Manhunt (John Woo, 2017)


After a decade in which all he put out were two two-part epics, one of which is great (Red Cliff) the other of which is half-great (The Crossing), it’s nice to see John Woo relax back into the kind of goofy genre fare that has always been his comfort zone. The plot is too complicated by half, with Zhang Hanyu framed by a pharmaceutical research company for murder because he wants to quit being their lawyer, or something, with a dogged cop played by Masaharu Fukuyama on his trail along with a variety of assassins. But the two leads are solid (Zhang you recall from Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain and Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea, and Fukuyama from the Koreeda Hirokazu movies Like Father, Like Son and The Third Murder (coming soon to SIFF)) and they’re surrounded by all kinds of women: an earnest heartbroken potential love interest and a callow go-getter on the good side, and assassins of both the cold-blooded and heart of gold variety on the less good side (and wow is it both weird and a lot of fun to see John’s daughter Angeles Woo flying around as the more ruthless killer. She had a small part in The Crossing, but she almost steals the movie here). There’s even a small part for Yasuaki Kurata, enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately with key roles as well in Gordon Chan’s God of War and Chapman To’s The Empty Hands (also coming soon to SIFF). The action is exciting, with some truly exceptional moments, the rest of it is tolerable. In the battle of great 80s Hong Kong auteurs taking on corruption in the 21st Century medical-industrial complex, Woo is an easy winner over Ringo Lam.

Princess Chang Ping (John Woo, 1976)


Before he hit it big with 1986’s A Better Tomorrow, John Woo was a journeyman director for hire on the margins of the Hong Kong film industry. He worked mostly in slapstick comedies such as the Chaplin homage Laughing Times with Dean Shek, or the hit Ricky Hui film From Riches to Rags, along with a handful of action films in the established kung fu and wuxia genres, most notably his 1973 debut The Young Dragons and 1979’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry, which is in many respects The Killer with swords instead of guns. One of his oddest films during this period was a musical made for the Golden Harvest studio in 1976, Princess Chang Ping, which plays this week in Scarecrow Video’s Screening Lounge.


Based on a 1957 Cantonese opera that was itself based on historical events from the late Ming Dynasty (the mid-1600s) and starring actors from an actual opera troupe, in performance it is wildly theatrical, translating the gestural and recitative stage tradition to the big screen. The structure is theatrical as well, made up of long scenes set in a single location, with the actors coming and going developing the plot in song. The first twenty minutes takes place entirely in one throne room location, establishing the romance between the eponymous Princess, daughter of the Ming Emperor, and a young courtier named Chow Shih-hsien. In full view of the court, he woos her with wit and wordplay, a Shakespearean exchange that marks them both as outsiders in the restrictive court world and demonstrates their shared aesthetics and belief system. Things are going well, when Woo, in a shocking cut, throws us outside the palace as cannons roar and the rebels are closing in: the Manchus are about to bring the dynasty to an end. The break in location is more than just a jolt of explosion: it’s a blast of reality into the highly ritualized world of court culture, an intrusion of violence into the ultra-civilized.


This sets up the first of several Woovian dilemmas, conflicts between moral codes that drive so many of his later films. The Emperor, rather than let them be taken alive, orders his wives and children to kill themselves before he does the same. The older women do so, with much wailing, but Chang Ping herself doesn’t want to die (she’s just found a guy that really understands her!). In a rush, her father resolves to do it himself (for her own good) and draws his sword (here the play differs from history: according to tradition, the Emperor severed her arm. In one version of the tale, she becomes a martial artist and leader of the anti-Manchu resistance, known as the One-Armed Divine Nun). Merely scratched, the princess survives and goes into hiding. One day, the prince (he survived too, being haplessly knocked unconscious in a manner befitting a young scholar caught up in a battle), having assumed she had died, runs into her at a monastery. They rekindle their love affair, but soon more people discover her secret and she becomes a pawn in the remaining Ming elites’ attempts to ingratiate themselves with the new Qing Dynasty. Chang Ping and Shih-hsien confront the new Emperor (played by the same actor as the old Emperor), resolved to do the honorable thing regardless of what they must sacrifice to accomplish it.


This is the progression of most of Woo’s best heroes. First an instantaneous connection with someone who shares their understanding of the moral universe (think of Chow Yun-fat with Danny Lee in The Killer and with Tony Leung in Hard-Boiled). In the gangster films its a shared Code, based on ideas of honor that go back centuries throughout martial arts literature. Such sparks dominant Woo’s career from his debut to his latest film The Crossing, where the connection is explicitly romantic. Eventually, in most cases, the connected pair will find themselves in a stand-off against the forces of the world at large, opportunistic villains motivated by greed or ambition some other base motive. Usually the result is a sacrifice of some kind, as one hero (or both) trade their life for the survival of innocents or simply to prove a point. Thus it’s easy to see why Woo would have been drawn to this story, as opposed to other popular opera films, say something like Li Han-hsiang’s Beyond the Great Wall, in which a Princess is used as a dynastic pawn in a Mizoguchian tale of the historical oppression of women. In Woo’s films, of course, the heroes are almost always men. Princess Chang Ping is a notable exception, especially when you consider that the prince Shih-hsien is also, in following Chinese operatic convention, played by a woman.


The film isn’t as glossy or elaborate as the huangmei films the Shaw brothers specialized in before they shifted into martial arts movies (Li Han-hsiang films like The Love Eterne or The Enchanting Shadow) but as mid-70s Golden Harvest productions go, it’s pretty ornate (helped no doubt by the fact that it only has three or four sets). Woo’s camera moves fluidly, emphasizing the theatricality of the world and performances rather than reinforcing it to an alienating degree. He’s said it was one of his favorite of his early films, the one he had the most fun making and the joy is evident on the screen. Woo’s musicality is an underrated aspect of his film style, not just in the oft-stated relation between his balletic action choreography and the dance film, but simply in the way his best films use music to convey emotion, connecting events and people across space and time. This is the case here, as an opera film the music is inescapable, but also in the synth-pop soundtracks of his late 80s masterpieces and the lush Taro Iwashiro scores of his 21st Century epics. One of the weird things I’ve found in watching a rewatching a ton of Woo films in preparation for an upcoming episode of the They Shot Pictures podcast (should be out early next week) is that my enjoyment of his films is almost directly proportional to my enjoyment of their scores. There might be a chicken and egg relation there, but who knows.

Princess Chang Ping plays Thursday, August 27 Only in the Scarecrow Video Screening Lounge.

A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo, 1987)


The following is an adaptation of a review of A Better Tomorrow II I wrote for my website a couple of years ago.

A Better Tomorrow was a massive hit for the Cinema City studio, director John Woo and the film’s producer and co-writer, Tsui Hark. As such, a sequel was inevitable. But almost immediately problems began. Chow Yun-fat’s character had died at the end of the first film, but a sequel without the man who’d become the biggest star in Hong Kong was unthinkable. So, of course, they decided his character Mark had a twin brother that nobody bothered to mention in the first film. The film is most horribly marred though by a new character, a former Triad gone straight named Lung and played by Dean Shek (a comedian and one of the founders of Cinema City). After Lung is betrayed by one of his underlings, Shek goes crazy and ends up in an insane asylum, where he is found by Mark’s twin brother Ken who nurses him back to health in tedious and endless scenes where Shek refuses to eat. Shek’s performance in these scenes is abysmally broad, so much so that it out-balances his later scenes, when he’s returned to his apparently bad motherfucker real self. The film’s most bizarre food-related scene, though, is a notorious one in which Ken, a restauranteur in New York, is shaken down by some mafia hoods and harangues them in badly-dubbed English, with Chow giving his loudest DeNiro impression while the dubber channels Pacino (note that since I wrote this in 2013, I’ve read that this scene is entirely performed by Chow and not an anonymous voice actor, but I don’t know that I believe it). (The best part of the scene is at the end, where a cop shows up, sees Ken trying to force the mafia guys to eat some rice at gunpoint and tells the hoods, “You’d better eat it!”)

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A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)


After an up and down decade as a director for hire in the last days of the Shaw Brothers, working alternately in the wuxia and wacky comedy genres, John Woo finally hit it big in 1986 when he teamed up with Tsui Hark and the Cinema City studio to remake Patrick Lung Kong’s 1967 drama The Story of a Discharged Prisoner. One of the most influential films of the past 30 years, A Better Tomorrow established the formal and thematic template for a new era of crime movie: everything that has followed, from Woo’s follow-up masterpieces The Killer and Hard-Boiled to the triad films of Johnnie To, to myriad international imitators, has in some way been a response to it. Its impact on the Hollywood film has been less specific but no less real: raising the stakes of athleticism and complexity in action sequences, the bullet ballet being much more adaptable to the limited physical skills of American actors than Jackie Chan’s kung fu.

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