Almost 30 years after its release, the action scenes in John Woo Yu-sen’s The Killer (1989) remain dynamic. That’s to be expected from an action masterpiece. More surprising is that the film’s themes about the power of love between men and women, the power of love between men and men, and the difficulties of doing good in a world beset by evil, are just as piquant as ever.
The action scenes may be, to use a term from the 1980s, hyperviolent, but they are never gratuitous. Following in the Hong Kong tradition of martial arts films, Woo’s genius was to use the gunplay scenes to express the inner minds – or as the Lutheran director would probably have it, the souls – of his characters rather than just provide cheap thrills for action buffs.
Woo directed The Killer – more descriptively called “Two Heroes, Flowing Blood” in its Chinese title – from a scenario he wrote himself, improvising the lines during the shooting. Despite this spontaneous approach, the story is incredibly detailed, with many plot turns. Chow Yun-fat plays Ah Jong, a hitman carrying out his last kill before retirement. During a shoot-out in a nightclub, he accidentally blinds a singer, Jenny (Sally Yeh).
Ah Jong befriends Jenny, who doesn’t know that he blinded her, and decides to take on another hit to raise the cash for her cornea transplant. Meanwhile detective Li (Danny Lee Sau-yin) tries to track Ah Jong down, coming to admire his sense of honour in the process. When Ah Jong is betrayed by the gang boss who hired him, Li feels morally compelled to take a stand with the hitman.
Although The Killer, along with A Better Tomorrow (1986) and A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987), made his name, Woo was already an established director by the time he came to make them. He had worked for swordfighting film master Chang Cheh as assistant director, and then directed a slew of physical comedies that presage the kineticism of his action movies. His switch to gangster films was in part due to his personal history – as a member of an impoverished family, he had himself grown up in triad-infested streets.
Woo credits numerous directors with influencing The Killer. He got the idea of using slow motion to slow the action down from Sam Peckinpah, who was also interested in the expressive power of violence. The stylisation came from French director Jean-Pierre Melville, specifically his hitman drama Le Samourai (1967). But the overriding influence seems to have been his old boss Chang, whose swordfighting films often dealt with a similar kind of homoerotic brotherly love. In terms of action, Woo appears to be trying to choreograph gunplay the way Chang choreographed swordplay.
The Killer will be screened on Saturday at Festival Grand Cinema, in Kowloon Tong, and on July 14 at Tai Kwun, in Central, as part of the Cine Fan programme.