JOHN WOO HUMBLE EXTRAORDINAIRE
Gabriel Chong@Fullerton Hotel | 1 October 2010
Any fan of Hong Kong cinema will tell you this - meeting director John Woo is like a dream come true. And for this fan who grew up thinking Chow Yun-Fat was the epitome of cool thanks to John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled, this dream not only became a reality, it was even better than I could have imagined.
The director who most recently won a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Film Festival turned out to be completely without airs and extremely humble of his success- even taking the initiative at the end of the interview to thank you for your support of his movies over the years.
Here in Singapore to promote his new movie "Reign of Assassins" with director Su Chao-Pin and lead actress Michelle Yeoh, John Woo corrected the host right at the onset that he wasn’t the director of the film. He was merely a producer- a 'consultant' in his words- and the movie was really Su Chao-Pin’s vision, a director of 'great talent' and someone he admires very much.
"It’s important for the film to have one consistent style, not two, so I didn’t have Su put some flying pigeons into the movie," John joked, making a reference to his oft-recognised trademark in his works. “I would step in to give Su some advice from my experience directing action movies- how to choreograph the action scenes, where to place the camera- but otherwise I would just sit back and enjoy their performances."
Producing "Reign of Assassins" under his Lion Rock Productions banner together with long-time partner Terence Chang was part of the new mission John Woo has taken upon himself- to mentor new directors from Asia. He knew after reading Su’s script that it was something different from the usual crop of martial arts epics.
"Unlike most 'wuxia' films which tend to keep their story simple and focus on the action, Su’s script had very well-developed characters and was packed with emotion. That was something unexpected," he said. "I think that it is what Chinese cinema needs now- different kinds of films with their unique styles and personalities. That was why I wanted to help Su make this film of his."
John also brings with him his newfound experience from working in Hollywood. After spending a decade in the West making action movies like Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Windtalkers, he only recently came back to Asia with his magnum opus Red Cliff. "I thought it’s about time that I bring what I learnt in Hollywood back into Asia, because I also find that there are so many great young talented people in China."
Although Chinese cinema has made inroads with Western audiences, he observes that most of these films tend to be kung fu or action movies. “But there’s more than just kung fu in our Chinese culture,” he explained. "So I see myself as a bridge so hopefully I can make more Chinese movies and try to bring the good things from Asia to the West and the West to Asia and to make us understand each other more."
His efforts have certainly not been lost on Michelle Yeoh, who is also making a return to Chinese cinema after spending a decade in Hollywood following the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". She said that Asia is very 'blessed' that John Woo has returned to Asia to help the Chinese film industry grow.
"When you make good movies, the audience will follow. With the audience comes box-office and also, respect,” she said at the press conference. "Then when the US and European markets look at us, they will say that we stand for something. And that is what John is trying to do, whether as a producer or a director."
Among the young filmmakers he may very well mentor is his very own daughter, Angeles Woo. She makes her acting debut in "Reign of Assassins", though her passion, John reveals, is actually in directing. "I thought it would be good for her to have some acting experience, since this will help her in future in communicating with actors and trying to bring out the best in her actors."
The father also said that her daughter is inclined towards more arthouse films, quite unlike the kind of films he usually makes. But John feels the distinction between commercial and arthouse films is artificial. "What really matters is whether it is a good film or a bad film. You can shoot a commercial film in an arthouse style too and vice versa, so this divide between arthouse and commercial is really something that we should move away from."
He thinks that budding filmmakers should know where their strengths are so they can make a good movie. "For me, I know that I’m good at using action to convey feelings and emotions so many of my films end up being action movies," he said. "People have asked me why don’t I remake a Fellini film since I like his films so much. But that’s not the way to do it- I take the emotions in these films and express them differently in a way that I know I am able to. Ultimately, it’s whether you are able to make your movie resonate with your audience."
Surely, the man who has wowed audiences for many years with his 'hard-boiled' gangster movies can lay claim to that honour. Still, ever the humble extraordinaire, John Woo said that receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at this juncture in his career is a bit too soon. "I still have hair on my head!" He joked. "I haven’t made a perfect film yet. I’m still searching for my perfect film. So that’s why I don’t watch any of my previous films- because I will always find fault with them."
He dedicates this Award to the support that he has received over the years from friends and family alike. "When I need company, I turn to friends like Tsui Hark and Sam Hui. When I need love, I have a loving wife and three beautiful children. And when I need education, Hollywood was glad to have me."
"So I count myself as being very fortunate for the people I have met over the years," he said. "And I am also very touched that they have stood by me all this while." To hear these words from a man who has defined the face of Hong Kong action cinema in the 80s and 90s is truly humbling.
Very often, we tend to end up a little disappointed when we meet someone illustrious because of the expectations we have of them. John Woo is one rare person you end up even more impressed by after the face-to-face encounter.R
Reign Of Assassins
opens in theatres 7 October 2010