For decades John Woo has been revered as an iconic action director. Films like The Killer and Hard-Boiled helped define a style of Hong Kong cinema that was as groundbreaking as it was viscerally exciting. With a poetic use of violence and gunplay, it’s easy to see—through the likes of The Raid, John Wick or even the Fast and Furious films—a direct connection to Woo’s pioneering brand of thrills.
Woo came to Hollywood and found mass success with films like Mission Impossible: II and Face/Off, bringing elements of his trademark style to global audiences, and further establishing his brand of well-choreographed action for a new generation of filmmakers.
Woo was the recipient of Fantasia Fest’s 2022 Career Achievement Award, bestowing one of their Cheval Noir trophies to the soft-spoken auteur. Woo’s humility and humanity were evident as he thanked the crowd, and it was a particular thrill to sit beside the director and his daughter as we watched a surprisingly well-preserved 35mm print of his classic Hard-Boiled.
We spoke to Woo while at the festival about his love of classic cinema, the changing landscape of Hong Kong that led him to Los Angeles, and how he tries to live a life abiding by a knightly chivalric code.
The following conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.
Congratulations on the award.
Thank you. It’s too much!
It’s not too much! When accepting the award you mentioned a love of cinema and, specifically, your love of musicals. When I watch your films, I see you making it much like a musical. It’s as precise as a musical and your choreography is precise as a dance. What did these types of movies mean to you as a child, and how did you take that and make action films that are so dynamic and so different?
Well, when I was a child, I must say it was a miserable life. I would have rough times with gangs, and sometimes I got beat up. So when I watched a musical or cartoon, it made me feel so happy and so safe. It gave me a lot of encouragement, that there’s still a very beautiful world outside and to never give up hope. Musicals gave me a lot of warm, touching and hopeful moments. I also liked dancing when I was young. I like the rhythm and the beauty of the world, the beauty of the heart and so on.
The film we saw together, where I had the pleasure of sitting beside you, was Hard-Boiled. The first “weapon” we see on screen a clarinet.
Were there specific musicals, specific films that made you fall in love with the art form, but also specific movies that made you think: ‘I want to do this, I want to be a director, I want to make these movies’?
Oh, it actually it started with The 400 Blows. In Hong Kong we greatly admired the French New Wave and especially François Truffaut. I admired Jean-Luc Godard as well, but I especially like Truffaut. So, like them, I thought of using a handheld camera and shooting a movie on the street, without building sets or anything. I thought that since these real films can do it, I can do the same thing! Back then in Hong Kong we really had no chance to work in a studio. They didn’t like us! So I was encouraged with all of these New Wave films.
The other influence came from Jacques Demy. I really love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It made me learn romanticism in film. It was the same thing as when as a child and watched musicals, I found the beauty of the future and the beauty of human beings.
When watching dance sequences enough times you recognize certain steps—this tap dance is from this movie, this from another. If one describes “John Woo”, I would think of birds flying in slow motion, I would think of people pointing guns in a circle or a quadrangle at each other, the so-called “Mexican standoff”, and I would think of an artist using violence to elucidate character, with movement as a form of dialogue. I’m going to ask you: What is a John Woo film? What is your mark on cinema?
I don’t know how to describe it! [laughs] It’s a “modern times” cinema, I think. I find myself spiritually not living in nowadays, in the present. I think I’m pretty much like an ancient knight in the past. I always have greatly admired the spirit of Chinese knights, always helping people, saving people, fighting for justice, and having a sense of honour and also as never afraid to signify heroism himself in real life. In my movies, I’m doing the same thing. So it’s hard to use anything to describe it. I have helped a lot of people without any expectation of the favour being returned.
When making a film, how conscious are you of putting in the trademark Woo-bits?
A lot of those things came up organically on the set, and I didn’t plan for them. There was only one movie, Mission Impossible: 2, when Tom Cruise is walking by the fire. I had a CG white dove flying around the camera, so that one was planned. But most of the time, the use of birds just came up on the set. Sometimes I didn’t want to use them for every movie! When I was filming Face/Off, at the last moment, the inclusion of a bird was highly requested from the crew. They said, “John, let’s get a dove for this!”
Anyway, I love birds, I always want to have some spiritual symbol for the story and it all starts from The Killer. It’s a story about a good guy and a bad guy, but the bad guy is not always so bad, and he has some good qualities inside his heart, and people misunderstand him. When I was in high school, I used to draw the posters for the church every week, and I used the dove as a main character. So when I made The Killer, I wanted to show these two guys both have a good heart, and show it visually. Then all of a sudden I came up with the idea of using the dove. The church is open for good people and bad people, especially these two heroes. They are fighting for the truth or something like that, and defending the truth. When I use a bird as a part of a montage, with a shot of the bird flying over the candle, it would speak to the purity inside their heart.
You were shooting films in Hong Kong just before Hong Kong went back to being formally part of China. You were shooting in Hong Kong when it was very violent, but very free. Hong Kong now is very not free, and it’s violent in a different, more quiet way. What do you think has been lost since that time?
In old times, especially in the 1960s, the Hong Kong people were very united. They all had the same goals, they all had a similar heart, and they all liked to take care of each other and cared about each other. If your neighbour needed any help, or somebody got hurt, some tragic thing happened, they all came together, and they all comforted and helped each other. That kind of behaviour is like the Chinese knight spirit, a form of chivalry. Everybody is all about chivalry, but in the meantime that we had so many opportunities to see movies from all over the world, and this made us learn quite a lot. The 1980s were the most creative years, and there were many new creations. We had a lot of creative freedom, we could do whatever we wanted and there was no serious censorship and we could do as much as we could. So what we have got is the freedom of everything.
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