Woo’s Words: A Lexicon for the Cinema of John Woo (1998)
Introduction: This collectively
written text, composed and collated in November 1998, appeared in the French
magazine Positif at the start of 1999
(issue 455). It captures the
snapshot of a specific cultural moment – alas, long past – when John Woo was
considered among the most exciting and crucial filmmakers of contemporary cinema.
It also marks the end of a lively ‘90s period in trans-global critical writing
when popular genres including action cinema were analysed in a highly
formalist, even avant-garde way. (In a certain manner, this moment re-ran
itself, with some different prize auteurs and reference points – but with
seemingly no knowledge of its precedent – in the “Vulgar Auteurism” wave of
2006-2016). Woo’s Words began in late
’98 as a writing project gathered, edited (and, where necessary, translated
into French) by Nicole Brenez. Her open call to friends and colleagues resulted
in many extra entries that, sadly, were never able to be gathered into a book (a
project for which, at the time, I began this translation). (1) Working from the
manuscript as submitted to Positif and several fragmented, data-dump Word files of 22 years ago, I have translated
and assembled a slightly expanded, extended version of what appeared in print
in ’99. Being a lexicon, I have also taken the liberty of rearranging it to
follow the English alphabet.
John Woo films referred to in this lexicon (characters are sometimes named according to their altered designation in English or French subtitled editions):
Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
A Better Tomorrow II (1987)
The Killer (1989)
Bullet in the Head (1990)
Hard Boiled (1992)
Broken Arrow (1996)
John Woo (born 1946) is a plastician who, in the manner of Lucien Bull in the 1900s or Jean Epstein in 1925, invents a new cinégénie of filmic motifs, and introduces sumptuous nuances of speed. Woo is a formalist who, even more than Jean-Luc Godard or Brian De Palma, structures his characters as so many optical problems. Woo is a moralist, able to make even the most reluctant of spectators accept fundamental lessons of loyalty and bravery. (2) Woo is an ethnologist of representations, who assembles all the mythographies of the world – Chinese, Greek, American, Shakespeare, Homer, the Bible, Freud, Life magazine – and puts them in the service of a general investigation into what, at the core, moves these wretched human creatures, capable of such passion. Woo or the eternal spirit of childhood, for whom mise en scène is organised around enchanted pirouettes and spins: here, firing on your enemy is a matter of fun rather than fear, the person who falls to the ground is never truly dead; here, the gifts of self, trust and love are utterly absolute. John Woo, filmmaker.
Woo’s films appear like so many responses to a sole question: how can we get a body to fly? And there are, in turn many solutions envisaged. The body’s own power transforms it into a projectile (the martial arts heritage). Some external motor helps expedite the matter (bullets, explosions, vehicles). A freeze frame can fix it forever in full flight (the final shot of Last Hurrah for Chivalry). Inversely, when a body definitively falls to earth, it is the camera that flies above it, transmuting asphalt into heaven (the memory of Tony’s death in Hard Boiled is evoked by Jean-François Richet in Ma 6-T va crack-er ). The use of raccords volatise the figures (in this, the opening scene of Hard Boiled is emblematic: the properties of birds freed from their cages pass into the body of Tequila, who is delivered little by little from weight until he is transformed into a spectre). But perhaps the most moving solution involves the projection of one body into another: when Tequila in Hard Boiled instinctively reproduces the passage of Tony in the library, even though he doesn’t know him yet, or in The Killer when Inspector Li exactly recreates Jeff’s defensive gesture, we are assured that something, beyond space and time, beyond each individual’s solitude, links these creatures: an aura, a wave, the miracle of movement.
Some look at life
Down the barrel of a gun.
– Arco & Mystik, “The Spinning Chamber”
Hard Boiled: Chow Yun-fat squeezes the trigger of his gun pointed at Tony Leung’s head. Click. It does not fire. Tony lowers his infernal weapon and disappears in the tear gas filled warehouse. Chow examines his revolver: it’s full. He spins its barrel, ejecting bullets in a gesture of rage and spite. But in fact, it’s a relief. The gun was charged, but did not fire. Instead of transmitting death, it communicated a feeling. By not killing the person he thought was his enemy, he has discovered a friend. In Woo, gun barrels are crazy: when they are full, they don’t fire; when they’re empty, they keep on shooting. It is emotion that determines how they work.
Each person in the restaurant at the start of Hard Boiled carries in his arms his eternal soul in a cage, rather in the manner of a cephalophore saint carrying around his own head. But where such a saint triumphs over enemies to the faith, Tequila falls into Limbo. During the massacre, while objects, flesh, feathers fly in the hail of bullets, he desperately searches for a pathway that he cannot find. Tequila, white like a ghost, red like a corpse, discovers only the rigid body of his friend, killed by a hateful bullet destined for his enemy.
The Christian symbol is here twisted by the filmmaker’s pessimism. In The Killer, the trail of doves in a church marks the flight of the Holy Spirit beyond this world where tragic heroes render women blind and explode statues of the Virgin, in a joyous gesture of contempt toward Sulpician pathos. In Hard Boiled, the Chinese and Christian symbols work hand in hand. The cranes, emblems of the longevity of Chinese civilisation, become the trace of each murder committed by Tony, invading his boat cabin, surrounding him with signs of guilt and, ultimately, leading him to his own death. For Woo, the filmmaker of sadness, the forces of life, faith and love are always disappointing.
In Hard Boiled’s opening scene, the teahouse where bird collectors meet becomes the locus for a symphony of explosions. The melodious tunes of the twitterers are replaced by the whistling of bullets, machine gun bursts and various explosions (but always from light weaponry). Handguns are not absent, either: they are hidden within the clothes of those who calmly converse. No spoken word is louder than any other. Everything is on the level of intimate conversation. When the “hard boiled” (as if to evoke the sound of boiling water) cop-criminal action starts, the distinctively soft emanations of larks and robins mask the noises of destruction. A cop flattens a birdcage to access two pistols, violence is played out in the fracas – but none of this this bears any relation to chaos.
The explosions rhythmically organise the scene as much as the image-montage, with its acrobatics and bodies shot in slow motion. The sound of bullets, their whistling and exploding, are amplified, deformed and treated according to their specific resonances. Traditional Chinese opera, with its score of drums and cymbals accompanying the gestures of the performers and the cries of acrobats, is cut-up, filtered and recomposed by Woo here. The blows of gunfire-music cease and the sole surviving cop exhibits his mask-like face. The exclamations have stopped, and now destruction and massacre give way to tears. All is written in the “hard boiled” make-up. The white face (covered with flour), the basic colour of the face in traditional opera, is stained with red in long trails of tears, tearing apart the figure of the person considered unshakeable. Is he an operatic demon, a fallen prince? The music of bullets has recreated the banished hero, white and red, of ancient, traditional Chinese spectacles.
As for Samuel Fuller, Roberto Rossellini and Steven Spielberg, (3) the figure of the child has an absolute value for Woo. The child is an innocent – and evil is never more manifest or horrible as when a child is threatened, murdered or corrupted. The child is fundamentally a symbol of innocence, of everything that is genuine and precious in our world.
At the delirious height of the half-hour of slaughter and mayhem in a hospital at the climax of Hard Boiled, Chow Yun-fat, caught in crossfire, gets a baby in his arms. He is very tender with it; it brings out his feminine side. He sways gently and rocks the child in one arm, while blasting away from his machine gun with his other free hand. To calm the baby, he sings a sweet song about “Little Sammy Saliva” (according, at least, to the English subtitles). When Chow’s leg catches on fire, the child casually, obliviously saves the day by pissing down the benefactor's leg, thus extinguishing the flames. It is among Woo’s greatest scenes, because it mixes up everything in a few seconds: child and adult, violence and domesticity, life and death, humour and suspense, comedy and melodrama. It was this scene that Pedro Almodóvar first wanted to use as a counterpoint to his “primal scene” in Carne tremula (Live Flesh, 1997), before opting for an equally magical and surreal moment of violence from Luis Buñuel’s Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, 1955).
The overall stylistic ensemble beloved of Woo – his visual rhetoric – is based upon the continuous interplay of four devices: 1 - Sweeping camera movements with a wide angle lens (for entries, passages, and establishing shots). 2 - The quick dissolve between shots inside a scene (for lyricism or ellipsis). 3 - Slow motion (see entry). 4 - The “freeze”.
Woo regularly uses freeze frames within scenes (for instance, Chow and Leung’s first meeting in Hard Boiled, 1992) and at the end of scenes (often coupled with a screen wipe). Woo freezes in this way the emblematic and definitive gestures and postures of his characters, as well as drawing out the suspense and tension at high points of action.
But freezing is also an integral and intricate part of the fight choreography in a Woo film: the instant someone hits the ground after a protracted, slow motion leap, they are ready to start firing. (Where people and objects land is of paramount importance in Woo: look at the helicopter blades landing between Samantha Mathis’ legs in Broken Arrow . Villains sometimes do not land at all: they die in motion, on their bikes, as they fly off-screen). In the TV movie Blackjack, Dolph Lundgren takes aim in the split-second of stillness that bouncing on a trampoline gives him in mid-air. Freezing gives power but also makes one vulnerable: in Blackjack again, an assassin takes aim at supermodels the moment they dramatically freeze before turning at the end of the catwalk.
Slow motion allows a Woo scene to breathe: that is why, at times, he slows down nothing in particular – simply a door closing or a pause between words or actions. It is a use of slowness that makes everyday rhythms suddenly strange and unfamiliar.
They haunt most Woo films, and generally take the leading roles. Tony in Hard Boiled participates in an enigmatic variation on the theme of the Flying Dutchman; Jeff in The Killer dematerialises in the white curtains of an emergency ward. They are ungraspable apparitions, always at the threshold of invisibility. Sometimes, they are really phantoms, like Ken (Chow Yun-fat) in A Better Tomorrow II, who seeks revenge for his dead twin brother from A Better Tomorrow I (also Chow Yun-fat), or like Ben in A Bullet in the Head, surging from Paul’s Vietnamese past.
Olivier Bohler & Raphaël Millet
The spiritual dimension of martial arts is most clearly evident in certain secondary characters, the samurai-mercenaries who work for criminal organisations. For instance, the one-eyed man in Hard Boiled, or the killer with dark glasses in A Better Tomorrow II (1987): because they are pure warriors, they manifest the martial ethic in its purity – total loyalty and the protection of the weak, the latter law prevailing over the former when we consider the admirable figure of the one-eyed Angel rebelling against his boss because of the cruelty exacted on the victims.
The instrument for such an art of becoming-being is the body: it’s the art of seeing well, of preparing one’s body for the suddenness of any situation; it’s Chow Yun-fat’s total field of vision as Tequila when he enters the hospital for the first time in Hard Boiled. The act is performed with such precision that it transcends the initial intention and ends up becoming a pure gesture. The way in which Tequila manages to open the morgue door with an un-aimed bullet constitutes a sublime demonstration of this art of living (and dying).
As traumatised heroes, Woo’s central characters, like those of Jean-Pierre Melville, are involved in an intense relationship to the past. They incarnate a type of man who is in the process of disappearing; they are never manage to project themselves into any future, and rightly so, since death is all that awaits them. From the greyish blue of Melville’s final films which gives them their strange tint somewhere between old-fashioned black-and-white and the total coldness of modernity, John Woo draws a deeper, perhaps even more glacial shade of blue: a result of the reflections all the night-rides around Hong Kong and the steel gleams of firearms. A blue that dwells within the deepest recesses of these heroes.
Olivier Bohler & Raphaël Millet
To kill a crook during fairground festivities, Jeff the professional Killer blacks himself up, hides, and deploys a gun the visor of which puts in the centre of the image, in subjective shots, the encircled target surrounded by black. Superimposed on the image of the target inside the visor’s iris is a graded diagram, thereby turning the victim into the object of a strictly quantitative operation, and the success of the project into game of the cleanness and precision of the look. The core of killing becomes the look: Jeff’s target paints the eyes of a dragon statue red, then an eye located on the forehead; it’s as if he’s painting his own wound, since Jeff’s bullet seeks the exact same path, thus modernising the motif of the mortal third eye.
If Jeff is the figure of cleanness, Jenny is the figure of blur. The clearness of sight, which she loses as a result of the opening gunfight when Jeff fires a shot too close to her eyes, becomes the narrative and plastic core of the film: every trial that Jeff undergoes are for the sake of obtaining an implanted pair of corneas for Jenny, to give her back her sight and take her from blurred to clear vision. The money lost, Jeff himself promises his battle companion that he will donate his own eyes to the woman he loves.
But blur does not constitute a simple degradation of the optical. In the shots of Jenny’s subjective vision, this blur serves, on the one hand, as a laboratory for plastic abstraction and, on the other hand, as a way to optically reveal the figure of Jeff as the bearer of qualities that might at first seem contradictory: pitiless killer and elegiac lover. Reworked in the scene by this subjective vision, dressed in a white costume and/with black balaclava, his face and body are rendered anonymous, all possibilities open. Above all, the blurred view allows Jenny to confuse killer and cop, thus revealing their essential, unified identity, which is far stronger than the incidental opposition cop-versus-hired-killer. Jenny perceives, however defectively, the precise, analogical image of the reality; but she alone perceives the optical truth of the Killer.
Defective vision also ends up affecting Jeff in the course of the final battle, thus bringing to an end his cornea-exchange project: his death will be useless for Jenny’s eyes. The two lovers one half blind, the other with burning eyes, crawl on the ground and grope vainly, moving right past each other before Jeff dies. Without sight, a life of the emotions is impossible.
Peckinpah versus Woo (4)
Choreographic. That word returns often to describe the treatment of violence in Sam Peckinpah and in John Woo, and to compare the work of these two filmmakers. Consequence: Woo becomes the newer, approved, sanctioned version of Peckinpah. It happens almost automatically: the work of a new director is reduced into renewing that of an older director (Hou Hsiao-hsien as the reincarnation of Ozu, Kiarostami as the spiritual son of Rossellini, Cassavetes as the American Renoir). In a word, progress – which, as Philippe Garrel once said, has no place in art. This is how the argument works: in the transition from “classical” to “modern”, a certain subtlety is lost, and a more superficial excitement, proper to our corrupt, flawed modernity, is imposed in its place. This superficial excitement, whose existence is proved in the comparison to the work of those older directors, this quality that satisfies our most infantile desires, has been isolated and exponentially augmented to the point of maximum frisson, thanks to the advanced technology young filmmakers today use – filmmakers who, at the heart of the process, have abandoned the less tangible but more refined qualities that may reside under the surface. So this is the sole ravishment possible in our modern condition: we get more of what we need least, and we lose the path that – as we may come to understand – we should have guarded most preciously. Of course, it’s all a myth. Above all since Hollywood’s transformation of Woo, it’s easy to see how exactly how his Hong Kong films are a long way from Peckinpah. It goes without saying that Woo admires Peckinpah, and it’s clear that he knows the films very well. But the differences here are much more striking and interesting than the similarities.
Peckinpah was an intellectual who aspired to give a novelistic air to his work. HK-era Woo is a melodramatist who happily stays within the cocoon of pulp fiction (apart from the ambitious Bullet in the Head). Peckinpah was elegiac. Woo is a romantic vitalist. Peckinpah was obsessed with betrayal and the ultimate emptiness of grand gestures, while Woo is obsessed with friendship and the ultimate worth of grand gestures. Peckinpah depicted an agonising world – the American West at the turn of the 20th century – in an ostensibly realist fashion, where the codes of honour were systematically destroyed by rampant venality; where Woo depicts the reconquest of American order at the turn of another century, in the midst of extreme chaos, in a mythological world purely of his own invention. The cinema of Peckinpah was a cinema of exhaustion, rumination and bitter resignation in the face of time; Woo’s is a cinema of ardent exchanges and gestures, capable of revitalising and retransmitting love and honour.
In their respective depictions of violence, supposedly their main point of resemblance, Peckinpah and Woo are worlds apart. In Peckinpah, there is always a principle of tension, a rancid calmness that finds its sorry catharsis in a bloodbath that draws its ironic beauty from the use of slow motion. There’s tension also in Woo, but it is generated by noble questions: will the heroes find the moral courage necessary to accomplish their goal? There’s no irony in Woo, only heroic beauty. Even their respective uses of slow motion are quite different. To the extent that Woo has invented his own universe, his cinema is fundamentally abstract; it shapes action as an event of pure beauty, just as well constructed and modulated as a great Beach Boys song – essentially, his slow motion has the same kind of enhancing effect as the echo in “Good Vibrations”. In Peckinpah, the only finality is death, poetically (and often serially) linked to the experience of agony, in a sad relation to passing time. During his action sequences, space is ceaselessly doubled, reworked through framing, reframing and lens-change strategies, to the extent that it becomes elastic. While in Woo, space remains entirely coherent and consistent; it’s time that becomes elastic, in the course of this effort tends to lead heroic gestures toward their heroic conclusion. There’s no death in Hong Kong era Woo; only the combat of purity against impurity. Death has no meaning, for instance at the highpoint of one of his most striking works, Last Hurrah for Chivalry. While in Peckinpah, there is nothing but death.
Lastly, let’s consider the disparity between the personalities of Woo and Peckinpah. Woo is a well-trained employee whose artistic bent has been allowed to flourish within the Hong Kong studios, similar to the case of Vincente Minnelli at MGM. Peckinpah, according to every witness, was a terrifying person, who nursed a conflicted relation with Hollywood from the word go. Woo, according to all accounts, is an extremely nice, God-fearing guy, while Peckinpah drowned any vestige of respect or belief in the massive quantities of drugs and alcohol he consumed during his lifetime. Sam Peckinpah destroyed himself. While Woo, alas, has allowed his submissive spirit and good manners to destroy him as a filmmaker.
Tragic rage is a state of frenzy, a delirium accompanied by the unleashing of violent acts that are can be considered transports, and are often attributed to sacred inspirations. In Woo, rage is the manifestation of the threshold beyond which a fight to the death must take place.
Rage is the recurrent, paroxysmic state of Woo’s central characters. Whatever side they’re on, the important thing is to get the characters to the limit-point of physical psychical exasperation that allows them to discharge their rage and their bullets. The moment of this crossing-over triggers a particularly shocking intensity. Such is the cry of Inspector Li in The Killer when, at last, he lines up alongside Jeff, the killer who has become his friend. In A Better Tomorrow, we have the cry of Sung, dropping his dead friend from his arms in order to hurl himself against the traitorous Shing, about to attack him. In Bullet in the Head, it’s rage that disfigures Paul, defending his gold against his friends in a disastrous manner, at the moment of Sally’s death. And in Hard Boiled, it’s the hatred of the one-eyed killer directed at those he considers traitors without honour: undercover cops like Tony, or Mafia bosses like Johnny Wong.
Only the grandest Woo heroes escape these righteous drives with their combustible mix of Shaolin Warrior and Shakespearean madness. Quite the contrary, these heroes are able to channel the energy necessary for combat into a manageable loss of self. That’s the case for undercover cop Tony in his mysterious melancholia of the solitary traveller; for killer Jeff in the elegant solitude of his impossible love; and for cop-musician Tequila in the mocking seduction of his smiling despair.
Fury is force of warriors and traitors, of those who defend or lose a cause. Beyond them wander those who, moved by improbable chimera, question the legitimacy of this plenitude for which rage is the symptom.
Woo is a discreet and rather chaste, even shy director. In The Replacement Killers (which he executive-produced), Chow Yun-fat (like Jackie Chan) is gallant to the point of monk-like chastity. Even Mira Sorvino as a generic Hollywood Bad Girl cannot coax the merest kiss from him. Sex (when it occurs in the story) is usually off-screen, or over before the scene begins. Sublimation rules: eroticism between men is defused into the grandeur of intense friendship and betrayal (as in Sergio Leone); while eroticism between man and woman is displaced into unusual gestures and rituals.
Apart from one fetishistic flash of Meg/Sorvino changing clothes, and an obligatory, HK-style touch of ritual sado-masochism (when Chow cracks Sorvino’s leg bones back into alignment), The Replacement Killers is surprisingly devoid of any erotic or romantic spark between its lead players. Such coyness is standard in popular Chinese cinema, but it punches an odd hole in the centre of a Hollywood spectacular.
“Physical therapy” is, in fact, the key site of eroticism for Woo: the closest thing he has ever come to a typically “hot” sex scene is in Blackjack, where Lundgren as bodyguard “finds the centre” (in a homeopathic sense) of the woman (Kate Vernon) in his care, and “realigns” her spine in a swift movement of the hands, leading her to unutterable pleasure – an ecstasy that Woo records from several angles, and in slow motion.
On the other hand, Woo's villains – particularly in his Hollywood films – are increasingly invested with a deliciously evil and perverse sexual aura (another displacement, perhaps). Travolta in Broken Arrow derives a kinky rush from death and destruction – and invites a grand, auto-erotic death from the missile launched by Christian Slater. Face/Off marks (so far) the height of this tendency: Nicolas Cage in the opening scene, disguised as a priest after planting his bomb, dancing and crying out the refrain from “The Hallelujah Chorus” as he clandestinely feels up the knickers of pretty choirgirls. And subsequently Cage takes the role common to many American intimacy thrillers (like Scorsese’s Cape Fear, 1991) but new in Woo: once he bears the “face of the other” (Travolta’s), he perversely, vengefully sleeps with the wife of the hero that he replaces, and plays with the idea of also seducing the guy’s teenage daughter.
Slow Motion (I)
Like Sam Peckinpah, Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Weir, Woo is among the cinema’s great artists of slow motion. Slowness is not just an occasional counterpoint to the normal, given speed of life in a Woo film; rather, it becomes the basic, most essential element. These effects of slowness are extraordinarily varied in his work, both technically and aesthetically. There is normal slow motion (for gestures) and super slow motion (for explosions); there is fluid slow motion achieved in the camera during filming (for motions of love and gracefulness) and ghostly, blurred, halting slow motion achieved via the reprinting of frames (for moments of solitary reflectiveness or melancholy farewells – Wong Kar-wai surely learnt a few tricks from Woo here).
Subtle and deceptive to the eye is the way in which Woo makes his actors sometimes simply move slowly, even when the shot speed is normal. At those moments, the technical means are not easily discerned – which is doubtless Woo’s intention. It is not always easy to tell where when a specific type or technique of slow motion actually begins or ends.
Some actions (such as leaps in the air) are rendered entirely in slow motion and cut into a number of different shots; while otherwise normal shots are invaded by just a second or two of slowness. The overall effect of plasticity – the sense that a scene (especially an action scene) is accelerating and decelerating according to a chosen mood and rhythm – is clearly the most important thing for Woo: hence all the split-second, rapid alternations between slow, normal and fast motion.
Slow Motion (II)
Slow motion, or the duty of showing.
Slow motion in Woo might also be an ethical affair. (5) This device, so worn out by its decorative abuse, finds in Woo uses that grant it a revitalising justness. Almost always, we could designate it, paradoxically, as the shortest, most economical way of showing an event; it’s first virtue, therefore, is its usefulness in an ethics of seeing well. Its second virtue is the spirit of investigation that animates it use. And its third virtue is the intensity it produces.
It is a matter, first, of seeing justly, and seeing all, in an intensive deployment of the instant, a mode that normal speed and editing codes do not allow. A question of respect, which covers a great deal: killer, target, stricken victim, wounded friend, circuits of love, circulations of desire, trajectories of bullets. A richness and complexity for which only slow motion can fully account.
On another hand, if action in Woo is not pretext but text, a vital question concerning the dynamic of living, it cannot be seriously approached without this methodical exploration via a form of deceleration that touches the deepest roots of movement, “hesitating on the border of the inorganic and the organic, the living and the inanimate” (Jean Epstein). Exploratory slow motion thus shows, beyond its simple decomposition of movement, the crucial stages of a vital dynamic.
Finally, contrary to the classic uses of slow motion that turn it into the symptom of a loss in narrative energy via its mortifying power, Woo transfigures slow motion into an accumulator of intensity. He thereby resolves one of the most burning problems of the visual arts, that of the particular instant, or the “most pregnant moment”. Between the banal continuum of ordinary un-seeing and the cut that fixes the look, slow motion magnifies an acting, deploying its intensity in a glorious curve: intensity achieves a shine longer than the sole instant of its duration. And what’s most curious is that it sometimes lodges, right where we would not have seen it without slow motion, in a particular instant transfigured.
Woo uses all the elements of film sound – music, voice, noise and silence – with equal care and alacrity. Like Leone, he is sparring with music: as in the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Hard Boiled holds off the first note of its score for about nine minutes. So-called silence – the moments when words are suspended, when a humming of machines or nature throbs very quietly underneath the scene – punctuates the clinches between characters, married to a sudden stillness of actors and the freeze frame effect. To accompany large gestures – particularly the walking and striding, the exiting of cars or entering of buildings – Woo is extremely fond of every variation of the whoosh noise, keyed to everything from tablets dissolving in a drinking glass (the first shots of Hard Boiled) to the wind billowing a long coat (Cage in Face/Off).
Musically, Woo’s preferences run to, in his HK films, exaggeratedly metrical synthesized pop or a mode of musique concrète that chimes in with the urban, industrial settings; in his Hollywood films, lush orchestral scores with allusions to the eccentric instrumental combos of Ennio Morricone (twanging guitars against symphonic strings); and, in his Canadian telemovies, sometimes nostalgic modes of popular dance music (from Latin American to disco). Hard Boiled records, in a trait given to Chow’s role, Woo's fondness for cool, sophisticated jazz.
In the relation of sound to image, two special things must be noted. First, no matter how plastic a sequence of images becomes (see Slow Motion and Freeze entries) in its speed and duration, the accompanying sound always remains nominally realistic (i.e., subtly extended so as to cover the unreal apparition of words uttered in a drawl or objects destroyed in a gentle, drawn-out apocalypse). Second, Woo derives some of his most powerful effects from the superimposing of a cheery, even banal song – the nursery rhyme in Hard Boiled, “Over the Rainbow” on a Walkman in Face/Off – over the most ghastly violence, death and devastation. This is a version of what Michel Chion calls the anempathetic approach to sound: no matter what happens in the world of the image, the music or noise just keeps chirping away, filling the void and marking the beat – and, in pretending to reassure us in this way, it in fact just doubles the horror and tragedy of the event.
A Better Tomorrow II is a luminous film noir that transforms our gaze as we watch it. What it produces is not underlined; we see it, but it’s infra-visible, dazzling or hidden. All the way to the bullet trajectories (most particularly the “shining bullet” that mortally wounds Kit). But, beyond the work of camera and montage, there are the extra-lucid or blind POVs of characters who appear in the filigree of the film. As if all the faces of a dice were readable at the same moment, yet the appearance of the sixth face gives a supernatural, contemplative dimension to the film, a slight de-phasing in relation to the action. This amplification of vision proceeds through the actor-agent, who becomes a wolf-actor-agent. In fact, he can act upon the film or submit to it depending on whether he “has” the gaze or is stripped of it. Ken has the power to precipitate the action in a sequence where his apartment is raided by silent killers out to catch him by surprise. He is in the process of tending to his weapons, apparently unaware of the killers’ presence, when suddenly he pierces an aggressor’s body through the closed entrance door. In the space of an instant, the spectator no longer no longer has exclusive omniscience. Another option: the actor exhibits his regret at having seen too much, as Kit does when he observes, through the zoom lens of a still camera, the villa of the forgers. His camera-eye is inexplicably drawn toward the starry sky, where a shooting star passes by – perceived as a bad omen. Such an irony, this man who can spot the smallest detail with a wolf’s eye – and has the whole universe presented to him.
The film reserves its most complex fate for the character of Johnny Lung – the one everyone is fighting over. He’s completely blind, due to the scuffle in which a white-gloved killer tried to eliminate the Godfather, while Johnny tried to disarm his associate. He thinks he has been shot, and can’t believe his eyes when another guy collapses in front of him without even a shot fired. Later, he will reclaim this view by evoking, in the entranceway of a dark hangar, his dead daughter, Peppy. Later he re-finds his lucidity when Ken is wounded, and unearths exceptional powers of vision in order to fight off four men in a car headed straight for him.
All these options add to the design of the characters a kind of halo, a free zone in which the possibilities of power and submission are decided – and an irrational aspect that allows us to replace the question “what’s there to see in this film?” with “how do we see the film?”. To see an actor who himself sees, in opposition to classical cinematic conventions, allows us to regard the film otherwise, and to attach ourselves to the poetic nature of actor-agents.
2. Stephen Teo: “A major part of Woo’s success lay in his re-examination of the Chinese concept of yi, usually expounded in martial arts novels, comics and films. Western audiences may recognise the term from its deployment in Japanese Yakuza pictures, where it functions as giri, translated as ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’. Giri stems from the Chinese Word yi, signifying justice or righteousness. As in Chinese wuxia or gangster films, the Japanese counterparts expounded on yi as an unwritten code originating from the practice of knight-errantry in China. Yi postulates a system of brotherhood, honour and justice binding all who opérate within a (class- and caste-defined) fraternity, whether criminal or otherwise. More specifically, individual characters talk of yiqi (literally, “breath of yi”) as a system of personal loyalty. Anyone who transgresses is considered to without yiqi and thus a traitor to yi.” From Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: BFI, 1997), pp. 175-176. [This quotation from Teo’s important book, untranslated then as now in France, was originally conceived as a separate entry on “Yi” for the Woo’s Words book, but became a footnote in the Positif version.] back
3. In the French translation of this entry as it appears in Positif, Spielberg has been omitted from the sentence! back
4. Jones’ complete entry, as offered to the Woo’s Words project, is almost twice as long as the version printed in Positif. I have here retranslated it fully from the French rendition found in the project’s documentation. back
5. The allusion here is to the famous Jean-Luc Godard 1959 statement (in relation to Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour) translatable as “tracking shots are a moral affair” – itself already a switch-around of Luc Moullet’s earlier pronouncement (in relation to Samuel Fuller) that “morality is a matter of tracking shots”. back
English version © Adrian Martin December 1998 / October 2020; original texts © the authors 1998