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John Woo: Hollywood is about ‘fame, money, power’

John Woo speaks at Roppongi Hills
John Woo speaks at Roppongi Hills (The Tokyo Reporter)

TOKYO (TR) – The organizers of the Tokyo International Film Festival presented Hong Kong director John Woo with the second “Samurai Award,” an honor for those who have made consistently groundbreaking films “that carve out a path to a new era.”

At a talk event held on October 25, Woo, who had at one point left Asia to make such films as “Mission Impossible II” and “Face/Off,” looked back at his career and inspirations but also also took a swipe at Hollywood.

In the early part of his career, Woo made a name for himself as a director of Hong Kong action films. He then spent a decade in Hollywood, where he developed a distaste for how big stars can influence the editing and casting for a film.

“This was something I was not able to accept, ever. And I got very angry,” said Woo, 69, attired in a dark suit in a ballroom at the Roppongi Hills complex. “How should I say it? Hollywood is about fame, money, power — these are the key elements.”

Woo received the Samurai Award along with legendary helmer Yoji Yamada. In addition to rewarding influential veterans in the industry, the reward also serves as a means of inspiring up-and-coming filmmakers. At the event, seven young Japanese directors with festival accolades to their credit shared the stage with Woo, who looked back at his early inspirations.

“When I was small, I really liked films, particularly art films,” he said. “At that time, I was a literary man, one who loves literature. At that time in Hong Kong, there was no such thing as a film academy so I had to look at a film and steal from it.”

Woo developed a fondness for Japanese films, including those by Akira Kurosawa, especially “Seven Samurai.” He also found inspiration in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and “Lawrence of Arabia” by David Lean.

In 1969, Cathay Studios hired him to be a script supervisor. Two years later, he landed an assistant director role at legendary Shaw Studios. His directorial debut came in 1974 with “The Young Dragons.”

Woo praised the Hong Kong style of filmmaking. “In Hong Kong, it is director-centered,” he said. “So the director has the decision-making power over everything. For ‘The Killer’ and other works I shot, there was no such thing as a script. You go out to the location and you think as you shoot — that is the way. It is all up to the directors.”

“The Killer,” a highly stylized film from 1989 in which Chow Yun-fat stars as a hit man, was a turning point for Woo. “Many people in the West watched that film,” he said, “and they liked it very much. Because of that movie I was called upon by Hollywood.”

Though he may sound bitter, Woo’s assessment of his time in Hollywood, where he first worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme on “Hard Target,” is not entirely negative. “People are very friendly and patient — no different from their Hong Kong counterparts,” he said.

“Red Cliff”

In 2008, Woo returned to Asia with “Red Cliff,” the historical epic in which Chinese clans battle on the Yangtze River. He said that he left Hollywood to search for new material and to nurture young directors in China.

“It was timing,” he said. “I thought Hollywood would go to China, and I wanted to pre-empt that trend. I wanted to try to establish a system in China so up-and-coming talent could be nurtured and be ready when Hollywood arrived.”

To the young directors of Japan, Woo suggested that they look within themselves and back to the masters, such as Kurosawa.

“You have to carry on the Japanese filmmaking tradition and the spirit,” he said. “I hope that spirit can be a starting point for you, and you can merge and blend them with modern day sensibilities.”

Through this, he said, a good breeding ground for a new genre of movie can emerge.

“In the old days, Japan had many beautiful films,” he said. “You should never give them up. There are so many ideas to be learned. You can adopt them and combine them with modern day thought and sensibility. In this way, you can create a new type of Japanese movie.”

The samurai spirit, indeed.