I wrote recently about wuxia as one of the defining genres of Hong Kong (and, more generally, Chinese) cinema. Another very characteristic genre is the triad or gangster movie. The Hong Kong take on the gangster film, though generically very similar to classic Western efforts like The Godfather II or The Public Enemy, is well established as a sub-genre of its own. The director most closely associated with it is John Woo, most famous in Hong Kong for A Better Tomorrow (though probably better known internationally for Face/Off and Mission Impossible II.)
Woo’s influence is obvious in many places. His most obvious fan is Quentin Tarantino, but there are many; you know all those never-ending shoot-outs and fights in Kill Bill or Django Unchained? Or the balletic hyper violence of Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado? Or Neo and Trinity’s billion-bullet shootout in The Matrix? All show the very obvious influence of Woo. Basically, any time you see some poor sap being riddled with bullets by a guy jumping through the air with a pistol in either hand, or a gunfight which goes on and on and on, or two (or three, or more) guys in a Mexican standoff, you are watching the influence of John Woo. He taught Americans how to shoot each other in films with style.
This is not to trivialise his influence, though, particularly in Hong Kong. Before Woo, Hong Kong film was dominated by wuxia and other martial arts movies. Reflection theory suggests that film should mirror the place and time of creation, and that if it doesn’t, it’s obsolete. Cool as it would be, Hong Kong is not actually a medieval samurai society where disagreements are settled through acrobatic swordplay or even through Bruce Lee style ass-kickings. So, wuxia and martial arts movies were perhaps starting to look a little hackneyed. John Woo came from this background; he started off making martial arts films for Shaw Studios, then did the same for Golden Harvest. He was very much renowned as an expert in filming action scenes, but may well have been feeling the increasing irrelevance of these particular genres. 1980s Hong Kong was suffering something of a crime wave (crime plateaued in Hong Kong in the 1980s, and much of it was triad-related) and Woo wanted to make a more modern type of film which reflected more accurately the realities of contemporary life. He did this more or less by replacing the fists and swords of the martial arts movies with guns, and thus a new sub-genre was born. It was very accurately christened ‘heroic bloodshed’ by Rick Baker and it was characterised largely by what came to be called ‘gun fu’ or ‘bullet ballet’ – basically, highly stylised gunfights, descended from the long, intricate, highly-choreographed fights from all those martial arts and wuxia movies. It all started with A Better Tomorrow, described by Anthony Leong as a ‘paradigm shift‘ for Hong Kong cinema.
The last film Woo made in Hong Kong before leaving for Hollywood was 1992’s Hard Boiled. He worked once again with Chow Yun Fat, also the star of A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. The plot is pretty familiar – a maverick cop sees his partner gunned down by a gang and sets out to get revenge. Indeed, the plots and themes of Hong Kong thrillers are very generic; they tell the same stories and explore the same themes as crime films from the west, which basically means that they are variations upon film noir.
It is probably no surprise that a film called Hard Boiled has a strong noir influence. Our main character, the maverick cop nicknamed Tequila is, of course, the hardboiled detective figure, and to make things even more noirish, he also plays clarinet in a jazz club, as we see during the opening credits. The iconography, the blue palette and the music all locate us firmly in Western crime film tradition.
And so we pretty much know what to expect in terms of character and theme. There is the characteristically noirish confusion of good and evil – typically, the cops are just about as ruthless and almost-sociopathic as the criminals. Tequila is a loner, disinclined to work with others or to follow instructions; he is the classic noir tough guy, oblivious of the law even as he fights to defend it. His partner, Tony, is torn between loyalty to the triad gang he’s been infiltrating and his job as a cop; he’s been undercover for so long, his identity is confused. Such blurring of the lines between good and bad is, of course, at the very heart of noir and as such this is a very conventional film.
Likewise, these two characters are predictably hypermasculine; typically of the action genre, they are pretty much bulletproof. (It gets a bit silly. Tony gets electrocuted to death and is resuscitated; seconds later, he is battling baddies again.) The film is, at one level, about masculine loyalty and honour; like many other crime films , women do not get much of a look in. One of the defining aspects of this parent genre is the conflict between ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’; we see this early in the film as Tony shoots his symbolic ‘father’ in the heart.
So, apparently all we have here is a conventional neo-noir set in Hong Kong. But there is innovation. Firstly, as mentioned before, we need to look at the action scenes. More than anything else, John Woo films are about these set-piece shoot-outs. Emanuel Levy wrote that Woo’s skills in ‘staging action sequences with the precision of a ballet choreography are unmatched by anyone working in world cinema today.’ His hugely stylised gunfights, made with swooping cameras, slow-motion and intricate editing, took the action movie to new heights of viscerality. Hong Kong films were much more violent that Hollywood movies of the time (or now, mostly) and as such the plumes and sprays of blood which seem to accompany every shooting were both shocking and compellingly visual.
Another aspect to Woo’s possible auteurship is the characteristically Chinese element to his work. He brings imagery from the martial arts movie into neo-noir. White, for example, takes on the Chinese meaning of death and so we often see characters dressed in white (or, in Tequila’s case, covered in powder) to foreshadow or follow death.
Perhaps Woo’s favourite symbol, though, is the bird. In this film, Tony makes a paper crane – very Asian! – every time he kills someone and the cranes come to symbolise the soul. Family, always crucial in the crime movie anyway, takes on an added element of importance in the Chinese context.
There are also stylistic elements which are very recognisable. Woo’s use of slow-motion and freeze frame, as well as his cross-cutting (we see Tequila recreate one of the crimes as he investigates it; this is cut with the actual crime itself) are all very characteristic of him. His humour, often quite dark, is also a consistent part of his approach. In Hard Boiled, for example, the final, epic shoot-out (basically the last third of the film) takes place in a hospital full of victims, shooters, and babies. Tequila ends up killing off a bunch of bad guys with a baby in his arms (telling the child to look away from the ‘X rated action.’ The baby ends up spattered with blood which is either funny or disturbing, depending on your tolerance for such things:
So, Woo has his own style, and he consistently addresses the same themes in a sub-genre which he basically created himself. Can we call him an auteur? The originators of auteur theory, Francois Truffaut (in Europe) and Andrew Sarris (in America) would almost certainly turn their noses up at the concept of a auteur who worked in what is preceived to be a very debased genre; and there are those who say that Woo’s style is limited rather than unique. However, Sarris did demand that ‘a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serves as his signature’ in order to qualify for auteur status, and Woo certainly does that. Ultimately, though, genre theory and auteur theory are in conflict – one cannot be an independently-minded artist if all the decisions are made in advance by the genre conventions – and while Woo might well be the finest director of action sequences in the world, I suspect he will never be accorded the respect that directors working in less obviously generic areas are. It could be argued, however, that directing the best shoot out ever – the tearoom shootout at the start of the film has been described as such – goes some way to compensate for that.