John Woo

John Woo
John Woo

John Woo attending the 2005 Cannes Film Festival
Chinese name 吳宇森 (Traditional)
Chinese name 吴宇森 (Simplified)
Pinyin Wú Yǔsēn (Mandarin)
Jyutping Ng4 Jyu5 Sam1 (Cantonese)
Origin Hong Kong
Born 1 May 1946 (1946-05-01) (age 65)
Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China
Occupation Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Editor
Spouse(s) Annie Woo
John Woo
Traditional Chinese 吳宇森
Simplified Chinese 吴宇森

John Woo Yu-Sen SBS (born 1 May 1946) is a Hong Kong-based film director and producer.[1] Recognized for his stylised films of highly choreographed action sequences, Mexican standoffs, and use of slow-motion,[2] Woo has directed several notable Hong Kong action films, among them, A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Hard Boiled and Red Cliff.[2] His Hollywood films include Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2.[2] He also created the comic series Seven Brothers, published by Virgin Comics. Woo was described by Dave Kehr in The Observer in 2002 as "arguably the most influential director making movies today".[3] Woo cites his three favorite films as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï.[2]


Early life

Woo was born amidst the chaos of the Chinese Civil War in 1946. The Christian Woo family, faced with persecution during Mao Zedong's early anti-bourgeois purges after the communist revolution in China, fled to Hong Kong when he was five.[4][5] Impoverished, the Woo family lived in the slums at Shek Kip Mei. His father was a teacher, though rendered unable to work by tuberculosis, and his mother was a manual laborer on construction sites.[6] The family was rendered homeless by the big Shek Kip Mei fire of 1953.[5] Charitable donations from disaster relief efforts enabled the family to relocate, however, violent crime had by then become commonplace in Hong Kong housing projects.

At age three he was diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Following surgery on his spine, he was unable to walk correctly until eight years old, and as a result his right leg is shorter than his left leg.[7] Woo went to Concordia Lutheran School and received a Christian education[citation needed] (his Christian background shows influences in his films[8]). As a young boy, Woo had wanted to be a Christian minister. He later found a passion for movies influenced by the French New Wave especially Jean-Pierre Melville.[2] Woo has said he was shy and had difficulty speaking, but found making movies a way to explore his feelings and thinking and would "use movies as a language".[2]

The local cinema would prove a haven of retreat. Woo found respite in musical films, such as The Wizard of Oz and American Westerns. He has stated the final scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made a particular impression on him in his youth: the device of two comrades, each of whom fire pistols from each hand, is a recurrent spectacle later found in his own work.

Woo married Annie Woo Ngau Chun-lung in 1976 and has three children.[5] He has lived in the United States since 1993.

Hong Kong career

In 1969, aged 23, Woo was hired as a script supervisor at Cathay Studios. In 1971, he became an assistant director at Shaw Studios, where he was mentored by the noted director Chang Cheh.[citation needed] His directorial debut in 1974 was the feature film The Young Dragons (鐵漢柔情, Tiě hàn róu qíng). In the Kung fu action genre, it was choreographed by Jackie Chan and featured dynamic camera-work and elaborate action scenes. The film was picked up by Golden Harvest Studio where he went on to direct more martial arts films. He later had success as a comedy director with Money Crazy (發錢寒, Fā qián hàn) (1977), starring Hong Kong comedian Ricky Hui.

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Woo experienced professional burnout. Several of his films were commercial disappointments. In response, he took residence in Taiwan.[citation needed] It was during this period of self-imposed exile that director/producer Tsui Hark provided the funding for Woo to film a longtime pet project called A Better Tomorrow (1986).

The story of two brothers—one a law enforcement officer, the other a criminal—the film became a financial blockbuster. A Better Tomorrow gained prominence as a defining achievement in Hong Kong action cinema[9][citation needed] for its combination of emotional drama, slow-motion gunplay, gritty atmospherics, and trenchcoat-and-sunglasses fashion appeal. Its signature narrative device of two-handed, two-gunned fire fight within confined quarters—often referred to as "gun fu"—would later inspire American filmmakers such as Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski brothers.[citation needed]

Woo would make several more Heroic Bloodshed films in the late 1980s and early 1990s, also with leading man Chow Yun-Fat. These violent gangster thrillers typically focus on men bound by honor and loyalty, at odds with contemporary values of impermanence and expediency. The protagonists of these films, therefore, may be said to present a common lineage with the Chinese literary tradition of loyalty among generals depicted in classics such as "Romance of the Three Kingdoms".

Mr. Woo gained international recognition with the release of The Killer (1989)[citation needed]. Widely praised by critics and audiences for its action sequences, acting and cinematography,[citation needed] The Killer became the most successful Hong Kong film in American release since Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon (1973) and garnered Mr. Woo an American cult following. Bullet in the Head followed a year later, which Mr. Woo has stated he still considers his most personal work.[citation needed] Bullet in the Head did not meet financial expectations.

Among the director's American admirers are Martin Scorsese and Sam Raimi (who has compared Woo's mastery of action to Hitchcock's mastery of suspense).[citation needed] Mr. Woo accepted a contract to work in America at a time when the 1997 handover of Hong Kong was imminent.[citation needed]

His last Hong Kong film before emigrating to the United States was Hard Boiled (1992), the antithesis of his earlier glorification of gangsters. Memorable among its preponderance of action scenes is an approximate 30 minute sequence of gun-play set within a hospital. The director pointedly depicts the vulnerability of patients caught in the crossfire. One particular long take follows two characters for an elapsed time of 2 minutes and 42 seconds as they move between hospital floors. On the Criterion DVD and laserdisc, this chapter is referenced as "2 minutes, 42 seconds." The film climax extols the virtues of its leading man, a law enforcement agent, Chow Yun-Fat, who is seen to comfort an infant with a lullaby while engaged in fire fight with his criminal pursuers. He heroically takes leave of this carnage when he leaps to safety from a window, babe gallantly in arms.

John Woo: Interviews (ISBN 1-57806-776-6) is the first authoritative English-language chronicle of Woo’s career.[citation needed] The volume includes a new 36-page interview with Woo by editor Robert K. Elder, which documents the years 1968 to 1990, from Woo’s early career in working on comedies and kung fu films (in which he gave Jackie Chan one of his first major film roles), to his gunpowder morality plays in Hong Kong.

American career

An émigré in 1993, the director experienced difficulty in cultural adjustment while contracted with Universal Studios to direct Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target. As characteristics of other foreign national film directors confronted the Hollywood environment, Mr. Woo was unaccustomed to pervasive management concerns, such as limitations on violence and completion schedules. When initial cuts failed to yield an "R" rated film, the studio assumed control of the project and edited footage to produce a cut "suitable for American audiences". A "rough cut" of the film, supposedly the original unrated version, is still circulated among his admirers.

A three year hiatus saw Mr. Woo next direct John Travolta and Christian Slater in Broken Arrow. A frenetic chase-themed film, the director once again found himself hampered by studio management and editorial concerns. Despite a larger budget than his previous Hard Target, the final feature lacked the trademark Woo style. Public reception saw modest financial success.

Reluctant to pursue projects which would necessarily entail front-office controls, the director cautiously rejected the script for Face/Off several times until it was rewritten to suit him. (The futuristic setting was changed to a contemporary one.) Paramount Pictures also offered the director significantly more freedom to exercise his speciality: emotional characterisation and elaborate action. A complex story of adversaries—each of whom surgically alters their identity—law enforcement agent John Travolta and terrorist Nicolas Cage play a cat-and-mouse game, trapped in each other's outward appearance.

Face/Off opened in 1997 to critical acclaim and strong attendance. Grosses in the United States exceeded $100 million. As a result, John Woo is generally regarded as the first Asian director to find a mainstream commercial base.[citation needed] In 2003, Mr. Woo directed a television pilot entitled The Robinsons: Lost in Space for The WB Television Network, based on the 1960s television series Lost in Space. The pilot was not purchased, although bootleg copies have been made available by fans.

John Woo has made three additional films in Hollywood: Mission: Impossible II, Windtalkers and Paycheck. Mission: Impossible II was the highest-grossing film of 2000, but received mixed reviews. Windtalkers and Paycheck fared poorly at the box office and were summarily dismissed by critics.

Recently, John Woo directed and produced a videogame called Stranglehold for games consoles and PC. It is a sequel to his 1992 film, Hard Boiled. He also produced the 2007 anime movie, Appleseed: Ex Machina, the sequel to Shinji Aramaki's 2004 film Appleseed.

Return to Hong Kong

In 2008, Woo returned to Asian cinema with the completion of the epic war film Red Cliff, based on an historical battle from Records of Three Kingdoms. Produced on a grand scale, it is his first film in China since he emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States in 1993. Part 1 of the film was released throughout Asia in July, 2008, to generally favourable reviews and strong attendance. Part 2 was released in China in January, 2009.

John Woo was presented with a Golden Lion award for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 2010.[10]

Future film projects

His future film on Mighty Mouse will either be animated or live-action with CGI.[citation needed] He will also direct a remake of Papillon.[citation needed] There are persistent rumours that Woo will direct a film version of the videogame Metroid.[citation needed] He had optioned the rights at one point, but the option has long since expired.

Woo's next projects are The Divide, a western concerning the friendship between two workers, one Chinese, the other Irish, on the transcontinental rail-road, while The Devil's Soldier is a biopic on Frederick Townsend Ward, an American brought to China in the mid 19th century by the Emperor to suppress rebellion. Rendezvous in Black will be an adaptation of the drama/thriller novel of the same name, and Psi-Ops is a science fiction thriller about a telepathic agent, a remake of Blind Spot.

In May 2008, Woo announced in Cannes that his next movie would be 1949, an epic love story set between the end of World War II and Chinese Civil War to the founding of the People's Republic of China, the shooting of which would take place in China and Taiwan. Its production was due to begin by the end of 2008, theatrical release planned in December 2009. However, in early April 2009, John Woo's 1949 is cancelled due to script right issues. Also reports indicate that Woo may be working on another World War II film, this time about the American Volunteer Group, or the Flying Tigers. The movie is tentatively titled "Flying Tiger Heroes" and Woo is reported as saying it will feature "The most spectacular aerial battle scenes ever seen in Chinese cinema." Whether this means that John Woo will not be directing the rumoured Romeo and Juliet war film, or it has been put on the back burner. Woo has stated that Flying Tiger Heroes would be an "extremely important production" and will "emphasise US-Chinese friendship and the contributions of the Flying Tigers and the Yunnan people during the war of resistance."[11] Woo has announced he will be using IMAX cameras to film the Flying Tigers project. “It has always been a dream of mine to explore shooting with IMAX cameras and to work in the IMAX format, and the strong visual element of this film is incredibly well-suited to the tastes of cinemagoers today [...] Using IMAX for Flying Tigers would create a new experience for the audience, and I think it would be another breakthrough for Chinese movies.”[12]

In popular culture

  • In the video game Max Payne there are many homages and references to John Woo.
  • In the PC game F.E.A.R., the developers admitted that they been inspired by John Woo action movies, in that they wanted the game's action sequences to play out as dramatic and elegant gunfights.
  • The Christian rock band Newsboys has a song "John Woo" which makes reference to the religious symbolism he often employs in his films.
  • During the Season 1 finale of the animated television series The Venture Bros., there is an entire scene devoted to smashing as many John Woo references as humanly possible into 30 seconds.



Year Film Notes
1968 Dead Knot Also Writer
1974 The Young Dragons Also Writer
1975 The Dragon Tamers Also Writer
1976 Princess Chang Ping Also Writer
Hand of Death Also Writer
1977 Money Crazy Also Writer
1978 Hello, Late Homecomers Also Writer
Follow the Star
1979 Last Hurrah for Chivalry Also Writer
1980 From Riches to Rags
1981 To Hell with the Devil Also Writer
Laughing Times Also Writer
1982 Plain Jane to the Rescue
1984 The Time You Need a Friend Also Writer/Producer
1985 Run, Tiger, Run Also Producer
1986 Heroes Shed No Tears Also Writer/Producer
A Better Tomorrow Also Writer/Producer
Hong Kong Film Award for Best Film
Nominated - Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director
Nominated - Hong Kong Film Award for Best Screenplay
1987 A Better Tomorrow II Also Writer/Producer
1989 Just Heroes
The Killer Also Writer
Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director
Nominated - Hong Kong Film Award for Best Screenplay
1990 Bullet in the Head Also Writer/Producer
Nominated - Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director
1991 Once a Thief Also Writer
Nominated - Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director
1992 Hard Boiled Also Writer
1993 Hard Target Nominated - Saturn Award for Best Direction
1996 Broken Arrow
Once a Thief TV
Also Executive Producer
1997 Face/Off Saturn Award for Best Direction
1998 Blackjack TV
Also Executive Producer
2000 Mission: Impossible II
2001 Windtalkers Also Producer
2003 Paycheck Also Producer
2008 Red Cliff: Part I Also Writer/Producer
Huabiao Award for Best Foreign Director
Nominated - Asian Film Award for Best Director
2009 Red Cliff: Part II Also Writer/Producer
Huabiao Award for Best Foreign Director
Nominated - Hong Kong Film Award for Best Film
Nominated - Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director
2010 Reign of Assassins Also Producer



  • Hello, Late Homecomers (1978)
  • A Better Tomorrow (2010)

Television Work

Other works

See also


  1. ^ John Woo. Festival de Cannes fiche artiste (artist profile)
  2. ^ a b c d e f Pierce, Nev (2004). "Getting Direct With Directors: John Woo". BBC. Retrieved 17 May 2007. 
  3. ^ Kehr, Dave (14 July 2002). "Ballets full of bullets". The Observor (London).,,754832,00.html. Retrieved 17 May 2007. 
  4. ^ Rawnsley, Gary D. Rawnsley, Ming-Yeh T. (2003). Political Communications in Greater China: the construction and reflection of identity. Routledge publishing. ISBN 0-7007-1734-X.
  5. ^ a b c Elder, Robert K. (2005). John Woo Interviews. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1-57806-776-6
  6. ^ Leydon, Joe (3 January 1993). "COVER STORY New Gun in Town John Woo, Hong Kong's legendary action director, teams with Jean-Claude Van Damme for his first American thriller, 'Hard Target'".'s+legendary+action+director%2C+teams+with+Jean-Claude+Van+Damme+for+his+first+American+thriller%2C+%60Hard+Target'&pqatl=google. 
  7. ^ Famous Persons with Disabilities
  8. ^ June 2000 edition of Premiere magazine
  9. ^ Biography for John Woo at the Internet Movie Database
  10. ^ Woo awarded Golden Lion for lifetime achievement
  11. ^ Foreman, Liza (21 May 2008). "Woo sets prod'n clock for '1949'". The Hollywood Reporter, the Daily from Cannes (Cannes) (8): p.22. 
  12. ^ "Woo’s Flying Tigers to be shot in IMAX format". ScreenDaily. 2010-10-30. Retrieved 2010-03-11. 
  13. ^ Woh ping faan dim at the Internet Movie Database
  14. ^ Lang, Mark (11 May 1998). "Creative: Best Spots - April". Adweek. 

Further reading

In English

  • Bliss, Michael. Between the Bullets: The Spiritual Cinema of John Woo. Filmmakers series, no. 92. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8108-4110-X.
  • Brown, Andrew M. J. Directing Hong Kong: The Political Cinema of John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai. Political Communications in Greater China: the Construction and Reflection of Identity. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2001. ISBN 0-7007-1734-X.
  • Crawford, Kevin R. "Mixing violence and religion in 'The Reckoning' : The Scripting of a Postmodern Action Thriller inside the John Woo-film noir Paradigm". Digital Dissertation/Theses, 2007. [1].
  • Fang, Karen Y. John Woo's A Better Tomorrow. The New Hong Kong Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004. ISBN 962-209-652-2.
  • Hall, Kenneth E. John Woo: The Films. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999. ISBN 0-7864-0619-4.
  • Heard, Christopher. Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo. Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Co., 2000. ISBN 1-58065-021-X.
  • Woo, John, and Robert K. Elder (ed.). John Woo: Interviews. Conversations with Filmmakers Series. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. ISBN 1-57806-775-8, ISBN 1-57806-776-6.

In other languages

  • Berruezo, Pedro J. John Woo y el cine de acción de Hong Kong. Biblioteca Dr. Vértigo, 23. [Barcelona]: Ediciones Glénat, 2000. ISBN 84-8449-043-2. (Spanish)
  • Bertolino, Marco, and Ettore Ridola. John Woo: la violenza come redenzione. Recco, Genova: Le mani, 1998. ISBN 88-8012-098-0. (Italian)
  • Gaschler, Thomas, and Ralph Umard. Woo Leben und Werk. München: Belleville, 2005. ISBN 3-933510-48-1. (German)
  • Nazzaro, Giona A., and Andrea Tagliacozzo. John Woo: la nuova leggenda del cinema d'azione. Contatti, 199. Roma: Castelvecchi, 2000. ISBN 88-8210-203-3. (Italian)
  • Spanu, Massimiliano. John Woo. Il castoro cinema, 203. Milano: Castoro, 2001. ISBN 88-8033-192-2. (Italian)
  • Vié-Toussaint, Caroline. John Woo. Paris: Dark star, 2001. ISBN 2-914680-01-5. (French)

External links