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The current research paper deals with the analysis of John Woo’s contribution to the world cinematograph. Special attention is paid to some important aspects of his biography which influenced the formation of his mindset and director’s outlook on current cinema trends, methods, techniques, the role of different participants in the film-making process.
Current research also puts particular emphasis on analyzing John Woo’s directing approaches techniques, recurrent symbols, images, and ideas which can be met in his movies, recognition among other film-making specialists. Besides this, we think that it would be useful to provide a thorough analysis of Woo’s movies, which would help us to understand the basic genres and themes within which John Woo works.
Woo’s biography and evolution of film-director
John Woo was born in 1946 and is a widely known Chinese film director (Hong Kong) and film producer. He is an acclaimed representative of cult popular films which generally run in the mainstream current of the Hollywood film industry, however, has certain specific and peculiar moments such as stress on stylized movie-making, Mexican stand-offs, extensive utilization of slow and quick motion as well as using balletic action.
All these techniques and approaches make John Woo an important representative of global cinema with particular influence on the mass consciousness of people and especially youth.
To certify this, one should remember that John Woo directed such films as Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow, Face/Off and well-known Mission Impossible 2.To understand the evolution of John Woo’s career one should address those influences and trends which occurred in his biography (Kehr, 2002). There is no denying the importance of the fact that the desire to become a Christian minister in youth deeply influences some of the themes and images that could be found in Woo’s films. Besides this, John Woo’s approach to cinema was heavily influenced by his love of European film and especially French New Wave with such directors as J. P. Melville. Some of the directing techniques including close shooting, utilizing the capacities of background, creating atmosphere through various innovative shooting techniques were found by Woo in European cinema but were deeply transformed using new technologies and computer graphics.
In his childhood Woo was shy and had many difficulties with speaking as which is why Woo decided ‘to use movie as a language’ (Kehr, 2002)). Woo was raised in difficult conditions as his father was ill with tuberculosis and could not work. He and his family lived in the poorest slums of Hong Kong being persecuted by Chinese authorities. Moreover, Woo’s family became homeless when their house was burned as a result of a fire.
During was years Woo found inspiration in watching Hollywood movies and musicals with Butch Cassidy among the most favorite. There is no denying the importance of the fact that close cultural relations with the Western world (Hong Kong) and its cultural production (Hollywood movies) were among the major factors contributing to Woo’s future director techniques and approaches to film production.
In his earlier years in cinematograph Woo worked as a script supervisor and some years as assistant director in Shaw Studios and only in 1974 he directed his first film called The Young Dragons where his basic approaches to cinema were realized. First of all, Woo centers on producing action films that could be used as a source of commercial success. His director work, taking into consideration the action nature of the movies, is based on dynamic camera-work and elaborated action scenes. Among the first, Woo creates a genre of Kung fu action films where choreography and martial arts specialists are engaged (such as Jackie Chan).
There is no denying the importance of the fact that this combination of Hollywood techniques and dominant trends with Asian cultural specifics were among the most important driving forces of John Woo’s films popularity in the West, especially in the United States as the center of world film industry.
The booming popularity of Woo’s films and his candidature to the status of the comedy king quickly disappeared in 80s when he suddenly lost his credence among the major producers and cinema companies. It is difficult to explain this fact by structural reasons and may only be attributed to Woo’s personal crisis. However, a situation quickly changed when Woo received funds for his new film called A Better Tomorrow (1986).
This film was a space of some recurring images and approaches which can be met in future Woo’s films.
These include slow-motion battle on guns (holding them in each hand) which was often called ‘gun fu’, utilization of ‘cool’ fashion-criminal symbols such as sunglasses and trench coats. There is no denying the importance of the fact that these innovations deeply influenced the directing techniques of such famous directors and Wachowski brother and Tarantino.
Besides this, John Woo is widely known for his creation of the genre of emotional drama where action themes and combined with some dramatic and even lyric connotations – violence with love, evil with good and so on and so forth. Beginning from 80th John Woo adhere to Heroic Bloodshed filming genre which was then popular (Sandell, 1996). This genre combines action sequence with such recurrent themes as duty, honor, brotherhood, revenge and violence for good reasons.
It should be noted that namely in this genre did Woo found the space for realizing his mindset and directing orientation, creating the genre of action drama which could be consumed by Western public. As it was noted above, one of the reasons for this was compromising dramatic themes with action sequence and martial arts scenes which produced deep emotional impact on the audience.
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John Woo continued to work in his genre and soon became acclaimed director in the United States where his work was appreciated by such directors as Scorsese and many others. Besides this he was quickly noticed by Hollywood which made his move to the United States where he continued his directing work.
The development of Woo’s career in the United States was characterized with some changes and difficulties. Woo get acquainted with plethora of limitation on artistic realization which were imposed by Hollywood studio which controlled Woo’s directing practices and even prohibited some important episodes. The most characteristic example is Hard Target movie with Van Damme which was taken by the studio and cut it to make suitable for the American audience.
Some other Woo’s works in the Hollywood were the object of the same kind of intrusion on the part of the studio. This was of course negative for maintaining Woo’s style and he could not realize himself properly in these films.
The next films such as Face/Off, Mission Impossible brought Woo world recognition and huge commercial success. However, this successes were disappointed by such his films as Paycheck and Windtalkers which were debunked by critiques.
We have already mentioned some of recurring images, symbols and themes which are used by Woo in his film. One of the most notable symbol is doves. Woo himself explains it: “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’.
John Woo films and directing practices
Some of John Woo’s early films researchers such as Sandell show that they reproduce relations between equals rather than between unequals (Sandell, 1994). This means that, however, Bloodshed heroics are designed to create meaning of freedom, justice, in fact, they reproduced reality as it is. Sandell also notes that Woo codes violent actions as ‘romantic’ and achieves it by using slow-motion, easy and subtle color and very soft focus. This interpretation contains a great deal of truth since violence in Woo’s films is represented not as pure violence but as a marker of something else. Using of such religious symbols as doves by Woo is a good evidence of that violence in his films is not self-sufficient and is not primary necessity.
For some analysis such as Stringer, Woo’s earlier Hong Kong films represent a difficult drama of difficult process of Hong Kong unification with China which brakes male subjectivity and makes them engage in violence. Stringer rightly supposes that biographical details of John Woo prove the feasibility of this argument (Stringer, 1997).
Formal techniques which Woo uses, as it was noted above, refer to action sequence techniques with close-ups and rack focuses, multiple cameras use. Choreographical action ballets which are used by Woo characterize his innovative approach to cinema and were used by many other directors.
Woo’s action sequences are very fast placing no time for contemplation which essentially goes in line with Chinese tradition. Post-Hong Kong films prove this by Woo’s creating emotional male action personalities which are characterized not only be violence but with sensitivity and human feelings (Williams, 1997). Woo killers represent not modern people devoid of feelings, social consciousness and understanding of modern world but premodern killers, which, as Woo say, ‘kill for reason’. All these features make Woo’s films an interesting resource of symbols, images and interpretations.
For instance, Woo’s movie a Bullet in the Head directed in 1990 sets the narrative in the 1967 (the year of Hong Kong’s riots). This film tells about Vietnam War where violence is coded as ugly and bloody unlike dominant Hollywood films where patriotism creates atmosphere of absolute legitimization of war.
Some themes widely used by Woo in his other films such as friendship, revenge and betrayal are presented in this film. Bloody war destroys the men’s friendship, make people suffer. Woo also criticizes Chinese state for its repressive actions against Beijing’s people at Tiananmen square where many people were killed by tanks. As a results Woo provides excellent antiwar film, no matter that it is essentially marked by Western ideological paraphernalia and prejudices. In this film as in his other movies, Woo also uses an interesting metaphor of guns-to-the-head which symbolizes the deadlock in the development of Chinese society.
Another Woo’s film Hard Target represents a significant departure from his directing practices as they are essentially compromised with studio politics which place more emphasis on ideological ‘normality’, marketing advantages and audience. However, even in this difficult conditions Woo managed to promoted anti-wealth and anti-capitalist themes which, however, are discernible only for specialists in his work.
Besides Woo inserts the ideal of Chinese honesty and nobility in Western actor (Van Damme) and extensively utilizes his techniques of slow motion which are meant to create mythic atmosphere (Scharres, 1993).
The themes of brotherhood and honor are also widely utilized and humor episodes are thoroughly inserted into the movie’s fabric. Notwithstanding some major shortcoming of Hard Target, Woo showed that he can work within commercial limitations on production techniques and motives.
The second Hollywood film produced by Woo is Broken Arrow (1996) also portrays some of the Woo’s recurrent themes as betrayal and friendship. It was the first Woo possibility to work with the renowned Western stars such as John Travolta who played a pilot of a bomber who tries to steal the nuclear weapons and Christian Slater who plays co-pilot trying to stop him. This film postulates the trend of Woo’s directing practices to adhere with dominant approaches and commercial production methods of Hollywood.
There is no denying the importance of the fact that conflict of values, ideologies, strong emotional and spiritual connotations are excluded from this films and polarization between abstract good and bad guys is created.
The villains are eliminated and the happy end reached. This shows the general pattern of Hollywood action films which Woo now follows. As for the ideological connotations of Woo’s film they may be understood as the protest against nuclear weapons proliferation however this appeal fails to address the complexity of the problem as it is realized through action genre within which it is impossible to do. Woo’s next major Hollywood film Face/Off was a real commercial success.
This film represents come back to his earlier Hong Kong aesthetics and its unification with American problematic of gender. To sum it up, analysis of John Woo’s works and techniques as well as his biography shows that he is talented in several respects – director and shooting techniques, using intellectual connotations and symbols, has an ability to combine action with ideological meanings and appeals. However, it should be noted that several important limitations exist to successful realization of his director ideas – may be the most important one is Hollywood studio politics which transform a bulk of his ideas and images into commoditized and standardized artifacts for commercial use only. This makes art evaporate from Woo’s films and make his further evolution very problematic. It seems that Woo’s directing experience in Hong Kong was more fruitful in terms of artistic self-realization and elaboration of new shooting and filming methods. Everything that make Woo specific has noting to do with Hollywood and is in great opposition to dominant commercial practices of film-making.
Kehr, Dave. “Ballets full of bullets“, The Observor, 2002. Web.
Sandell, Jillian. “A Better Tomorrow? American Masochism and Hong Kong Action Films.” Bad Subjects 13 (1994).
Sandell, Jillian. “Reinventing Masculinity: The Spectacle of Male Intimacy in the Films of John Woo.” Film Quarterly 49:4 (1996): 23-42.
Scharres, Barbara. “The Hard Road to Hard Target.” American Cinematographer 74:9 (1993): 62-73.
Stringer, Julian. “Your Tender Smile Gives Me Strength’: Paradigms of Masculinity in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. Screen 38:1 (1997): 25-41.
Williams, Tony. “Space, Place and Spectacle: The Crisis Cinema of John Woo.” Cinema Journal 36:2 (1997): 67-84.