5. Red Cliff (2008)
This 5-hour epic signaled the return of John Woo to Hong Kong and subsequently to actors, themes and techniques that had originally made him an internationally acclaimed filmmaker.
The film takes place at the conclusion of the Han dynasty, when the deceitful Prime Minister Cao Cao tricks the Emperor into a war with the kingdoms of Wu and Xu, in order to unify China. Subsequently, the two kingdoms are forced to unify against the common enemy. After a series of skirmishes, the final battle is eventually fought in Red Cliff, where the two kingdoms faced the 1-million-strong Emperor’s army with their 50,000 soldiers.
John Woo had $80 million to spend and he delivered by filming a plethora of spectacular action scenes, as well as providing impressive production design and set decoration, stunning visual effects and cinematography, and sublime guidance of a record number of supernumeraries.
His careful design of the film is equally evident in the non-battle scenes where he “builds” the characters, including Viceroy Zhou Yu, played by Tony Leung, and Zhuge Liang, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro. The aforementioned are the most distinct ones among a number of actors in the film.
Moreover, Woo presents a story regarding the way a vast group could lose against powerful individuals, and the way the strength and intelligence of a single person could unite a nation.
4. A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987)
After the enormous success of the first movie, John Woo knew that he ought to shoot a sequel. However, there was one problem: Chow Yun Fat’s character, who had the largest impact among the three protagonists, had been killed in the first movie. Nevertheless, the issue was addressed in distinct Woo fashion. Enter Ken, the long lost twin brother of Mark, who left Hong Kong as a teenager and now returns to assume his brother’s place.
Despite the solution given to this particular problem, Woo and producer Tsui Hark had disagreements over the focus of the film. Their differences eventually led to a split, with Hark subsequently shooting “A Better Tomorrow 3” and Woo directing “The Killer”.
Several years after the events of the first movie, brothers Sung Tse Ho and Tse Kit are undercover police agents, spying on crime boss Lung, who allegedly owns a ship building company. However, the actual head of the syndicate is Lung’s assistant, Ko, who wants to kill him and take his position. During the attempt, the two brothers save Lung and transfer him to New York, where the aforementioned Ken owns a restaurant. The three of them eventually decide to return the former boss to Hong Kong and arrest Ko.
The fallout between Hark and Woo resulted in the film being edited by an outside company and they did a mediocre job, thus resulting in a movie inferior to the first one, which at times is inconsistent and even incomprehensible.
However, “A Better Tomorrow 2” had a number of the best action scenes Woo had ever shot and impressive cinematography, both in New York and Hong Kong. His distinct excessive violence also appears as much as his humor, chiefly represented by Chow Yun Fat’s character. The latter is, as usual, magnificent in his role, and Lung Ti and Leslie Cheung portray their roles competently.
Probably the most notorious film in Woo’s vast filmography, “A Better Tomorrow 2” resulted in a rumor that he had a tendency to put his actors in actual danger. This would help the action scenes in being even more impressive. The rumor was sustained by the heavy injuries two stuntmen suffered, and an accident that almost took Chow’s life when he was not given enough time to escape an explosion, eventually having just his hair burned.
3. A Better Tomorrow (1986)
In the mid 80s, John Woo was suffering from a burnout due to a series of commercially unsuccessful films he had shot in previous years. He was saved by Tsui Hark, who had created his own production company in 1984 and proposed to Woo to direct a project he had in mind for quite some time, titled “A Better Tomorrow”. Furthermore, due to both the aforementioned insistence, Chow Yun Fat was cast as Mark “Gor” Lee, despite the fact that he was not the first choice for the role.
The script focuses on the relationship between Sung Tse Ho, a top triad member, and his two brothers: the one from the syndicate, Mark “Gor” Lee, and his actual brother, Sung Tse Kit, who just graduated from the police academy.
John Woo had all of his distinct characteristics in this film: violent yet stylish shootouts, harsh aesthetics, the themes of brotherhood, and family and loyalty within the modern society. Furthermore, “A Better Tomorrow” was one of the first films that introduced the Heroic Bloodshed genre, where men, driven by friendship and mutual respect, bond in the heat of the battle, while individuals die all around them.
Chow Yun Fat, although in a supporting role, emerged from this particular movie as an international star and a local fashion icon, due to the combination of smoothness and humor he used to present his character and his wardrobe style, with the duster, the Ray-Ban sunglasses and the constant cigarette in his mouth.
Although low budget, the film was an enormous commercial success throughout Asia, even netting awards for Best Picture and Best Actor for Chow Yun Fat at the Hong Kong Film Awards; and Best Director, Best Leading Actor for Lung Ti, Best Cinematography and Best Sound Recording from the Golden Horse Film Festival.
2. Hard Boiled (1992)
Inspector Tequila Yuen is a tough cop and furthermore, the personification of justice, morality and of faith in the concept of friendship. His nihilistic cynicism is only soothed by the sound of his clarinet when he performs at a little jazz club. However, when a gangster kills his partner during a massacre, Tequila stops being lawful and sets on the path of revenge.
Alan is an undercover cop who struggles between two crime bosses, and faces a moral dilemma when he is ordered to kill the man who had initially trusted him during his first days in the “underworld”.
On the other side of the law, Mad Dog has to defend the same morals with his life, although being in favor of crime.
A number of archetypical characters in Woo’s filmography appear in this movie to fight each other, at least when they are not allies. His usual techniques in this film are at their peak, including the rapid changes between fast and slow motion, the mirror images that save the protagonists, the constant gunfights, and the handling of two guns at the same time.
Woo delivers a sublime depiction of violence that benefits both from his style and the excellent action choreography, in a film that is so clearly a B-movie that winds up as a masterpiece.
All three protagonists, Chow Yun Fat as Tequila, Tony Leung as Alan and Philip Kwok as Mad Dog, are excellent in their roles.
1. The Killer (1989)
The production of this movie was problematic from the beginning, due to the ongoing dispute between Hark and Woo, with the former even asking the board of his production company, Film Workshop, to dismiss the latter.
When they denied it, he proceeded to dismiss financing for any project Woo presented. His tendency extended to this particular film, which would have never been shot if the protagonists, Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee, did not agree to finance it themselves and if the former did not exploit his influence to attract additional funding. Even then, Hark did not stop meddling in the project; he forced Sally Yeh into the role of Jennie and he forbade Woo to use jazz music as the central theme.
Ah Jong is a contract killer who, during his latest assignment, accidentally traumatizes a female singer of a nightclub. In order to pay for her operation, he agrees to take on one last mission.
Woo’s distinct style also found its apogee in “The Killer” with the stylized violence, the constant bloodbaths, the slow motion, the impressive action scenes, the elaborate usage of guns and the flying of pigeons, a motif that began in this particular film. Furthermore, the final scene in the church is one of his most distinct scenes.
However, beyond the relentless action, Woo also entailed a little romance and themes of friendship, love and religion in a film that has celebrated Woo’s style and his visual prowess.
“The Killer” was a mediocre commercial success in Hong Kong, due to the extreme violence that reminded audiences of the recent incident at Tiananmen Square. Nevertheless, it was distributed successfully in Taiwan and South Korea, in a number of American festivals, and even at the Cannes Film Festival.
Furthermore, it constituted Woo’s stepping stone for his subsequent career in Hollywood, since it was the most commercially successful Hong Kong film since “Enter the Dragon”. Additionally, filmmakers of the magnitude of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Johnnie To and Luc Besson include it in their influences.
“The Killer” was nominated in six categories at the 1990 Hong Kong Film Awards, eventually winning those of Best Director and Best Film Editing.
Author Bio: Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic who focuses on the cinema of East Asia. He enjoys films from all genres, although he is a big fan of exploitation. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.