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the killer (john woo, 1989)

I’ve been a bit sick the past few days, and so I sat down to watch an old favorite to pass the time. I wandered around the On Demand menus until I saw this, and cranked it up.

I wrote an essay back in 1994, “The Meaning of Chow (It’s in His Mouth)”. I spent a lot of time explaining why I thought I could never penetrate the essence of Chow (and HK films in general).

It is odd and charming ... yet I feel like my words have been spoken before, by other American dilettantes, taking pleasure in the 'exotic' Orient. Charming, because different. Odd, because different. Above all, different. However Hong Kong action movies are perceived in Hong Kong itself, in the U.S. they are first and foremost different, alien, even as they freely borrow from our own movie traditions. It is that difference, in part, that I am responding to when I watch Chow Yun-Fat. Perhaps I even make a fetish of that difference; I embrace the alien, make it, for a moment, mine.... I am confronted with the barriers between my experiences and Asian culture. For an American to watch a Chow Yun-Fat movie is to partake in an ultimate experiment in audience-response theory. We don't understand the culture that produced a Chow Yun-Fat, so we are left to the subjective experience we bring to the movie theatre.

Ironically, this “theory” of the unknowable “meaning of Chow” was proven wrong in a connecting essay by a friend, Jillian Sandell, whose writing on John Woo was so on target she heard from Woo, who said it was one of the best things he had read about his work (she managed to get an interview with Woo out of this exchange). My disconnect was personal, not universal.

In my own essay, I argued that without the cultural context of growing up Chinese, I ended up focusing on more surface tendencies, on things I could fetishize, like his mouth (“Blowing smoke, dangling his toothpick, eating chocolate, or just smiling ... ultimately, when trying to explain why Chow Yun-Fat is cool, it comes down to his mouth.”)

I’ve watched a lot of Chow Yun-Fat movies since then, and a lot of John Woo films, as well. And a lot of Hong Kong movies ... while my passions have dimmed somewhat, throughout most of the 90s, I obsessed about the movies, seeking them out wherever I could (I once went into a Chinese video store where no one spoke English, pointed at a picture of Chow, and said, “I want his movies!”). Gradually their popularity in the States grew ... one repertory theatre in Berkeley showed HK double-bills every Thursday night. But for me, The Killer is where it started.

I was at the video store, and I saw a life-size cardboard cutout advertising The Killer. I no longer remember the details, but it was so striking that I knew I had to rent it. Thus, The Killer stands as the movie that introduced me to Hong Kong films, especially of the urban action genre.

I once showed The Killer to my students in an introductory class at Cal. I had many Asian students in the class, and I remember one of them telling me that their parents were pissed off, that they didn’t pay all that money to send their kid to Cal only to have them watch trashy HK movies. I was surprised, since I thought of The Killer as an art film.

There are John Woo movies I like more than I like The Killer. Hard-Boiled is the standard, Bullet in the Head an over-the-top favorite (OK, all of these movies are over-the-top), A Better Tomorrow solidified the “Heroic Bloodshed” genre’s popularity. Not to mention Woo’s films in other genres, like Once a Thief and Red Cliff. But The Killer will always be first.

The Killer excels in the staging of action scenes, of course, but what marked this film, and many others in the genre, is the relationship between the male leads. Sandell wrote:

[T]his homoeroticism always occurs within moments of excessive violence, a violence that is invariably represented as beautiful, stylized and desirable. The very filmic techniques used — such as soft focus, slow-motion and subtle colors — characterize the violence as romantic. Moreover, in shoot-outs between the heroes and villains, the heroes seem to almost 'dance' and 'swoon' as they fire their weapons, and such scenes are inundated with discharge (bullets and blood) being expelled from male bodies and weapons.

And, describing the final shootout where cop and assassin join forces:

[T]hey do more than merely join forces; they fire their weapons in harmony, they gracefully leap away from flying bullets, they gaze lovingly into each others eyes, and they move in synchronized time and motions, employing a kind of mutuality not found elsewhere in the film. Thus, the relationship between the two men is characterized as being not merely homoerotic but also, in some senses, transcendent.

I was pleased to find that The Killer holds up well. I'm still astonished both by the violence and the emotionalism, but my reaction is much as it was in the past. The movie doesn’t seem sillier now. It is quite the same. #635 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.

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