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The Director's Chair Issue #33 – Feb/Mar. 2003 (The Visual Style of John Woo)

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February/March, 2003          Scene 4 – Take 2

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1.  Introduction
2.  FREE Bonus for Subscribers
3.  Action-Cut-Print!
4.  Feature Article – Visual Style of John Woo
5.  Back Issues of The Director’s Chair
6.  Share This Ezine
7.  Suggestions & Comments
8.  Subscribe & Unsubscribe Information
9.  Copyright Information


Welcome to Issue #33 of The Director’s Chair (Feb/March, 2003).

1) I have been so busy the last two months that I didn’t have
time to publish the February issue so I am combining February and
March here.

2) This month’s feature is an edited version of the Creative
Style book I compiled on Hong Kong director John Woo. I was
John’s 1st AD on his first TV Movie in 1996, and in 1997 I was
the creative consultant on the TV series, “John Woo’s Once a

The book was not intended to be an in-depth study on the visual
style of John Woo, but rather a Creative Guide to be used in the
production of the TV series, “John Woo’s Once a Thief”.

(NOTE: I took many articles from a variety of sources to create
this Style book and I apologize now for not remembering the
authors or the sources.)

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4. FEATURE ARTICLE – The Visual Style of John Woo

The Visual Style of John Woo

There are few movie moments more violently cool than the shot of
Chow Yun-Fat sauntering through a nightclub wearing a white suit,
dark glasses, and smoking a cigarette; a woman looking sultry by
the piano singing the kind of sentimental song usually associated
with schmaltzy romantic dramas, lots of corny shots of couples in
love, and the whole scene shot in soft reds and yellows.
Suddenly, the slo-mo stops, the music stops and our hero pulls
out his guns and shoots, two handed, a dozen people dead in five
seconds, all without taking off his dark glasses or losing his
unbelievably cool demeanor. Bullets are flying everywhere, blood
leaps out of bodies but the killer emerges unscathed….

John Woo has been called the “Mozart of Mayhem”. His “bullet
ballets”, combine the Hollywood-style gunplay with the balletic
artistry and virtue of Chinese kung fu classics creating a new
type of modernized martial arts film where the occasional
fist fight plays second fiddle to the blazing guns, bullets and
epic explosions.

Just as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s gave a
new shot of life to a dying American genre, so do John Woo’s Hong
Kong gangster films revive a fading American myth through the
stylistic innovation and fresh moral perspective of an outsider.
But where Leone was mournful and cynical, Woo is a delirious
romantic; his movies are male love stories in which the emotional
and erotica charge is carried by extravagant violence. As the
body count rises…so does Woo’s wild exultation, as he whips the
emotions into a range somewhere on the far side of grand opera.


The things that have attracted American audiences about the
fertile mayhem of Hong Kong cinema are the dazzling visuals,
incredible energy, its different sense of humor and inventive
action sequences.

Hong Kong action films specialize in the juxtaposition of corny
romantic melodrama with stylized and hyperbolic violence and draw
strongly upon Chinese literature and legends for story
inspiration. They take American conventions and adapt them, alter
them to suit Chinese mores and fuse them with Asian cultural

The best example of this collision of Eastern culture with the
West is the gangster picture. “The Killer” rings a genuinely
delirious set of changes on American movie themes, careening
between brutality and mawkish sentiment without missing a beat
and daring viewers to laugh.

Aside from any fetishistic or cult value, John Woo picked up the
torch of what makes movies move in the first place from
Hollywood, where deals and technology have replaced the art of
the screen: storytelling through composition, editing, and
dramatic structure. That’s what Hong Kong films are all about,
and why they come alive on the screen.


“I have been influenced from watching earlier European, American
and Japanese films by Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Fellini,
Stanley Kubrick, Scorcese and Sam Pekinpah. There are a lot of
interesting films from the West, and I always like to combine
some things from the East and West in my movies.”(JW)

The main themes of friendship, honor and loyalty are very
prominent in John Woo films, perhaps as prominent as all the
shooting action that goes on. Friends betraying other friends is
perhaps the greatest sin in all the world, and the emotions he
manages to wring out of their strained relationships are
certainly powerful and genuine. His movies are populated by men
trying to maintain their honor while living in a world of
disloyalty, greed, and lust. John’s Chinese gangster pictures are
made in the spirit of the old Chinese tales of brotherhood and
loyalty among swashbuckling wu shu knights. His action movies
also have a strong element of romance, not the love aspect, but
more of chivalry, escapism, adventure and good triumphing over

“I guess I’m pretty traditional. In old Chinese stories, people
sacrifice themselves for friends. They have so much honor and
sense of morality. These are qualities I’ve always admired. I’ve
always believed in friends helping each other, appreciating each
other and caring about each other”.

Typically, Woo’s films deal with the tensions between freedom and
duty, loyalty and authority, and between the individual and the
group. Indeed most of his films explore the kinds of social
relationships available to individuals in difficult times, and
the ways in which ostensibly different people can attain common
goals by forging alliances with each other. Certainly, there is a
sense in which the moral framework of Woo’s films can be rather
simplistic: heroes ultimately succeed or fail depending on the
place they occupy within the larger social framework,
specifically, if the loner-hero is a gangster he will die and if
he is a cop he will probably live.

“I approach the business of film-making as if I were creating a
poem or a painting. I think of how the poem will be written or
the painting painted rather than what techniques to use. It is
not the method that is important but the feeling and imagination
that go into creating a film. How a story is told is vital and so
I make use of specific techniques to create the action sequences
in my movies. Often these are based on how I am feeling at that
moment. My films have a lot of action in them but I don’t treat
them as pure ‘action movies’ – I want my films to be something
more than that. I direct action sequences in the same way that
one would choreograph a musical, with every movement planned. I
consider the violence in my movies to be cartoon-like. I
certainly don’t consider it to be real.”

Woo does not celebrate this violence, but rather he uses it to
represent a nostalgia for a lost code of honor and chivalry that
he sees as necessary for human survival. Woo hates violence, in
spite of the graphic violence in many of his films.

“What I show in my films is that violence can be defeated by
justice. (It takes a strong force to overcome evil!) My heroes
use their self-discipline to combat injustice; my characters obey
a code of honour and loyalty – I want to show that life is
precious. My archetypal hero is a chivalrous one, and this notion
of nobility of the soul can be understood by Asian or Western
cultures. There is more to the human spirit than violence, there
is goodness and loyalty.”

“The Killer”, for example, is aggressively violent and
exhilaratingly passionate.  The proceedings are underscored by a
tragic sense of morality and loyalty that is riddled by bullets
but still manages to climb out of the rubble at the end of the
film. One of John’s stated goals in “The Killer” was to show
that even the most different people can have traits in common.
Even though we are walking a different path, we must all have
something in common.

“I am basically a romantic and a dreamer. I am fond of Chinese
history because there are a lot of famous stories about honor and
loyalty. People don’t seem to realize what honor and loyalty are
anymore. I want to give a moral dimension to my work, to give
hope to people.”


The problem with most action movies is just that – they are all
action and little  else. There’s no character for the audience to
care about. It’s the characters, and the danger they are in, that
ups the ante. Any film must create and sustain compelling
characters in order to work. Without them you end up with a
sequence of events that doesn’t matter because it happens to
people you don’t care about.

John Woo action movies are an updated equivalent of the heroic
sword play movies that had long been a mainstay of
Chinese-language cinema, mixed with elements of Jean-Pierre
Melville’s brooding criminal character studies and Sam
Peckinpah’s male-bonding themes and revolutionary editing style.
John’s action movies are character driven – they are filled with
colorful and strong villains, heroes that are fallible and
characters with extreme appearances and vivid personal

Though blood-soaked, his films are marked by their old-fashioned,
chaste qualities and gallant attitudes toward women. The demands
of friendship and loyalty are his major recurring themes. There
is no explicit sexuality in his work, though critics have noted a
marked homoerotic tension between his heroes and villains.

Unlike in Hollywood features, John’s good guys are just as
ruthless as the bad! These are men who experience platonic
passion for one another through bloody rites of passage (often to
the next life). They are unapologetic modern knights – characters
imbued with audience-pleasing chivalry and spirituality out of
step with the convenient relativism of the modern world – where
the heroic ritual of the duel is more important than the
individual. These central characters are usually very dark and
lonely and die at the end –  they fight for justice, but they
also must pay a price for it.

“To me the gangster films are just like Chinese sword play
pictures. To me Chow Yun-fat holding a gun is just like Wang Yu
holding a sword. All I intend to glorify is the hero. Not
violence, not the Triad societies, just the behavior of the

His best known films, “The Killer”, “Bullet in the Head” and
“Hard Boiled”, are populated by characters struggling with
questions of loyalty and honor. They are punctuated by
elaborately choreographed, violent and over-the-top action

John Woo films often focus on a contrast – the spirit can be
built up only if the body is ripped apart. But the blood spatters
and gun metal are countered by meditations on friendship and
honor that are absolutely sincere. This dichotomy is a
characteristic of Hong Kong movies in general, which are among
the world’s most violent, but often showcase achingly sentimental
Chinese pop songs, or resort to goofy humor for character
development in between frenzied scenes of hand-to-hand combat.
Good will triumph in the end, but a lot of good and innocent
people are getting splattered across the wall in the process.

One of the striking things about John Woo films is that innocent
people. sometimes get gunned down, by mistake, by his heroes.
That’s something that rarely happens in an American film.
Americans expect their heroes to be perfect. But John’s heroes
are fallible. One of the heroes of A Better Tomorrow 2 asks, “Why
is it so difficult for a man to be good?” That seems to be the
question that John is dramatising in many of his films.

John’s violence is not nihilistic. Indeed, critics often talk of
“heroic bloodshed” when referring to his films. Usually, this
refers to the fact that his heroes have to distinguish themselves
by taking on numerous enemies and spilling their blood. But it
also refers to the fact that John’s heroes inevitably must spill
their own blood. These characters don’t persist through all
obstacles because they’ve become numb to the horror. They feel
every bit of it and have the fortitude to act anyway –
particularly to stand up for a friend.

Even at their most stylized and outrageous, John’s films are
driven by overwhelming moral obsessions. Usually motivated by a
sense of personal loyalty and honor in an intolerably compromised
moral environment, his protagonists have a past that will not go
away, a history that is inextricably intertwined with their
current actions. John presents these conflicts with a raw,
unmediated emotion.

“The first thing I think of is the character, the actor and I,
how we feel. Before we start shooting, we talk about the
character. In Hong Kong, I usually write my own script and I know
the actors very well. When I’ve written the script and the actors
do exactly what I write, it’s no fun. After I’ve written the
script it seems I’ve seen the movie already. So when I get to the
set I usually say to the actors, “Okay you’re free. For the
scene, the whole theme is this one line – it’s about your
character, you’re tough. All I need is this line.” Then I’ll ask
the actors, “In your real life, did anything happen to you that
made you feel like the line?” And I’ll let them think. If it’s a
good response, I’ll say, “That’s a great story. Can you put that
feeling into the scene, make up the lines? All I need is the last
line. There’s no way to get that in rehearsals. “When you see
Chow Yun-fat, John Travolta, or Tony Leung, in one of my movies,
you see me. I put my feelings into them. I put myself into these

“I admire the ancient Chinese knights, the loyalty of the samurai
spirit and, in the West, the French Romantics. A true ‘knight’
should be free to come and go as he pleases – he has no need for
recognition from those around him because his actions are the
most important thing. He will often sacrifice everything, even
his life, for justice, loyalty, love and his country and if he
makes a promise to a friend he must keep it. His life is like a
cloud – it could disappear in an instant, and I think this image
of a man’s fragility is beautiful. Even if there is only one
beautiful moment in our life, it is worth living just for that.”


Imagine the scene: a slow motion shot of man with a gun in each
hand, sliding down a stair banister blasting a dozen bad guys
while letting his toothpick hang just so from the side of his

John Woo’s action scenes are loud, enjoyable, cartoon-like romps.
They are masterly designed shoot-outs where people leap across a
room with both barrels blazing. No one ever fires off one
handgun; they always have to have two, one in each hand. Woo
can’t just have the villain attack the hero with a two-by-four;
the two-by-four also has to be on fire!

Conflicts manifest themselves as intricately choreographed gun
battles amidst flying debris, punctuated by exquisite slow-motion
sequences, freeze-frames and Cuisinart editing. He wants to show
the beauty of the action, the beauty of the body movement and the
beauty of the camera movement. The action always seems to be like
a ballet or a dancing sequence. The overall impact has been
described as a “bullet aria.”

As a bold visual stylist, his movies bristle with gunfights of
mythic proportions. Woo uses meticulous choreography to stage
kinetic pyrotechnic scenes with extremely long takes, multiple
angles, frequent use of slow motion and fluid camera movements.

“Before we shoot the scene I tell everybody roughly what we need.
“Okay, for this scene I need about 20 stunt men, five bad guys.
The story’s about Chow Yun-fat and his partner; they’re doing
some undercover stuff in the teahouse. Somehow they have an
ambush and they have a fight from the first floor going down to
the lobby.” That’s it. Most of the action is done by my instinct
while I’m there; everything is all in my mind. When I go to the
set, I put myself into the character. If I’m him, ambushed by 20
guys and there are a lot of people there, what would I do? I shut
down everything and make everybody quiet. Then I do the whole
scene by myself. If I have two guys on my right side and one guy
on my back, I imagine that I shoot the two guys then turn,
spinning in the air to shoot the guy behind me. And I will
imagine those kinds of actions so that it looks more like a
ballet. I want to keep the beauty of the body movement, so I say,
how about adding another guy on the ceiling? So the hero spins in
the air and also shoots the guy above him. That guy falls and
then there’s two more guys in the hallway and I grab another gun
and shoot them. When I shot that scene with the banister, I said,
the two bad guys are shooting like crazy in the lobby, and our
hero slides down the banister and shoots them. I said, I think
it’s going to be fantastic. I go to the stunt coordinator and say
this is the climax of the scene. From this point, let’s figure
out how to build up the emotion and motivation to get here.”

It is Woo’s ability to be tongue-in-cheek that allows us to enjoy
a movie where the hero greases row after row of bad guys – each
corpse seeming to require his own weight in ammunition before he

The art of sound effects and music also help to heighten the
fantastic spirit of the Hong Kong movie’s visual component. Done
well, sound FX help to turn up the heat. A John Woo movie sounds
as exciting as it looks – not to mention the odd moment of
silence before all hell breaks loose!

For example, John sometimes assigns a gunshot sound to each major
character so even if that character is off screen, you know where
they are by the sound of their weapon. John also emphasizes the
sound each weapon makes so that the loading of a gun often makes
as much noise as firing it.

Silence is golden in a John Woo movie. The abrupt silence that he
sometimes inserts is stunning – when someone cocks their gun, it
is the loudest thing in the world!

Hong Kong movies are also known for adding something just before
the actual impact as well. You can hear fluttering robes and
swooshing hands and feet as an actor thrashes through the air on
his way to the target. Because there are lots of fist-fights,
there are always lots of sound FX – when they punch, their arms
and feet sometimes make metallic or other whooshing sounds.

John Woo movies are not just for your visual pleasure – the sound
of a whirlwind of flying bodies and fatal head wounds, backed by
ham-bone strings and harmonica soundtracks makes them truly, an
all-round viewing pleasure!!


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