The “Red Cliff” saga, which John Woo has called his dream project, marks the iconic action director’s return to his native China, if not necessarily to Hong Kong, where he made his mark.
Woo was the first Asian director to be hired for a mainstream Hollywood film back in the early 1990s, and his subsequent career in Tinseltown has been an unqualified success. Some say that Woo’s move to California opened doors for other Hong Kong movie professionals, and this is probably the case when it comes to actors. Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Woo’s own muse, Chow Yun-Fat, are all now international stars. However, the directors who followed him to Hollywood haven’t been quite as lucky.
This seems particularly ironic in the case of Tsui Hark, whose films are considered superior to Woo’s in Hong Kong. Only two of Woo’s movies (1986’s “A Better Tomorrow” and 1989’s “The Killer”) were cited in 2005 by the Hong Kong Film Awards among its 100 Best Chinese Motion Pictures, while Tsui rated five. Moreover, Tsui produced Woo’s films and was thought of as an equal creative partner in their making before the two had a falling out in 1989, after Tsui rejected Woo’s suggestion to make a “prequel” to “A Better Tomorrow.”
Four years younger, Tsui didn’t come up through the Hong Kong studio system the way Woo did. He actually studied film at the University of Texas in Austin and worked on TV productions in New York before returning to Hong Kong. In 1984 he formed the Film Workshop, which developed into one of the most influential production houses in the territory. As a director, Tsui became the new master of kung-fu movies, which are known locally as wuxia. Woo, however, specialized in the burgeoning gangster-triad genre, which attracted attention overseas. Admirers such as Quentin Tarantino, who saw badly subtitled versions of Woo’s films in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, appreciated Woo’s sentimental take on the classic cops-and-robbers theme and his extremely visceral depiction of violent gunplay.
Tsui and another Hong Kong director, Ringo Lam, were making crime movies that were just as exciting, but it was Woo who became the bigger cult figure in the West. Interestingly, it was not a hipster like Tarantino who got Woo his first job in Hollywood, but rather Belgian action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Whatever acclaim he was receiving as an innovator, Woo came from a B-movie tradition. Van Damme, who spent two years in Hong Kong long before he became a star in Hollywood, understood how the system worked, and he got Woo to direct him in “Hard Target” in 1993. It was an inauspicious American debut in that only Van Damme fans tend to remember anything the Muscles from Brussels made after his initial box-office hits. But Woo gave Van Damme exactly what he wanted, turning a rote hunter-and-hunted story line into a nonstop exhibition of fierce firepower and bone-jarring fight scenes.
Van Damme also gave Lam and Tsui their first directing jobs in America. Lam did “Maximum Risk” in 1996 and Tsui did “Double Team” in ’97. Neither made as big an impression as Woo’s U.S. debut, but it may have had more to do with timing. Van Damme’s movies had become formula-driven products dependent on a dwindling male cult and desperate gimmicks (his costar in “Double Team” was then scandal-prone basketball star Dennis Rodman), and both Lam and Tsui were saddled with ludicrous scripts that made their action set-pieces seem even more gratuitous. Moreover, American directors had absorbed the Hong Kong action aesthetic, in particular the Wachowski Brothers (“The Matrix”), so there was no need to hire foreigners for that Asian touch.
Meanwhile, Woo was on a roll: the nuclear thriller “Broken Arrow” (1996), the ludicrous identity-swapping blockbuster “Face/Off” (1997) with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, and, of course, “Mission Impossible II” (2000). Tsui did one more Van Damme vehicle before leaving America in disgust and returning to Hong Kong, where he said he didn’t have to take orders. As if to prove something, he made “Time and Tide” in 2001, which outdid Woo in terms of formal chutzpah. In the film’s centerpiece shootout, Tsui expertly juggles multiple viewpoints involving fixed snipers and wall-clambering hit men as they pass through the floors, stairwells and windows of a massive apartment building. More of a stunt than a movie (the convoluted plot is almost incomprehensible), it nevertheless re-established Tsui as the territory’s master technician.
Lam didn’t operate at the same level of pride, and seemed happy to be a hack on either side of the Pacific. In Hollywood, he is less famous for his own films than he is for the fact that many people believe Tarantino borrowed the plot of Lam’s 1987 jewel-heist classic “City on Fire” for his spectacular debut feature “Reservoir Dogs.” Since the mid-’90s, Lam has made two more films with Van Damme and a handful of Hong Kong quickies that range from the usual shoot ’em ups to horror and even a romantic comedy. Certain fans of Hong Kong classicism believe Lam to be an underrated master, more consistently engaging than either Woo or Tsui, who tend to ignore story development for the sake of the big effect.
Nevertheless, Lam has never been hired to helm a blockbuster. Tsui’s big chance came in 2005 with the fantasy “Seven Swords,” a return to his wuxia past and a mess of a movie that is every bit as overblown and visually startling as “Time and Tide.” As far as Chinese blockbusters go, it isn’t as consistently compelling as Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers” (2004) or even Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), and it should be noted that neither Zhang nor Lee came from the Hong Kong action tradition. The tricks that Woo, Tsui and Lam invented were basically in the service of pumping up slight or hackneyed stories. They’ve never been adept at the kind of character development necessary for epics. Consequently, “Red Cliff” may be the most expensive movie ever made in Asia ($80 million) as well as one of the most successful in terms of box office, but the characters are two-dimensional.
Among the new Asian film immigrants to Hollywood, Danny and Oxide Pang are a generation younger than Woo. Working with indie budgets, the Pang Brothers streamlined the Hong Kong action aesthetic to the point where their movies are little more than vague concepts dressed up in spectacular visual style. Their plots rarely make sense, but the images are so arresting that two of their movies, the horror flick “The Eye” (2002) and the hit-man curiosity “Bangkok Dangerous” (1999), have been remade in Hollywood. The Pangs even got to direct the new version of “Bangkok,” which stars Nicolas Cage. Most critics say they still don’t get the story but that they couldn’t take their eyes off it. That sounds like Hong Kong style in a nutshell.