On December 1st, the Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo will release his first American movie in twenty years, a dialogue-free Christmas revenge drama called “Silent Night.” But his imprint on mainstream American cinema never went away. Woo’s approach to action filmmaking is detectable everywhere from Marvel movies to the “John Wick” franchise. At their best, Woo’s successors carry forward his style of visually spectacular action set pieces and bloody, balletic fight choreography. At their worst, they fetishize Woo-like action without Woo’s half cynical, half romantic style of melodrama.
Woo (originally Wu Yu-seng) was born in 1946 in the mountainous Chinese region of Guangzhou. He grew up in the slums of New Kowloon, formerly Shek Kip Mei, after his father, a high-school teacher, moved their family to Hong Kong. Raised a Christian, Woo studied at the Heep Woh Lutheran primary school, then at Concordia Lutheran middle school, followed by Matteo Ricci, a Catholic high school. When he was sixteen, his father died, and his family was too poor for him to continue his formal education. Woo had once wanted to become a priest, but he eventually fell in love with movies for the same reason that he took to the Church: as a mental escape from poverty.
Woo informally studied a range of filmmakers and styles, including the musicals of Jacques Demy and Bob Fosse, the Westerns of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, and the crime dramas of Jean-Pierre Melville and Martin Scorsese. He also worked as an assistant director to the prolific martial-arts director Chang Cheh, whose blood-soaked kung-fu bromances also greatly inspired Woo’s “heroic bloodshed” action dramas, like “A Better Tomorrow” (1986), “The Killer” (1989), and “Hard Boiled” (1992), all three of which star Chow Yun-fat. Woo developed an international following; his American admirers included Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Quentin Tarantino—and moved to Hollywood in 1992.
American John Woo movies, such as the 1997 Nicolas Cage–John Travolta body-swap actioner, “Face/Off,” tend to feature maximalist craftsmanship and over-the-top performances (not to mention his signature white doves, which symbolize brotherly love). He directed “Broken Arrow” (1996) and “Mission: Impossible 2” (2000); in 2002, the Times’ Dave Kehr called Woo “arguably the most influential director making movies today.” The following year, though, his Philip K. Dick thriller, “Paycheck,” proved a critical and financial disaster. “I couldn’t get any good scripts after ‘Paycheck,’ ” he told me. In the time since, Woo, who lives in Los Angeles, has mostly directed movies in mainland China, including the two-part historic epic “Red Cliff” (2008). The first installation became one of the highest-grossing theatrical releases in Chinese history. In our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Woo talked about taking a break from Hollywood, his quest to make personal genre movies, and his enduring faith in friendship, onscreen and off.
Your father encouraged you to become a pastor. Growing up, how did you see your dad and his values?
My dad was a really tough guy. He was also a Christian. He taught me to love our neighbors, and to treat them like our brothers and sisters. I see my father as a hero. He despised his father’s fortune and just wanted to be a teacher. My grandfather was so rich and had so much land. He just wanted his sons to take care of their property. My father wasn’t interested. So he left home to become a school teacher. He was kind of a rebel.
My dad got sick with TB after we moved [from China] to Hong Kong. We also lived in a bad neighborhood that had a lot of crime. We were poor, but my father never begged for money. He always preferred to work for it, even though he was very sick. He was very good at Chinese writing, and some people paid him a little money for that. He took whatever he could earn.
My father always looked so young, no matter how old he was. He had a teen-ager’s face. [Laughs.] When I was growing up, we looked like brothers. He also had a birthmark on his nose, like me, which I always thought was funny. I miss him.
What made you want to go to seminary school?
I was trained at a Christian grade school, so I greatly admire Jesus and his teachings. I had seen pastors helping, praying for, and encouraging so many poor people. That meant a lot, because we lived in a very dangerous area and could have easily become gangsters. There were so many temptations and so many threats. I saw that these pastors had great hearts. They helped to bring people back to a normal life. That’s what made me feel that, if I grew up, I also wanted that job. Not just to give people food but to teach young people about love and to help them find the right way to live. I wish I could do that.