Thursday, September 13, 2007

the killer

THE KILLER (1989, Hong Kong, John Woo)

Cinematheque: What would a series on Hong Kong filmmaking be without John Woo? The Killer is perhaps his most demented, over-the-top, action packed epic, with, of course, Chow Yun-Fat as a contract killer who accidentally blinds a nightclub singer, then takes one last job to pay for her cornea transplant. Much mayhem ensues.

SO what, you may be asking, what is this movie doing in a soul food blog? Good question. I’m glad you asked. (There are no stupid questions. Only stupid people.)

At least one John Woo fan (and make no mistake, his fans are fans) figures there’s more to JW than meets the eye: Michael Bliss is sure enough about that to have made a book out of his idea: “Between The Bullets: The Spiritual Cinema of John Woo” (Filmmakers series, No. 92, Scarecrow Press). Jacket blurb: “John Woo is widely regarded as a master action director, but sacant attention has been paid to the manner in which Woo’s films reflect the directo’s religious and ethical concerns. BTB examines representative films from the director’s Hong Kong and American periods and proposes that Woo be regarded as a predominantly religious director whose action films explore the nature and quality of spirituality.” Sound like a stretch? Some jottings...
Based on Jean-Pierre Melville’s LE SAMOURAI... Disdain for materialism and ethical corruption... Sacrifice leads to regeneration... Woo does not distinguish between secular and religious regeneration. Like (Flannery) O’Connor, Woo uses the material world to convey his spiritual and religious themes... For Woo, the hero’s quest is the search for a region in which integrity, trust and friendship can flourish... Male relationships must be tempered with female elements if male violence is to be productive... Churches, literal and figurative, sit at the films’ moral center... churches often struggling to survive... One major difference between Woo’s film and Melville’s is that Woo allows for the possibility that people can change, and that with change can come redemption... For the central character, the church is not a place of religious salvation but of secular respite from the anxieties of his profession. He’s there at the film’s beginning when Sydney arrives with details of JOhn’s latest assignment; and John returns to the church for what becomes the film’s final shootout. Indeed, the shape of THE KILLER’s plot makes it plain that the return to the church (both in terms of a physical return and a coming back to its potential for spiritual change) is virtually inevitable... In THE KILLER’s opening shot, Sydnye enters the church in slow motion. After sitting down and looking around, Sydney asks John if he believes in what the church stands for. John replies, “No, but I like the peacefulness here.” The remark veers away from religion, something that John nonetheless believes in if we are to judge from the horrified look on his face in a later scerne when one of Weng’s gunmen blows up a statue of the Virgin Mary... Innocence is a figurative blindness that people who live in a dangerous world cannot afford... A choice between two realms must be made... (WARNING: SPOILERS FROM HERE ON) Woo suggests that having lived so long among the damned, John has himself become damned and that – in the only example of such a trope in any Woo film – he has become a person who is incapable of redeeming not only himself but someone else... “Easy to pick up, hard to put down”... Woo’s films don’t flinch from showing us the depths to which individuals, even well-intentioned ones such as Sydney, can fall; if they didn’t, the films would not also be able to plausibly represent the heights to which great actions of sacrifice, courage and forgiveness can take us... At the final shootout, the film’s manifold meanings converge. Johnny Weng, his hitman and a gang of thugs storm the church in which John, Jenny and Li are holed up. People and objects associated with religious devotion are destroyed... The values that the church represents are under siege as a result of the actions of the men who are assaulting the physical church. Woo implies that what is needed is a rebuilding of the church symbolic, a necessary response to the constant onslaughts that the kingdom of heaven suffers at the hands of the violent, who attempt to bear it away... For Woo, sacrifice alone is sometimes not enough. One must often do more than merely hazard one’s life for a friend or lover; one must also remain true to one’s world... Yet we can regard THE KILLER’s ending as less despairing than it might at first appear if we focus not on John’s death but on his attempt to rise to the demands of the church within himself, which symbolizes the best values to which humans aspire: love, faith, trust, friendship. At its end, THE KILLER suggests that evil can be vanquished, duplicitous associates can redeem themselves, and assassins and policemen can help each other find some form of redemption – that is, if people keep their eyes on the ethical path and divert their gaze from the dragon and vengeance and betrayal who sits idly by, waiting, and hoping, for them to fail....

It is incumbent upon directors such as Scorsese and Woo to make their films' violence unpalatable, and to make their attitude toward it quite clear. Virtually all of Woo's films contain cues intended to achieve this end; predominantly, these cues take the form of religious motifs suggesting redemption and grace, which are meant to counterbalance the films' violence. Woo also includes in his films scenes involving honor, trust, ad family, whih throw in to relief the absence of these qualities in characters (e.g. triads) allied by choice, rather than by occupation (e.g. police), with a world of violence. (27/28)

Violence in Woo's films takes two forms: nihilistic violence and spiritual/religious violence. Nihilistic violence occurs in the context of acts carried out solely for the sake of destruction; these acts are committed by characters who fall outside the pale of religion and ethics. Johnny Wong (HARD-BOILED) is the classic example of such a character, a man without sruples of any kind. (31)

The other type of violence in Woo's films, spiritual/religious violence, effects a vivifying change either in its perpetrators or participants. The violence that leads to Tony's death toward HARD-BOILED's end makes possible Johnny Wong's destruction, which otherwise, given the scene's Mexican standoff, might very well have been impossible. ... The last image of Tony on his boat, though, is bathed in a vague white light, which quite possibly symbolizes death. Although it is unclear if an actual resurrection has taken place, the violence involved in Tony's sacrificial act elevates it to a spiritual dimension. In this case, sacrifice leads to regeneration. Similar kinds of sacrifice are performed by HARD-BOILED's Chang and THE KILLER's Sydney. Interestingly, Woo does not distinguish between secular and religious regeneration. Like O'Connor, Woo uses the material world to convey his spiritual and religious themes. Indeed, both authors, who emply what Mircea Eliade refers to as "hierophanies" (material elements that suggest the immaterial realm), could be said to delight in the material sphere, since it is filled with ever-present manifestations of the spiritual. In O'Connor and Woo's stories, one does not disdain the body; one cherishes it as the vessel that allows us passage into the heavenly realm of religion. To appreciate O'Connor and Woo's texts, which are, to appropriate poet Gerard Manley Hopkins' words, "charged with the grandeur of God," we must maintain at all times a dual vision. It's not surprising that there are a significant number of baptisms in Woo's films. ...(33/34)

in certain respects, BULLET IN THE HEAD is the most religious of Woo's films, not only because it contains more religious references (the opening dance number in a Christian school gymnasium, th emany Christian citations in the Vietnam sequences, the rescue of one of the main characters by some monks). The film complements this focus by investigating the manner in which love and devotion function in one's life, and situates these values in a political context. (63)

There is forgiveness for spiritual errors as long as one is on the path to righteousness.... Woo's Christianity: original sin doesn't characterize each person's life so much as the theings that they do, which taken in sum contribute to a kind of spiritual balance sheet. (79)

(In FACE/OFF), Woo has the penultimate face-off between Sean and Catro take place in a seaside chapel during a funeral service, where all the film's major characters converge. In this scene, Woo intentionally exaggerates some of the religious effects from his Hong Kong films. There are repeated slow-motion shots of flying pigeons, a blatant cross-cut to a shot of Castor in a crucifixion pose. When Castor enters the chapel, his derisive comment about the figurative nature of this final confrontation ("Isn't this symbolic? The ultimate meeting between good and evil.") signals Woo's good-humoured distance from wht some critics had considered his overbearing religious representations. (95)

I'll also note that THE KILLER is included in Steven Jay Schneider's 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die - a bit of extra cred.

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