A Conversation With Director John Woo
Even viewers who generally dislike violent films have found John Woo's work immensely engaging. Woo, along with Jackie Chan and actor Chow Yun-Fat, are practically synonymous with Hong Kong gangster movies, which have steadily gained popularity in the States for the past eight years. His most recent release is Face/Off with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. It was number one at the box office when we went to press.I met Woo last spring, before the release of Face/Off. Because his English is somewhat rough, Woo's answers at times seemed blunt, yet he put a great deal of consideration into what he said and was eager to talk about a variety of topics.You've clearly been influenced by '40s Hollywood melodramas, and melodrama is a key component of your style. To you, are melodramatic moments corny and silly, very serious, or both?Oh, it's serious. I think the emotional things that people feel should be shown-why not? It's important. Whenever I try to design something, in the U.S., they always say to me, "It's too corny." And I don't know why. In Hollywood, they never want to have tears from heroes. What's corny about that? I always like the kind of movies that express what the characters feelÉ I don't know why movies nowadays seem to hold back. And because of that, movies are getting simpler and simpler. I've been talking to a lot of people lately, kind of like a survey, and actually what's happening is that people miss the great old movies. The old melodramas?Yes. Movies nowadays lack heart and tears. Studios don't want to take the risk. Maybe you can help change that.Yeah.How do Hong Kong and U.S. audiences differ in their response to melodrama? Asian audiences are more sentimental. They like more emotional movies. We have a history of disaster in Asia. People there in many countries-especially Korea-have seen a lot of suffering. So they respond to that in cinema.I'd like to ask you about your film The Killer. The main character in the movie seems so lonely. Even though at the beginning he falls in love, he still seems alone. Is that true of that character, in your opinion?That is very true! The Killer is like my real-life self. He feels lonely-that's like me. I'm like that. Even though I have a great family and friends, I feel lonely. Even when I'm shooting a film-I set up the shot, and when they're filming it, I step aside and watch, and I feel lonely.In what way?When we were shooting The Killer, the crew really didn't know what I had in mind. They thought it was going to be similar to A Better Tomorrow. They didn't know what was going on when I set up the shots and the lights, and they didn't really understand that I was making a very romantic film, not until it was all over. You know, the whole concept for The Killer is taken from Melville's Le Samurai. My crew is always very young people, and when I talk to them about Melville and French film, they don't appreciate it. In that way, I feel lonely.Do you think that loneliness is part of human nature? In other words, do you think everyone is lonely?There are people who are not lonely. I know people who aren't. In the characters in The Killer and other films, the most fulfilling thing they can do is to do something good for a friend.Is this what's most fulfilling to you personally?I must say that when I started in the film business 20 years ago, I did help a lot of other filmmakers, and when I was down, my friend Tsui Hark helped me so I could make A Better Tomorrow. So I do really appreciate the value of friendship.Which do you think is better or more important: friendship or romance?I think they're about equal.My mother told me that family is always more important than friends. Do you think she was right?Well, I think family and friends are equal in importance.The tearoom scene in The Killer is very beautiful. There's so much onscreen, birds and pieces of paper flying aroundÉ you don't like simple scenes with just a few spare visual components, do you?I like more complex scenes.What's one of the most beautiful scenes you've filmed, in your opinion?Well, it's hard to thinkÉ. In the church, in the fighting scene in The Killer. That was beautiful, with all the candles. I think I did a pretty good montage too, when the hero gets shot, and then I cut to a shot when he's flying over the candles. And the opening scene of Bullet in the Head-I like that.What other kinds of things do you think are beautiful?The other beautiful thing about people is children. I'm so amazed how some people spend their lifetime helping homeless children, for example. And people like journalists who risk their lives to do their work. That bravery is beautiful. Just like some people who try very hard to work against gangsters. Hopefully I'll find a story to be able to show that bravery.Though it's not your style, do you like or appreciate films that are chiefly composed of talk? If not, why not?I don't really like that. I used to like very short dialogue. But I like it longer than that now. But too much dialogue steals from the performance.How?Movies are about sight and sound. I'm a visual storyteller. And performance in movies is not about speaking, it's about the feeling that comes across from the actors, from their eyes.You've said in other interviews that you like to envision a better world, one without violence and hate. Do you think that is realistically possible, or do you think those things are part of human nature?Well, I don't think it could be changed, but I never give up hope. As a Protestant, I am strongly influenced by Christian beliefs about love, sin, redemptionÉ my characters have a code of honor and loyalty. And life is so precious, and I want to show this. I think it is human nature to be violent, but I have hope that things will be better. I think the world is going to be better.