Art and Experience: Waiting is a recurring theme for fans of John Woo, the Hong Kong-based maestro of “gun-fu” cinema. Some two years after it was first announced, Woo’s “Manhunt” this month gets its world premiere in Venice and its North American bow in Toronto.
These days Woo takes his time, not especially with the screenplay, but with finding the right pacing, angles and originality for the high-speed action that has become one of his trademarks — along with two-fisted gunmen and “bullet time” photography that have been widely copied by filmmakers everywhere.
There was plenty of waiting and a happy coincidence involved in the pre-greenlight stages of “Manhunt.” Hong Kong’s Media Asia studio purchase the adaptation rights to Japanese crime novel “Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare” by Juko Nishimura, which had previously been made as a Japanese-language film by Junya Sato, and Ken Takakura (“Black Rain”) in the starring role.
While the earlier film was the first foreign movie to be released in China after the Cultural Revolution, and was a huge hit, Woo became a fan of Takakura in a later movie. The pair later became close friends and were jointly mourning Kinji Fukasaku when Woo received the call to make “Manhunt” from Media Asia’s boss.
“I’ve always loved and adored Ken Takakura’s films,” says Woo. “His image and his way of acting had a great influence on me when designing characters in my films. For example, Chow Yun-Fat is a half embodiment of Ken Takakura in ‘A Better Tomorrow.’ On learning that Ken passed away, I was very sad. So, I wanted to shoot a movie or remake one of his previous films as a tribute to him. Another reason is that I love the Japanese gang films in the 1960s.”
The material seems perfectly suited for Woo. A lawyer is framed in a murder case and goes on the run. A smart detective tries to track him down, but everywhere smells a set-up and conspiracy.
Interestingly, Woo has kept the Japanese location for the story, but made his protagonist Chinese and portrayed by the usually excellent Zhang Hanyu. The cop remains Japanese, but keeping him sophisticated, sympathetic and suspicious means that he is endowed with character traits more three-dimensional than in most Chinese movies these days.
That should suit a director who, after an initial struggle, relishes East and West influences and has left his mark on both. After working on a succession of slapstick comedies, Woo’s 1980s films took a bloodier turn, returning him to the Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone influences that turned him on as a youth. Starting with “A Better Tomorrow” and continuing with “The Killer,” his streetwise action and gripping style came to define Hong Kong movies at the height of the territory’s golden age.
He enjoyed the early years of his shift to Hollywood, where he made “Face/Off,” “Mission: Impossible 2” and “Windtalkers,” but later struggled under the weight of Hollywood. Woo longed for the Asian way of filmmaking, where the director is the unchallenged king and commercial concerns don’t determine how much is spent on each shot.
The opening up of China’s film industry a few years into the new century allowed Woo to explore territory that was new and yet familiar. His mega two-part Chinese historical epic “Red Cliff” was a triumph; his later two-parter “The Crossing” a catastrophe that stretched the patience of his collaborator Terence Chang.
Between the two epics, Woo co-directed, with Taiwan’s Su Chao-pin, “Reign of Assassins,” which took him back to Venice in 2010. There he collected a lifetime achievement award from then-festival head Marco Mueller, who says it was long overdue.
“Critics and audiences alike have been fascinated by (Woo’s) films that resulted from the perfect union of Chinese tradition and avant-garde filmmaking,” Mueller tells Variety. “Every major action movie he has directed speaks of grace, freedom and ethics. When watching one of his films, you have to forget about judging the film by its script — the mise en scene and the stylized sets will often contradict it and eventually burn it in the fire of his visual poetry.”
He continues: “But John is not interested in just translating a sequence into images or in the mere description of an action: he is a film poet who works on the rhythm and the cadences, searching for the exact syllable on which the accent falls in order to fully render the lyricism and through the lyricism express his character’s moral standpoint.
“In 2010 Quentin Tarantino, Tsui Hark and I presented him with a Golden Lion, but I did not feel like I was bestowing an honor to John: the Golden Lion has been waiting for him since the 1980s.” Patience.