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John Woo Yu-Sen (born 1 May 1946) is a Chinesemarker film director and producer from Hong Kongmarker. Recognized for his stylized films of highly choreographed action sequences, Mexican standoffs, and use of slow-motion, Woo has directed several notable Hong Kong action films, among them, A Better Tomorrow, Hard Boiled, and The Killer. His Hollywood films include Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Mission: Impossible 2. He also created the comic series Seven Brothers, published by Virgin Comics. Woo was described by Dave Kehr in The Observer in 2002 as "arguably the most influential director making movies today". Woo cites his three favorite films as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Melville's Le Samouraï.

Early life

Woo was born amidst the chaos of the Chinese Civil War in 1946. The Christian Woo family, faced with persecution during Mao Zedong's early anti-bourgeois-Nationalist purges after the communist takeover of China, fled to Hong Kong when he was five. His father was rendered unable to work by tuberculosis. Impoverished, the Woo family lived in the slums at Shek Kip Mei. Woo went to Concordia Lutheran School and received Christian education. His Christian background shows influences in his films. The family was rendered homeless by the big Shek Kip Mei fire of 1953. Charitable donations from disaster relief efforts enabled the family to relocate, however, violent crime had by then become commonplace in Hong Kong housing projects.

As a young boy, Woo had wanted to be a Christian minister. He later found a passion for movies influenced by the French New Wave especially Jean-Pierre Melville. Woo has said he was shy and had difficulty speaking, but found making movies a way to explore his feelings and thinking and would "use movies as a language".

The local movie theater would prove a haven of retreat. Woo found respite in musical films, such as The Wizard of Oz and American Westerns. He has stated the final scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made a particular impression on him in his youth: the device of two comrades, each of whom fire pistols from each hand, is a recurrent spectacle later found in his own work.

Woo married Annie Woo Ngau Chun-lung in 1976 and has had three children. He has lived in the United States since 1993.

Hong Kong career history

In 1969, aged 23, Woo was hired as a script supervisor at Cathay Studios. In 1971, he became an assistant director at Shaw Studios, where he was mentored by the noted director Chang Cheh. His directorial debut in 1974 was the feature film The Young Dragons (鐵漢柔情, Tiě hàn róu qíng). In the Kung fu action genre, it was choreographed by Jackie Chan and featured dynamic camera-work and elaborate action scenes. The film was picked up by Golden Harvest Studio where he went on to direct more martial arts films. He later had success as a comedy director with Money Crazy (發錢寒, Fā qián hàn) (1977), starring Hong Kong comedian Ricky Hui.

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Woo experienced professional burnout. Several of his films were commercial disappointments. In response, he took residence in Taiwanmarker. It was during this period of self-imposed exile that director/producer Tsui Hark provided the funding for Woo to film a longtime pet project called A Better Tomorrow (1986).

The story of two brothers—one a law enforcement officer, the other a criminal—the film became a financial blockbuster. A Better Tomorrow gained prominence as a defining achievement in Hong Kong action cinema for its combination of emotional drama, slow-motion gunplay, gritty atmospherics, and trenchcoat-and-sunglasses fashion appeal. Its signature narrative device of two-handed, two-gunned fire fight within confined quarters—often referred to as "gun fu"—would later inspire American filmmakers such as Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski brothers.

Woo would make several more Heroic Bloodshed films in the late 1980s and early 1990s, also with leading man Chow Yun-Fat. These violent gangster thriller typically focus on men bound by honor and loyalty, at odds with contemporary values of impermanence and expediency. The protagonists of these films, therefore, may be said to present a common lineage with the Chinese literary tradition of loyalty among generals depicted in classics such as "Romance of the Three Kingdom".

Mr. Woo gained international recognition with the release of The Killer (1989) . Widely praised by critics and audiences for its action sequences, acting and cinematography, The Killer became the most successful Hong Kong film in American release since Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon (1973) and garnered Mr. Woo an American cult following. Bullet in the Head followed a year later, which Mr. Woo has stated he still considers his most personal work. Bullet in the Head did not meet financial expectations.

Among the director's American admirers are Martin Scorsese and Sam Raimi (who has compared Woo's mastery of action to Hitchcock's mastery of suspense). Mr. Woo accepted a contract to work in America at a time when the 1997 handover of Hong Kong was imminent.

His last Hong Kong film before emigrating to the United States was Hard Boiled (1992), the antithesis of his earlier glorification of gangsters. Memorable among its preponderance of action scenes is an approximate 30 minute sequence of gun-play set within a hospital. The director pointedly depicts the vulnerability of patients caught in the crossfire. One particular long take follows two characters for an elapsed time of 2 minutes and 42 seconds as they move between hospital floors. On the Criterion DVD and laserdisc, this chapter is referenced as "2 minutes, 42 seconds." The film climax extols the virtues of its leading man, a law enforcement agent, Chow Yun-Fat, who is seen to comfort an infant with a lullaby while engaged in fire fight with his criminal pursuers. He heroically takes leave of this carnage when he leaps to safety from a window, babe gallantly in arms.

John Woo: Interviews (ISBN 1578067766) is the first authoritative English-language chronicle of Woo’s career. The volume includes a new 36-page interview with Woo by editor Robert K. Elder, which documents the years 1968 to 1990, from Woo’s early career in working on comedies and kung fu films (in which he gave Jackie Chan one of his first major film roles), to his gunpowder morality plays in Hong Kong.

United States career history

An emigre in 1993, the director experienced difficulty in cultural adjustment while contracted with Universal Studios to direct Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target. Characteristic of other foreign national film directors confronted with the Hollywood environment, Mr. Woo was unaccustomed to pervasive management concerns, such as limitations on violence and completion schedules. When initial cuts failed to yield an "R" rated film, the studio assumed control of the project and edited footage to produce a cut "suitable for American audiences". A "rough cut" of the film, supposedly the original unrated version, is still circulated among his admirers.

A three year hiatus saw Mr. Woo next direct John Travolta and Christian Slater in Broken Arrow. A frenetic chase-themed film, the director once again found himself hampered by studio management and editorial concerns. Despite a larger budget than his previous Hard Target, the final feature lacked the trademark Woo style. Public reception saw modest financial success.

Reluctant to pursue projects which would necessarily entail front-office controls, the director cautiously rejected the script for Face/Off several times until it was rewritten to suit him. (The futuristic setting was changed to a contemporary one.) Paramount Pictures also offered the director significantly more freedom to exercise his specialty: emotional characterization and elaborate action. A complex story of adversaries—each of whom surgically alters their identity—law enforcement agent John Travolta and terrorist Nicolas Cage play a cat-and-mouse game, trapped in each other's outward appearance.

Face/Off opened in 1997 to critical acclaim and strong attendance. Grosses in the United States exceeded $100 million. As a result, John Woo is generally regarded as the first Asian director to find a mainstream commercial base. In 2003, Mr. Woo directed a television pilot entitled The Robinsons: Lost in Space for The WB Television Network, based on the 1960s television series Lost in Space. The pilot was not purchased, although bootleg copies have been made available by fans.

John Woo has made three additional films in Hollywood: Mission: Impossible II, Windtalkers and Paycheck. Mission: Impossible II was the highest-grossing film of 2000. Windtalkers and Paycheck fared poorly at the box office and were summarily dismissed by critics.

Recently, John Woo directed and produced a videogame called Stranglehold for games consoles and PC. It is a sequel to his 1992 film, Hard Boiled. He also produced the 2007 anime movie, Appleseed: Ex Machina, the sequel to Shinji Aramaki's 2004 film Appleseed.

Return to China

In 2008, Woo returned to Asian cinema with the completion of the epic war film Red Cliff, based on an historical battle from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Produced on a grand scale, it is his first film in China since he emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States in 1993. Part 1 of the film was released throughout Asia in July, 2008, to skeptical and less than enthusiastic reviews and strong attendance. Part 2 was released in China in January, 2009.

Future film projects

His future film on Mighty Mouse will either be animated or live-action with CGI. He will also direct a remake of Papillon. There are persistent rumors that Woo will direct a film version of the videogame Metroid. He had optioned the rights at one point, but the option has long since expired.

Woo's next projects are The Divide, a western concerning the friendship between two workers, one Chinese, the other Irish, on the transcontinental railroad, while The Devil's Soldier is a biopic on Frederick Townsend Ward, an American brought to China in the mid 19th century by the Emperor to suppress rebellion. Rendezvous in Black will be an adaption of the drama/thriller novel of the same name, and Psi-Ops is a sci-fi thriller about a telepathic agent, a remake of Blind Spot.

In 2009, he will direct Ninja Gold, collaborating with video-game creator Warren Spector. He is also involved in numerous projects in a producing capacity.

In May 2008, Woo announced that his next movie will be 1949, an epic love story based on true events and that spans the end of World War II and Chinese Civil War to the founding of the People's Republic of China. The announcement was made at Cannes Film Festivalmarker where Woo was in to promote Red Cliff. The shooting of 1949 will take place in China and Taiwan, with production set to begin by the end of 2008, theatrical release planned in December 2009. The film is to star South Korean actress Song Hye-kyo and Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, and was written by the scriptwriter of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, Hui-Ling Wang. However, in early April 2009, John Woo's 1949 is cancelled due to script right issues. Also reports indicate that Woo may be working on another World War II film, this time about the American Volunteer Group, or the Flying Tigers. The movie is tentatively titled "Flying Tiger Heroes" and Woo is reported as saying it will feature "The most spectacular aerial battle scenes ever seen in Chinese cinema." Whether this means that John Woo will not be directing the rumored Romeo and Juliet war film, or it's been put on the backburner. Woo has stated that Flying Tiger Heroes will be an "extremely important production" and will "emphasize US-Chinese friendship and the contributions of the Flying Tigers and the Yunnan people during the war of resistance."


By Woo

  • Woo discovered then–television actor Chow Yun-Fat to star in A Better Tomorrow, not anticipating the level of stardom the actor would achieve. Woo said of Yun-Fat in a 1999 interview with Robert K. Elder, "This guy was so elegant and also had great charisma. He reminded me of Alain Delon, and Steve McQueen, Ken Takakura—all my great idols, all in him. And I thought, while we are shooting, I just felt, 'He’s a great actor; he will be popular.' But I didn’t know he’d be that popular, you know?"
  • Woo was quoted in the June 2000 edition of Premiere magazine: "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. When the men die, I cut to the dove flying—it's the soul, rescued and safe and also pure of heart. So the dove became one of my habits: I used it in Hard Boiled, Face/Off, and in Mission: Impossible II".
  • Woo likes the look of the Beretta 92F/FS pistol and had featured it in many of his movies. He stated in an interview that it "is a great character" and added that "it's so strong and elegant." He also mentioned that other pistols looked dumb to him.

By others

  • In reply to a studio executive who said "I suppose Woo can direct action scenes," Quentin Tarantino has been quoted as saying "Sure, and I suppose Michelangelo can paint ceilings!"
  • When Jean-Claude Van Damme was trying to get Woo for Hard Target, he described him as "the Martin Scorsese of Asia".

References in other media

  • In the anime series, R.O.D the TV which features three girls named after real life Hong Kong action stars, "John Woo" is the name of a mysterious carrier pigeon.
  • In another anime series, FLCL, two characters can be seen watching the climactic end sequence of an action movie. Although the screen in not visible, it can be surmised that it is indeed a John Woo film, as one of the film's characters exclaims, "What are all these pigeons doing in here?" and a multitude of flapping wings heard. The screen was then broken, and a flock of white doves flew out of the TV set. Also the episode uses gun fu and frequent slow motion, as common in John Woo films. Also in the preview of the above mentioned episode (a preview of the next episode is always shown at the end of the previous, as with most anime series), the character Haruko mentions humorous things to keep in mind when seeing a John Woo film.
  • Japanese professional wrestler SUWA, of the promotions Dragon's Gate and Pro Wrestling Noah, utilizes a seated dropkick that frequently sends its victim flying back-first into the corner. As a fan of Hong Kong action cinema, he calls this move the "John Woo", as a homage to the impact of shotgun blasts on the human body in Woo's films.
  • In the video game Max Payne there are many homages and references to John Woo. For example, the black suit and tie Max is seen wearing at the beginning, as well as the dual guns and jumping and shooting in slow motion. One of the game's difficulty levels is named Hard Boiled, and John Woo's name is mentioned as a password for entering into a gangster hideout, Also a quote by the main character when he is ambushed is "I made like Chow Yun Fat".
  • In the PC game F.E.A.R., the developers admitted that they been inspired by John Woo action movies, in that they wanted the game's action sequences to play out as dramatic and elegant gunfights.
  • On The Simpsons episode "Half-Decent Proposal", Homer sternly tells Artie Ziff his terms for "selling" the billionaire a weekend with Marge: "No hand holding, kissing, or misdirected Woo...which is pretty much any John Woo movie." Ironically, this statement came in February 2002 when Woo had run off several successful Hollywood films, but in the following years Woo's American films were disappointments.
  • On the television drama ER, Jeanie Boulet bonds with Dr. Ansapugh's sick son by asking him if he liked John Woo movies. The son asked her if she meant his Hong Kong or American entries, and they began talking.
  • The Christian rock band Newsboys has a song "John Woo" which makes reference to the religious symbolism he often employs in his films.
  • "I've got more action than my man John Woo" is a lyric from the Beastie Boys song "Sure Shot" from Ill Communication.
  • In one of the versions of the PC game "Unreal Tournament", when a character is killed by another wielding dual pistols, the deceased character is listed by the kill readout as having been "John Woo'd" by the victor.
  • Typing the cheat code "JOHNWOO" in the PC game Rise of the Triad gives the player dual pistols.
  • Picking up a second submachine gun in the PC game Shadow Warrior causes the player's avatar Lo Wang to quip "Be proud, Mr. Woo!"
  • Comedian Daniel Tosh references John Woo in a joke on both his CD True Stories I Made Up and his DVD Completely Serious. ("I want to be rich enough to release a dozen doves every time I walked into a room. Everyone would be like 'Did you see that guy come out of the bathroom? The one with doves!' 'I bet that's John Woo's kid.'")
  • In the animated TV series American Dad! episode "Homeland Insecurity", Stan describes what an argument with Francine is like and says "...and we have our little John Woo stand off..."
  • Mathcore band Botch has a song, "John Woo".
  • On an episode of the USA Network television show Psych entitled "The Greatest Adventure in the History of Basic Cable", Shawn Spencer comments in the middle of a Mexican standoff, "If there were doves flying around, this would be a John Woo movie."
  • In the comic-book series Kick-Ass the vigilante superhero Big-Daddy quizzes his sidekick/daughter Hit-Girl on military and gun related trivia while she kills criminals. One of his questions is "What was John Woo's first English language film?"
  • In the Season 2 episode of How I Met Your Mother, Moving Day, Ted asks Robin if she owns any movies "not directed by John Woo."
  • During the season finale of Season 1 of The Venture Bros. there is an entire scene devoted to smashing as many John Woo references as humanly possible into 30 seconds.
  • In the PC game SWAT 3, the cheat code "JOHNWOO" makes the game run in slow motion.
  • On an episode of Adult Swim's show Robot Chicken entitled "Maurice Gets Caught", a scene involving a remake of Gone With The Wind has a fight scene featuring a slow-motion action sequence in which 3 doves fly by, referencing Woo's love of doves and slow motion.



Year Film
1973 Fist to Fist
1974 The Young Dragons
The Dragon Tamers
1975 Hand of Death
Princess Chang Ping
1977 From Riches to Rags
Money Crazy
1978 Hello, Late Homecomers
Follow the Star
1979 Last Hurrah for Chivalry
1980 From Riches to Rags
1981 To Hell with the Devil
Laughing Times
1982 Plain Jane to the Rescue
1984 When You Need a Friend
1985 Run, Tiger, Run
1986 Heroes Shed No Tears
A Better Tomorrow
1987 A Better Tomorrow II
1989 Just Heroes
The Killer
1990 Bullet in the Head
1991 Once a Thief
1992 Hard Boiled
1993 Hard Target
1996 Broken Arrow
Once a Thief
1997 Face/Off
1998 Blackjack
2000 Mission: Impossible II
2001 Windtalkers
2003 Paycheck
2005 All the Invisible Children
2008 Red Cliff
2010 Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six

Other works

See also


  1. John Woo. Festival de Cannes fiche artiste (artist profile)
  2. Rawnsley, Gary D. Rawnsley, Ming-Yeh T. (2003). Political Communications in Greater China: the construction and reflection of identity. Routledge publishing. ISBN 070071734X.
  3. Elder, Robert K. (2005). John Woo Interviews. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1578067766

Further reading

In English

  • Bliss, Michael. Between the Bullets: The Spiritual Cinema of John Woo. Filmmakers series, no. 92. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. ISBN 081084110X.
  • Brown, Andrew M. J. Directing Hong Kong: The Political Cinema of John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai. Political Communications in Greater China: the Construction and Reflection of Identity. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2001. ISBN 070071734X.
  • Fang, Karen Y. John Woo's A Better Tomorrow. The New Hong Kong Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004. ISBN 9622096522.
  • Hall, Kenneth E. John Woo: The Films. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999. ISBN 0786406194.
  • Heard, Christopher. Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo. Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Co., 2000. ISBN 158065021X.
  • Woo, John, and Robert K. Elder (ed.). John Woo: Interviews. Conversations with filmmakers series. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. ISBN 1578067758, ISBN 1578067766.

In other languages

  • Berruezo, Pedro J. John Woo y el cine de acción de Hong Kong. Biblioteca Dr. Vértigo, 23. [Barcelona]: Ediciones Glénat, 2000. ISBN 8484490432.
  • Bertolino, Marco, and Ettore Ridola. John Woo: la violenza come redenzione. Recco, Genova: Le mani, 1998. ISBN 8880120980.
  • Gaschler, Thomas, and Ralph Umard. Woo Leben und Werk. München: Belleville, 2005. ISBN 3933510481.
  • Nazzaro, Giona A., and Andrea Tagliacozzo. John Woo: la nuova leggenda del cinema d'azione. Contatti, 199. Roma: Castelvecchi, 2000. ISBN 8882102033.
  • Spanu, Massimiliano. John Woo. Il castoro cinema, 203. Milano: Castoro, 2001. ISBN 8880331922.
  • Vié-Toussaint, Caroline. John Woo. Paris: Dark star, 2001. ISBN 2914680015.

External links

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