Cinema and Media Studies John Woo
by
Karen Fang
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0273

Introduction

John Woo (b. 1946) is one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated and internationally recognized filmmakers. The auteur is known for his distinct brand of action cinema, which merges elaborately choreographed and spectacular action with melodramatic plots and deeply romanticized character studies of traditional chivalric values. The phases of Woo’s critical reception can be understood along the roughly generic, chronological, and geographical phases of a decades-long career that began in the last years of Hong Kong’s studio era in the late 1970s, prospered with the cinema’s height in the 1980s, aspired for Hollywood in the 1990s, and reinvented itself yet again with a post-millennial renaissance helming epic period-dress martial arts films in the exploding mainland Chinese film industry. As scholarship on Woo has grown more nuanced along with knowledge about Hong Kong and Sinophone film in general, interest in his work has moved beyond the topical and action-based context that prevailed when Woo first rocketed to international attention in the early 1990s as a result of his expertise in action, as well as a global interest in Hong Kong cinema in general. Instead, now the director’s signature flourishes and themes—such as the doubling of cop and criminal, guns blasting from both hands, birds, children, religious iconography, and other symbols of innocence among chaos—are connected with the director’s eclectic range of influences, which extend from Hollywood musicals and screen violence to Hong Kong comedy and swordsman films and the French New Wave. For reasons of space, the citations in this review consider only English-language studies, omitting scholarship in Chinese and other Asian languages, as well as the considerable critical writing on Woo and Hong Kong film in European languages (particularly French).

Career Overviews and General Studies

Few book-length studies focus exclusively on Woo. Hall 2011 (originally published 1999) remains the earliest scholarly book on the director, and it precedes or was contemporary with the more general, fan-targeted works Heard 1999 and Bliss 2002. General studies of Hong Kong cinema—such as Teo 1997, Stokes and Hoover 1999, Abbas 1997, Bordwell 2000, and Fang 2017—may not focus specifically on Woo, but their nuanced and informed references to the director usefully situate Woo within industrial and generic history, while thematically focused collections like Arroyo 2000, Pang and Wong 2005, Po 2014, and Yau and Williams 2017 demonstrate the critical fertility that Woo’s films foster.

  • Abbas, Ackbar. Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

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    Concise and deeply influential discussion of Hong Kong film and literature around the territory’s 1997 reunification with China. It demonstrated the insights of Western theory in exploring Hong Kong culture. It does not focus specifically on Woo, but the author’s emphasis on cinema as Hong Kong’s archetypal emblem of culture and identity characterizes contemporary critical approaches to the director.

  • Arroyo, José. “A John Woo Interlude.” In Action/Spectacle Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader. Edited by José Arroyo, 59–80. London: BFI, 2000.

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    Part of a collection of 1990s essays in the cineaste journal Sight and Sound, this section of the book situates Woo within the conventionalization and commercial influence of action cinema. The only director, and one of two individuals in the volume, to command a whole section (the other figure is Arnold Schwarzenegger), Woo, and especially Face/Off, inspired the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis’s excellent essay on film criticism’s increasingly hyberbolic rhetoric and tolerance for graphic violence. Crossover-era focus includes reviews of Woo’s US films, as well as Reynaud 1993 (cited under Discovering Hong Kong Action) and Woo 1993b (under Interviews).

  • Bliss, Michael. Between the Bullets: The Spiritual Cinema of John Woo. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002.

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    General audience book loosely tracking religious or specifically Christian elements of Woo’s action films, from A Better Tomorrow to Mission Impossible 2, and including an interview touching on the same topics.

  • Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

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    Informative, heavily illustrated, and accessibly written textbook targeting undergraduate readers, by a leading American film scholar. Although not a specialist in Hong Kong film, Bordwell had extensive access to industry insiders, and recurring references to Woo give a detailed survey of the industrial and cinematic landscape in which Woo emerged. A sixteen-page subsection devoted to Woo further presents the director as the “most adaptable” of local directors (p. 100) and the “ultimate Hong Kong auteur” (p. 113). The book also incorporates an oft-cited earlier essay by the author that parses distinctions between Hong Kong and Hollywood action photography and editing.

  • Fang, Karen. Arresting Cinema: Surveillance in Hong Kong Film. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017.

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    Traces surveillance motifs throughout Hong Kong cinema to show its inspiration for local genres and visual style. Also serves as an index of the cinema’s intervention in world film and global culture. A unique perspective on Woo connects signature motifs to less familiar aspects of Hong Kong cinema, such as comedy and the industry’s collaboration with local police.

  • Hall, Kenneth E. John Woo: The Films. 2d ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

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    Originally published in 1999, this is probably the first major book-length study of Woo, with extensive quotes from the director. It elevates Woo by situating him among both Euro-American auteurs and Chinese culture. Expanded second edition includes Hollywood and mainland Chinese films not included in original volume, as well as an introduction by Tony Williams.

  • Heard, Christopher. Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1999.

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    Early biographical study targeted at general audiences. Colorful biographical details convey Woo’s poor childhood in crime-ridden Hong Kong slums and his early work for the Cathay studio. Appendix includes interview with Chow Yun-fat.

  • Pang, Laikwan, and Day Wong. Masculinities and Hong Kong Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005.

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    Collection of essays (including Choi 2005, cited under Hollywood and Transnational Readings) whose numerous references to Woo demonstrate Woo’s centrality in critical analysis of gender and masculinity in Hong Kong film.

  • Po Fung. Always in the Dark: A Study of Hong Kong Gangster Films. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2014.

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    Bilingual general audience collection exploring the gangster genre (literary and actual precedents, conventions and subgenres, relation to American traditions, specific stars, censorship, and 1960–1970 antecedents). Details the genre in which Woo’s most beloved Hong Kong films participate. A Better Tomorrow is a recurring touchstone as a key breakthrough film (particularly in essays by Sam Ho and Mao Jian), and depth of coverage documents Woo’s extensive influence. “Reminiscences” section includes “John Woo: Unique Aesthetics of Death and Violence” (Woo 2014, cited under Interviews).

  • Stokes, Lisa Odham, and Michael Hoover. City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. New York: Verso, 1999.

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    This ambitious survey of reunification-era Hong Kong cinema (1984 to publication) repeatedly references Woo as both a visionary and representative figure, particularly in how the director’s film content and career trajectory reflect contemporary anxieties regarding Hong Kong’s political transition from colonial to Chinese sovereignty.

  • Teo, Stephen. Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. London: BFI, 1997.

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    This seminal survey of Hong Kong cinema demonstrates Woo’s industrial and artistic importance, both throughout the book and in a chapter subsection that reviews Woo’s career from his early studio work to his last Hong Kong film (Hard Boiled).

  • Yau, Esther C. M., and Tony Williams. Hong Kong Neo-Noir. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

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    Edited collection exploring generic precedents and individual films and directors in order to posit noir as a distinct motif within Hong Kong film. The focus on post-1997 films does not emphasize Woo as much as Po 2014, but the director remains a touchstone, and references to The Killer reiterate the early Western preference for this 1989 festival breakthrough, while the “Asian noir” concept both reprises and complicates the early critical tendency to read Hong Kong film through Western rubrics.

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