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Arts & Culture

Killer Book On John Woo

Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee in John Woo's The Killer
Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee in John Woo's The Killer

Author Ken Hall serves up analysis of Woo's classic The Killer

John Woo is a Hong Kong success story for multiple reasons. Not only did he help usher in the Hong Kong New Wave in the 80s and 90s but he was also the first Hong Kong director to find mainstream success in Hollywood with films such as "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off." His Hong Kong films -- "A Better Tomorrow," "Bullet in the Head," "The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled" -- defined an audacious over the top action style that came to define Hong Kong cinema in the late 1980s and early 90s. But Woo invested these delirious action flicks with a surprising depth of feeling and artistry that allowed them to transcend the genre. Although he scored early hits in Hollywood, Woo's later U.S. work -- such as "Mission Impossible II" and "Paycheck" -- had his fans wondering if Hollywood and Woo were really a good mix. Possibly proving that point is the fact that Woo's latest film, the epic two-part "Red Cliff," was made back in China and it represents his best recent work. The return to Asia also marks a return to the breathtaking work of Woo's peak period in Hong Kong. The film is supposed to arrive in the U.S. in a truncated, single movie form but I'm hoping some U.S. distributor will come to their senses and release it in two parts like Steven Soderbergh's "Che." Arriving at the heels of Woo's latest cinematic success is a new book celebrating Woo's seminal film "The Killer" (1989), in which Chow Yun Fat plays a hit man who falls for a young woman that he accidentally blinds during a job, and who forms an odd bond with the cop pursuing him.

Director John Woo
Director John Woo

Author Kenneth E. Hall, who previously wrote "John Woo: The Films," now turns his attention specifically to one film in "John Woo's The Killer," a new volume in the ongoing series of books dubbed "The New Hong Kong Cinema" from the Hong Kong University Press. Hall is the Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages at East Tennessee State University. Hall's book is scholarly in its thorough analysis of the film and rich insights, but still accessible enough for fans to enjoy. His style is definitely more polished and thoughtful than the more pop culture/fanboy examination of Hong Kong Cinema found in "Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head." Hall places "The Killer" not only in the context of the Hong Kong New Wave but also in a broader context of cinematic history by offering comparisons to American classic film noir of the 40s (such as "This Gun for Hire") and French New Wave Cinema of the 60s (specifically "Le Samourai" by Jean Pierre Melville). Hall meticulously dissects Woo's film for both its social implications and artistic ones. While some of his insights cover familiar ground (examining themes of loyalty and chivalry within the martial arts gangster films), he also serves up fresh commentary. I was particularly taken by his discussion about themes of betrayal. I had always read the chaos and violence in Woo's films as a reaction to the uncertainty of Hong Kong being handed back to China. But Hall asks us to consider these films in a slightly different context and to see the betrayals that occur in the films as a reflection of Hong Kong's feeling that Britain was in some way betraying the colony by returning it to Chinese rule.

The slim, smartly bound paperback analysis of Woo's film also contains photos offering comparisons between "The Killer" and other films as well as a glossary to help with the Asian titles and names. The book serves up a well researched, insightful, and sincere appreciation of what many consider to be Woo's best film. I had a chance to interview Hall about his book and his love of John Woo's films.


How did you become interested in Asian Cinema?

KENNETH HALL: I had been a film fan for many years, and my PhD. dissertation concerned novel and film. I had always liked Japanese films but was not well-versed in Hong Kong-Chinese film. In 1995, I heard a report on NPR about John Woo, and my friend and colleague at University of North Dakota convinced me that I should do a book on Woo. I found out where his office was (at Fox at the time) and contacted them. Shortly afterward, they invited me out to meet John, which I did in November 1995. I began work on the book at that time, and it was published in 1999.

What appeals to you about Woo's work?

KH:Woo's romanticism and tremendous visuals appealed to me (and still do). I liked the self-sacrificing heroes and the ambiguity of the hero-villain roles in his films, and the surprising depth of his characterizations given the genre. Additionally, I had always been an "action" film devotee. Again, though, I would say that his astonishing visual sense and his choreography have always fascinated me.

Why focus a book specifically on just "The Killer?"


KH:Despite some excellent work from John since "The Killer," and despite the lack of resources with which it was made, I still consider this film to be Woo's masterpiece. It encapsulates all the elements mentioned above and features unforgettable work from Chow Yun Fat as the killer and Danny Lee as the cop. It is also filled with wonderful homages to Melville and film noir, as I discuss in my book.

Tell me about this series "The New Hong Kong Cinema."

KH: The series is aimed at both an academic and a general audience, but in particular I think (rather like the BFI Film book series, after which it seems to have been modeled) that it is useful as a resource for film courses in university settings.

Did you actually interview Woo for this new book?

KH: My previous book (I am now working on a second, updated edition of "John Woo: The Films") included numerous interviews. Interviewees included Woo, Terence Chang, Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, Arnold Vosloo and other cast and crew from Hollywood, and many communications with cast and crew from Woo's films. Some of the other books in the Hong Kong University Press series (my first book and its second edition are from McFarland Publishers) may include interviews. I know that Karen Fang's book on "A Better Tomorrow" has an interview or an email exchange with Woo.

Kenneth Hall's "John Woo's The Killer" is currently available for pre-order from Amazon. You can click on the link under Cinema Junkie Recommends to place your order. This is a must-have book for anyone who considers themselves a fan of John Woo or Hong Kong Cinema.