Thursday, June 04, 2015

John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, and Tianmen Square Massacre

Excerpted my post from thread about Hong Kong movies in which I posted some background on what used to be my most favorite movie all-time (including Hollywood movies) but now is ranked #2 behind director Johnnie To's "The Mission."

Specifically I discuss star Chow Yun-fat and director John Woo and their collaboration on A Better Tomorrow 1 as well as the significance of that movie in Hong Kong cinema history. Some digressions on Tsui Hark, Tianamen Square Massacre, which coincidentally today is the 26th anniversary of that tragic event, Jet Li, Chang Cheh, Five Venoms and much more.


IMO if you will watch John Woo/Chow Yun-fat movies, you should watch in a strict order if you can find the movies:

  1. A Better Tomorrow 1
  2. A Better Tomorrow 2
  3. The Killer
  4. Hard Boiled

Many consider Bullet in the Head as Woo's magnum opus. I like it a lot but I prefer ABT, The Killer and HB over it as I'm a huge Chow Yun-fat fanboy and Chow is not in BITH.Watching the movies in this order will show the progression of Woo's stylized gun fu over his career, each new movie outdoing his previous!

BITH is a thinly veiled statement by Woo against China's govt and the Tianamen Square Massacre (govt sent tanks into Tinamen Square to squash the student protests, even opening fire and killing the students!)

Coincidentally it was on this date back in 1989 - 26 years ago.

John Woo used to be good friends with Tsui Hark who produced ABT 1 and 2. At the time Tsui was a bigger director as Woo's career waned from his late 70's and early 80's comedy hits. Woo and Tsui wrote a story that became ABT 1 which was loosely based on their good friendship. They had creative differences on ABT 2 and ABT 3. Woo left ABT 3 and Tsui took over directorial efforts. If you look at the plots of both BITH and ABT 3 they are very similar, even down to the thinly veiled criticism of the Chinese govt handling of Tianamen Square protests.

Not sure if the two made up over the years.

Tsui Hark is known for A Chinese Ghost Story; The Blade; making Jet Li a superstar with Once Upon a Time in China 1-3 ... Jet and Tsui had differences and Jet left the OUATIC series only to reconcile for #6, Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain, Legend of Zu and loads more.

Within Hong Kong's cinema history John Woo's and Chow Yun-fat's A Better Tomorrow 1 was hugely influential and very important. It reinvigorated the HK movie industry.

In 1986 it was the highest grossing HK film ever. Not sure which movies have since broke that record. ABT 1 made Chow Yun-fat a superstar... HK cinema was stagnating with comedies which was the vogue of early 80's. Woo ushered in a New Wave in HK cinema with his "heroic bloodshed" movies and his ballet-like gunfights. He used slomo on certain scenes especially during the gunfights. One of his favorite directors is Hollywood bad boy "Bloody" Sam Peckinpah. If you haven't watched The Wild Bunch I highly recommend it. You will see Peckinpah's influence on Woo.

Countless imitators came out after ABT1's success. Loads of Triad movies/heroic bloodshed movies came out.

Woo apprenticed under the great 1970's director Chang Cheh. If you don't know Chang, I'm sure you know his movies... many, many of the old school Shaw Brothers movies was directed by him. At the time his godsons were the Shaw stars ... Ti Lung (who later revitalized his career playing opposite Chow in ABT 1 and 2), David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng to name a few in movies such as One Armed-Swordsman, Boxer from Shangtung, Heroes Two, Five Masters of Shaolin, Chinatown Kid, Brave Archer, Five Element Ninjas and much much more.

Later in late 70's early 80's he gathered some supporting actors and made them the core group of stars in one of his 1978 movie, Five Venoms. The Venom Gang became his godsons too and their popularity skyrocketed after the movie premiered.

Anyway Chang loved the heroic bloodshed themes of brotherhood and loyalty. And it rubbed off on Woo.

I may be rambling but the importance of ABT1 cannot be overlooked in HK Cinema histor.

Oh yeah, ABT 1 is a story of two brothers. One a Triad gangster (Ti Lung as Sung Tze-ho) and his blood brother (Leslie Cheung as Kit) graduating from the police academy. Their father urges the gangster Sung, an underboss, to quit as his younger brother is a cop now. The triad boss asksSung to do one more job but there is a double cross and Sung is caught and jailed. The underboss does his time and comes out looking to go straight but his former right hand man, Mark (Chow Yun-fat) wants to get revenge on the double-crosser who is now the underboss. The gun-fu, at the time, was so different than other movies gunfights as they were almost ballet in nature and stylized with the slomo's. This became one of Woo's trademarks. At the time, the gun fu was innovative.

ABT 2 - due to the popularity and success of ABT 1, ABT 2 was made. Mark's twin brother, Ken, is introduced and is played by Chow Yun-fat. He and Sung has to protect Lung played by Dean Shek as a rival gang is out to kill Lung. The gun fu in ABT 2 eclipses ABT 1's. The last part of the movie seems like a 3o minutes long firefight!

Next, is The Killer is about an assassin who accidentally blinds an innocent bystander and feels guilt and tries to help her while the gangsters try to kill the assassin. If audiences thought Woo cannot outdo ABT 2, they were wrong. The Killer took it up another notch!

After watching the previous 3 movies mentioned above, the Woo/Chow fan will think nothing can top The Killer. Wrong! Woo/Chow came out with Hard Boiled which is about a tough-as-nails cop working with an undercover cop to bring down a triad boss. The opening Teahouse scene is a thing of beauty. The last fight in the Hospital is so over-the-top, it's incredible!

My simple descriptions doesn't begin to convey the rich plots and superb gun fu. HK and Hollywood alike has copied Woo's gun fu to death. But he was the Master who started it all. I truly hope you enjoy these movies. Envy you for watching it for your first time!


In case you missed my other Chow Yun-fat entries I've posted, please check out:

NOTE:  This post dedicated to the families and friends of the deceased from the Tianamen Square Massacre. For more info, please check:



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