") but the studio thought it too violent and shelved it. Woo clashed so hard with the studio heads and made so many enemies in the Hong Kong movie industry, it looked as if Woo's career was dead until he met (through Dean Shek) the noted director/producer Tsui Hark, who -- after numerous late-night drinking sessions with Woo where they bounced ideas off one another -- asked him to direct A Better Tomorrow. As Terence Chang, Woo's current production partner, says:
"John was in Taiwan for two years and made two comedies that were not successful. He wanted to go back to Hong Kong but he had a contract with Cinema City and at the time those people there thought he was washed up as a director. And then his friend, Tsui Hark, helped him. 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."
The film, based on a 1960's movie called True Colors of a Hero, told the story of Ho, a man torn between two worlds. Ho (played by veteran actor Ti Lung) makes his living by working for the Triad (the "Asian Mafia") as a counterfeiter and feels great loyalty to his best friend, Mark Gor (played by Hong Kong action film icon Chow Yun-Fat). However, his little brother Kit (pop star turned actor Leslie Cheung) is about to become a cop, so Ho decides to "hang up his guns" after one last job. The job turns out to be a double-cross, and Ho is captured by the police. To try and stop Ho from talking, the Triad send a thug out to kidnap Ho's father, but he bungles the job and ends up killing the father instead; thus, Kit learns his brother's true line of work.
Meanwhile, Mark attempts to get revenge for Ho's double-cross by killing a local gangster. He succeeds, but not before a bullet cripples his leg. Upon Ho's release from prison, he finds his best friend a cripple washing windows for measly tips and his brother a stranger. Ho tries to go straight, but neither the Triad (who still want Ho to work for him) or Kit (who wants information) will allow him to. Eventually, he teams with Mark and Kit to try and bring down the local gangsters in a blood-soaked finale. In an article, Woo discussed his own reasons behind making the movie:
"Comedies and Kung Fu films dominated Hong Kong cinema in the mid-eighties. Other genres rarely got the support of the studio and the audience. And also, right before 'A Better Tomorrow,' I shot two films in Taiwan...[that] were commercially unsuccessful; so it seemed quite impossible for me to make the films I really wanted to make. Both Tsui Hark and myself felt that Hong Kong at that time was seriously lacking in moral values. Young people were lost and trust toward the government was shaken. So I wanted to make an uplifting film to highlight the lost traditional values, including the values of family, friendship, tolerance etc. So I decided to remake a sixties film ('True Colors of a Hero,' directed by Lung Kong), and that became 'A Better Tomorrow.'
Woo and Hark would continue to team together and produce some of the landmark titles of the "heroic bloodshed" genre, which combines Scoresian-style relationships and themes, such as friendship and loyalty, with Peckinpah-style "ultraviolence." ABT also (probably permanently) linked Woo with leading man Chow Yun-Fat. Before ABT, Chow was primarily known for romantic comedies, but afterwards, he became synonymous with two-fisted gun action, going on to star in action movies directed by not only Woo, but other noted action directors such as Ringo Lam and Wong Jing in films like 1992's high-powered crime/action movie Full Contact.
With the success of ABT, Golden Harvest decided to finally release Heroes Shed No Tears in 1986 -- albeit with an added sex scene, which Woo despises to this day. He eventually moved on to create Just Heroes (1987) as a sort of benefit project for his aging mentor Chang Cheh. The film, a loose retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear set within a Triad "family," was actually a joint project between Woo and his friend Wu Ma (who was having financial troubles at the time). As such, even though it features big Hong Kong stars such as Danny Lee and Woo's now-typical explosive gunfight sequences, the film lacked the focus of ABT and was a disappointment for Woo. He did enjoy some aspects of filming Just Heroes, though -- it allowed him to pay homage to Akira Kurosawa (who had also done his own version of King Lear called Ran) and thumb his nose at his political critics by placing a self-parodying Mark Gor-wannabe in the film. Despite Woo's lack of enthusiasm for the finished product, he was "hot" in Hong Kong and Just Heroes did well at the Hong Kong box office, even though it is now considered one of Woo's weakest movies.
After Just Heroes, Woo struggled to find another project. He wanted to stay away from ABT, but the film's popularity (teenagers took to dressing like Mark Gor, something which got Woo in trouble with politicians, who accused him of glorifying the Triad lifestyle) and Tsui Hark's constant prodding eventually convinced Woo to do the sequel. A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987) suffered from a weak plot which had Mark Gor's twin brother Ken (once again played by Chow Yun-Fat) coming to Hong Kong to help out Ho and Kit after a old gangster (played by Dean Shek, in a move some said was a payback to Shek after he helped Woo out) finds himself nearly insane in America. Despite the somewhat questionable premise, ABT2 features a high-powered finale with one of the highest body counts per minute recorded on film and was another huge hit for Woo. However, things behind the scenes were not so rosy. The initial cut of ABT2 ran over three hours, and the studio demanded it be cut down. Woo felt the characters in ABT were under-developed and was against any changes, but went ahead and made another edit. Producer Tsui Hark also made his own edit and the two began arguing about what should and should not be in the movie.
The two managed to patch things up enough to work on one of the aforementioned "landmark titles," and the movie that would break Woo to western audiences (and win Woo a Hong Kong Film Award for direction) -- 1989's The Killer. The film tells the story of an assassin-for-hire named Jeff (played by Chow Yun-Fat, whose character is called "John" in alternate translations of the movie) who has a change of heart after accidentally blinding Jennie (Sally Yeh), a nightclub singer, during a "hit." After prodding from his best (and only) friend, Sydney (Chu Kong), Jeff agrees to take on one last job so he can pay for a cornea transplant for Jennie. However, during the job, he is spotted by a hot-headed cop named Danny (Danny Lee); Jeff's bosses now view him as a liability and try to kill him, shooting an innocent little girl in the process. After Jeff risks his life (and getting captured) to save the child, Danny realizes that he is not dealing with a typical "gun-for-hire." Eventually, the two team up to take on Jeff's bosses in a climatic shootout in a church (the imagery of which is so "shocking" to some in the U.S. that three minutes was excised from this sequences for its release on American shores). Despite its status now as a classic, The Killer (which is Woo's favorite movie, since he feels that the characters are fully developed) flopped in Hong Kong. Many people thought the film too serious and just not very "fun" to watch. However (despite inane marketing campaigns that touted The Killer as a comedy due to bad translations), Woo was gaining international recognition. He was invited all over the world to attend film festivals and talk about his movies. At the age of 44, Woo was being called a "wunderkind" by his contemporaries and he finally started to think of himself as a success. The good times could not last forever, though.
After a series of disputes over A Better Tomorrow III, Woo and Hark parted ways. Hark himself directed ABTIII and began to spread the word that Woo was unreliable to work with. Most everybody believed him (or at least wanted to), because many of the "old school" of martial-arts directors thought Woo had "ruined" Hong Kong cinema. Lau Ka Leung, a noted martial-arts director who directed such classics of the genre as Jackie Chan's groundbreaking Drunken Master (1979), said sadly in an interview that "people don't want to see realistic martial arts films anymore...all they want to see is Chow Yun-Fat with 300 bullet holes in him." After being virtually blackballed from most of the major studios, Woo eventually formed his own production company with his new business partner Terence Chang.
Woo used his new company to produce his version of the ABTIII script, which he reworked into Bullet in the Head. BITH is, by Woo's own account, his most personal film to date. It tells the story of three friends Ben (Tony Leung), Frank (Jacky Cheung) and Paul (Waise Lee) who must journey to war-torn Vietnam after Ben and Frank accidentally kill a man. While in Vietnam, they try to deliver some contraband to a local crime boss but their car is blown up by some revolutionaries and they are forced to join with a local rogue, Luke (Simon Yam) to attempt to steal some gold from the boss. They succeed, but are captured by the Viet Cong, who get Paul (who has become obsessed with the gold) to sell out his friends. Luke comes to the rescue, but not before a cowardly Paul shoots an injured Frank in the head to keep him quiet. Upon his return to Hong Kong, Ben seeks out Paul for revenge. While BITH is regarded as one of Woo's best films, again the local audience didn't like it. This time, the intense riot scenes were just too much for a people still reeling from the Tiannemen Square Massacre. Woo was forced to shoot another ending (which, ironically, still had the same result but in a more "action-packed" way), but even so the studio took the movie from Woo's hand and did their own edit. Only a few official copies of Woo's original vision survive today.
Dismayed by lack of audience response and wanting to do something lighter, Woo's next film was 1991's Once a Thief, a breezy comedy/action/romance reteaming Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung as two-thirds of a high-class robbery crew who are in love with the same woman, Cherie (Cherie Cheung), who is the other third of the crew. While not a huge hit, Once a Thief did well enough at the box office to gain Woo funding for his next movie, Hard-Boiled (1992).
Hard-Boiled would be Woo's last Hong Kong movie, but it is by no means his weakest. Chow Yun-Fat once again stars, this time as a supercop named Tequila who is hot on the trail of arms dealer Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong). Complicating matters is a undercover cop named Tony (Tony Leung) who is so determined to catch Wong himself he personally guns down his old gang. The two eventually team up to take on Wong and his small army, who are stationed in a hospital. While the story is somewhat conventional, Hard-Boiled sets a tone that has rarely (if ever) been matched, even in other Woo films. Not content to just show large explosions, Woo also crated some striking symbolism for the upcoming Chinese takeover of Hong Kong, especially during the finale, where Tequila brings a newborn baby out of danger. Again though, Hard-Boiled was not popular with the Hong Kong people. Many felt Woo was becoming too dark and over-the-top, and many accused him of "selling out" to Hollywood. However, as with Woo's previous films, Hard-Boiled has become known as a classic in the action genre, both in Hong Kong and around the world.
After attracting Hollywood's attention, Woo was invited by Universal to direct the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target in 1993. Woo clashed with the studio heads many times during the making of the picture, mostly due to the fact that his initial edits failed to produce a "R" rated picture. Eventually, Hard Target was taken out of Woo's hands and chopped down by the studio itself (after even "the muscles from Brussels" Van Damme had a shot in editing the film) to produce a "suitable" cut. Woo was very dissatisfied with the finished product (and the "Hollywood system"), but decided to stick it out due to the worsening business conditions in Hong Kong from the approaching Chinese takeover.
In 1996, after receiving CineAsia's prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, he finished working on Broken Arrow, which teamed him with American pop icon John Travolta. While the film was not a huge success (both critically and financially), it gave Woo his break in Hollywood and allowed him to gain enough power to finally get script approval for his next movie, Face/Off (1997), which would go on to surpass the "hit" mark for American movies, taking in over $100 million at the box office. The film would also earn him his first American film awards, winning the "Best On-Screen Duo" and "Best Action Sequence" at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. Recently, Woo has begun diversifying his interests. He has directed two pilots for television, John Woo's Once a Thief (based on the Hong Kong movie) and Blackjack, and has become an executive producer, lending his name to The Replacement Killers (which was Chow Yun-Fat's American debut) and The Big Hit. Woo's latest film, Mission:Impossible 2 (2000), was Woo's largest hit to date. Despite persistent rumors of Woo and producer/star Tom Cruise clashing on the set and a delayed release date, MI2 stood out as one of the few true successes of a lackluster summer season, taking in over 200 million dollars in the United States alone.
The influence of Woo's films is quite easy to see, especially in his native Hong Kong; by 1988, just two years after A Better Tomorrow, the martial-arts genre was almost eclipsed (save for movies by "outsiders" such as Van Damme or Steven Segal, or the occasional movie by popular stars such as Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung), by literally dozens of copycat "heroic bloodshed" movies. In western countries such as America, the effects were more subtle. For example, the "mindless killing machine" personified by John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II gave way to the "killer with a conscience" or "man trapped in a situation out of his control" personified by John McLane (Bruce Willis) in 1988's Die Hard. The trend continues today; very rarely do we see a hero in American films such as Clint Eastwood's "Dirty" Harry Callahan (a virtual icon for 1970's and 80's American action movies) who kill with no remorse -- rather, we see characters like Cameron Poe (played by Nicolas Cage, who lists The Killer as one of his favorite movies and would team with Woo for Face/Off) in Con Air (1997), who takes time out after killing a man to retrieve a stuffed bunny for his daughter.
Besides the motivations behind the characters, Woo's films have also influenced the look of those characters in American action films. Quentin Tarantino once said that after seeing A Better Tomorrow, he went out and got different clothes so he could look like Chow Yun-Fat. In fact, the "black suits with skinny ties look" popularized by Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was first used in Woo's A Better Tomorrow II (as an interesting side note, two characters in the Tarantino-scripted film True Romance are watching ABTII on television during one scene in the movie). In Keenan Ivory Wayans' A Low Down Dirty Shame, one character goes so far as to call himself Chow Yun-Fat while wearing the sunglasses and trenchcoat Chow had made popular in the ABT series -- a look also sported by Keanu Reeves in one of 1999's biggest hits, The Matrix.
Of course, Woo is known for action, and this is where a great deal of the "new breed" of action directors (and some old veterans) get their "inspiration" for their action sequences. One of Woo's trademarks, men shooting it out with a gun in each hand, has almost become a cliche of the action genre. Even Pamela Anderson in the "fluffy" Barb Wire took out the "bad guys" with dual guns blazing. Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing always fights with two guns out, dropping one only to take a drink. Returning to A Low Down Dirty Shame, one character directly mimics Chow Yun-Fat in A Better Tomorrow II by taking out his enemies while sliding backwards down a staircase.
Woo is also known for the "Mexican standoff," where one or more characters have a "dead lock" on one another (while other directors, notably Sam Peckinpah, used the technique before, many people believe it was Woo that perfected it). This has been seen in literally dozens of American films in recent years, including Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Natural Born Killers and 2 Days in the Valley, just to name a few. Woo's innovative editing techniques, such as the use of "wipes" and freeze-frames (which were considered by many American editors to be "hokey" and "too TV") have also become mainstays of American action cinema, as has Woo's use of slow-motion to add dramatics to his action sequences. It is because of all of these influences that many consider John Woo to be an auteur.
But, you may ask, what is an auteur and how would it apply to John Woo? The term "auteur" was first put forth by a group of French film critics in a journal known as Cahier Du Cinema in the early 1960's. Basically, it states that the director of the film is the "author," that is, he/she is responsible for anything and everything that is put on the screen. Usually this term is given only to those directors who have demonstrated some sort of originality, creativity and/or longevity. Some contemporary examples of auteurs would include Martin Scorsese (Casino, GoodFellas), Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) and Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange). Even though Woo is primarily an action director (and carries with it those negative connotations held by many "educated" people), one needs only to look at the faces of two friends as they must act as executioners for their Viet Cong captors in Bullet in the Head or at the expression of anguish in Jeff's eyes in The Killer when he realizes he will never be able to save Jennie, or at the face of a child caught in a cross-fire in Face-Off to see that Woo is capable of creating something far more exciting than explosions; he is capable of creating "real" emotions on film, and that is what being a true auteur is all about. Perhaps, in a few years, when the dust settles, his fans (and critics) will be able to step back and look at the big picture and beyond the bullets and bodies.
In conclusion, John Woo, after many years of hard work, has become known as the world's best action film directors. His action sequences have become the stuff of legend and are now the basis from which all other action movies are judged. More importantly, along with the bloodshed, Woo has proven that he can create real characters with real emotions that the audience can sympathize with. Perhaps that is his greatest talent, and perhaps that is why he will become known as an auteur in the years to come.