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Hong Kong's Film King Talks of Censors, Faith

John Woo's Violent Movies Belie Love of Honor, Friendship, and Christian Symbols

By John Aboud

John Woo has been making films in Hong Kong for more than 10 years. After making his way through sex comedies and slapstick, he settled on action films as his genre of choice. But more than that, he came to dominate the genre and all of Hong Kong film. "A Better Tomorrow," his 1986 gangster film, remains the biggest money maker in Hong Kong cinema history.

His 1989 "The Killer" is so far his only film to receive attention in the US. Its limited tour of the art-house and college circuit in the past two years created huge interest in the works of Mr. Woo and other Hong Kong directors. A melodramatic story of a good-hearted assassin, "The Killer" features mayhem committed on a magnitude and with a magnitude of style rarely seen in this country.

The release of his first American film, "Hard Target," with Jean-Claude Van Damme prompted the following interview between Woo and members of the Boston area media on Thursday, August 12.

PRESS: What are the differences in making a film here as opposed to Hong Kong?

JOHN WOO: The system is very different. The project and scale was much bigger. The people are more professional including the actors and all of the crew. Everyone is very professional and very dedicated. That's better than the Hong Kong crew. The Hong Kong crews, most of them weren't that professional. Because here everybody is educated and studying in film school. In Hong Kong what they know comes from experience.

Another thing is I'm just not used to the system. Too many meetings. Unnecessary meetings. Too much politics which I didn't understand and which wasted a lot of time.

Another thing is I feel much happier than in Hong Kong. The government helps the film business here. They support the film business. But in Hong Kong they give no support. So it is harder to shoot a scene on the street. It's so difficult in Hong Kong.

And I've got more friends here than in Hong Kong. It surprises rises me. I didn't know that there are so many people who have seen my films and liked them. I'm so grateful.

I got great support from the critics. They've been very generous in their praise. As have all the writers.

PRESS: Did you have the same kind of problems with the censor board in Hong Kong as you have had with "Hard Target"?

WOO: Yeah, we have the same situation in Hong Kong. The censor board knows me very well. They know me and they respect me and usually they'll accept my explanation. They realize my kind of action or violence in my movies they know I did it in artistic way. Usually they'll give me some specific suggestion or point to cut.

PRESS: How is it handled ... the U.S.?

WOO: Here they didn't give me the specific point so I just did the cut by guessing. I trimmed down quite a lot of violence. Especially the blood squibs exploding.

WOO on editorial control:

In Hong Kong I am free as a bird. My usual style is like a painter. Every day I'm looking for a new spirit, a new element to put in the scene.

PRESS: Would you have any objection to your children watching this?

WOO: No, Ha. No, because they understand my work, they understand my films very well, they will use another angle to watch a film. They watch it as a movie, they won't get any influence form it. My children are still very straight-laced. Very well behaved. Ha ha.

PRESS: Your work is often compared to Peckinpah and Scorsese. Are they people who did indeed influence you as a young filmmaker?

WOO: Yes. I started as a film lover. When I first fell in love with film in the 60's, I was very, influenced by the French director Jean Pierre Melville. And also Francois Trouffaut, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.

At that time there was no film school in Hong Kong, and my family was too poor to send me for any schooling after high school. Since we were so crazy about the movies, we learned the films from all the masters. At the time the European art film was so popular in Hong Kong.

We learned from all the great masters at the time. And also we stole the film books form the libraries and bookstores. That's how I learned film.

PRESS: Stole the books?

Yes, You have to forgive me because we were very poor. But I think I have paid back society. I try to make a lot of good films [to make up for the theft].

PRESS: Was the New Orleans setting an attraction to "Hard Target"? It's fairly atmospheric like much of your film work.

WOO: New Orleans is a fascinating city. It has that faded glory. It has a lot of from the French. And since I was so fond of the French from my earlier times. I've got pretty strong feelings for New Orleans.

PRESS: Usually in your Hong Kong movies you have enemies who respect one another. This is missing in "Hard Target."

WOO: Well "Hard Target" wasn't my script. I'm working on my own script about the old generation and the new generation and their conflicts. [It's about] an old killer and a young one.

In my films I try to remind us of what we have lost from the old days, and what we have to do to get it back again. We need things like friendship, honor, equality and love.

PRESS: Since gangsters feature so prominently in your work, I wonder if you think the world of gangsters is a separate world exemplary of those values?

WOO: A gangster world only provides a colorful background for the characters. I'm more interested in bringing out the spirit of the characters not the background. I'm not interested in the gangsters at all. I hope the audience can see that. I don't want to mislead the audience with all the violence.

PRESS: Why do you use bird imagery so prominently in so many of your films?

WOO: Well, I'm a Christian and the birds are a powerful Christian symbol. Sometimes I use the birds to represent innocence. When people are killing and in war there are always innocent people being killed. And also I like to use the pigeon to represent the presence of spiritual things.

For example, in "The Killer" whenever the two main characters get shot, I cut to the pigeons flying and the sign of the holy cross. I use this montage cutting to try to tell that they have the pure and innocent inside and to glorify their self sacrifice.

When I was young, I always got the impression from the Bible or from paintings in church ... I was always impressed by the pigeon as a symbol of peace and love. I like to put some Bible imagery in my movies.

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