East meets West as cult director John Woo makes his Hollywood debut with Hard Target. Alan Morrison met him to savour the taste of action movies in a spicy Hong Kong style.

pocryphal tales began to surround director John Woo not long after his 1989 film The Killer became the first Hong Kong movie to get a commercial release in America. One has it that Quentin Tarantino, writer-director of Reservoir Dogs and foremost member of the Woo fan club, attended a private screening of the movie and heard a begrudging studio executive admit, ‘Well, I guess he can direct an action scene}

‘Yeah,’ Tarantino snapped back, ‘and Michaelangelo can paint a ceiling.’

What Tarantino recognised is that Woo is quite simply the best action director working today. His excessively violent set pieces are works of art, the ballet of the bullet. Corpses fall gracefully in slow-motion, torn by automatic gunfire, as the graphic content of the images vies with the beauty of their choreography. But as the bodycount rises and the male population of Hong Kong is drastically reduced in blood-splattered glory. it becomes clear that there is more to Woo’s work than merely an orgy of masterfully crafted death: in his best films, such as Hard Boiled and The Killer (both about to receive arthouse releases). the heroes and often the villains are men of honour, imbued with a sense of personal justice and guilt over the consequences of their acts.

‘I put a lot of myself and a lot of religious elements into my characters,’ explains the 45- year-old. ‘My kind of hero has a spiritual element, a high quality of dignity. These are men of chivalry, like the ancient Chinese knights. I’m sure that in the Western world also, there is the same feeling that nowadays this seems to be lost. In every movie, I try to find some new meaning; like when in The Killer 1 used a church for a gun- battle scene. For some people, that was too much, but I used it to say that when people make war. they turn heaven into hell.’

In the film, the church setting also acts as a metaphor for the ultimate salvation of the film’s anti-hero, played by Woo’s longtime collaborator and on-screen alter-ego, Chow Yun-Fat. An assassin who is trying to break away from his past, he is determined to use the money from one last hit to pay for an eye operation for the female nightclub singer he accidentally blinded in a previous shoot-out. Like the more noble hired guns of the Western, Woo’s heroes exist out of time in some mythic land where concepts of trust, betrayal and forgiveness still define the way of life. ‘Our world is changing so fast,’ says Chow’s character, ‘honour’s now a dirty word.’

If the characters in Woo’s latest film, Hard Target, are less three-dimensional, then it is not necessarily his fault. Filmed for $20 million for Universal Pictures, this is the first Hollywood movie to be made by a Chinese director. Written by Chuck (Dar/(man) Pfarrer, it is easily the best movie that Jean-Claude Van Damme has had the fortune to find himself in, and is perhaps America’s first art action movie. The plot is well drawn - a young girl hires New Orleans drifter Van Damme to find her missing father, who has become the victim of a gang using combat

12 The List 8—21 October 1993