John Woo Yu-Sen SBS is a Hong Kong film director, producer and screenwriter. Woo is known for his highly chaotic action sequences, stylized imagery, Mexican standoffs, frequent use of slow motion and allusions to wuxia and Western cinema. He was also a pioneer of heroic bloodshed films (a crime action film genre involving Chinese triads) and the gun fu genre in Hong Kong action cinema, before working in Hollywood films.
Considered one of the major figures of Hong Kong cinema, Woo has directed several notable action films including A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), Hard Boiled (1992), and Red Cliff (2008/2009). He is a winner of the Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Picture, as well as a Golden Horse Award, an Asia Pacific Screen Award, and a Saturn Award. Woo's Hollywood films include the action films Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1996), the action thriller Face/Off (1997) and the action spy film Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). He also created the comic series Seven Brothers, published by Virgin Comics. He cites his three favorite films as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï. He is the founder and chairman of the production company Lion Rock Productions.
Woo was born as Wu Yu-seng (Ng Yu-sum in Cantonese) on May 1, 1946 in Guangzhou, China, amidst the chaotic Chinese Civil War. Due to school age restrictions, his mother changed his birth date to 22 September 1948, which is what remains on his passport. The Woo family, who were Christians, faced persecution during Mao Zedong's early anti-bourgeois purges after the communist revolution in China, and fled to Hong Kong when he was five.
Impoverished, the Woo family lived in the slums at Shek Kip Mei. His father was a teacher, though rendered unable to work by tuberculosis, and his mother was a manual laborer on construction sites. The family was rendered homeless by the Shek Kip Mei Fire of 1953. Charitable donations from disaster relief efforts enabled the family to relocate; however, violent crime had by then become commonplace in Hong Kong housing projects. At age three he was diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Following surgery on his spine, he was unable to walk correctly until eight years old, and as a result his right leg is shorter than his left leg.
His Christian upbringing shows influences in his films. As a young boy, Woo had wanted to be a Christian minister. He later found a passion for movies influenced by the French New Wave especially Jean-Pierre Melville. Woo has said he was shy and had difficulty speaking, but found making movies a way to explore his feelings and thinking and would "use movies as a language".
Woo found respite in Bob Dylan and in American Westerns. He has stated the final scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made a particular impression on him in his youth: the device of two comrades, each of whom fire pistols from each hand, is a recurrent spectacle later found in his own work.
Return to Asian cinema
In 2008, Woo returned to Asian cinema with the completion of the two-part epic war film Red Cliff, based on a historical battle from Records of the Three Kingdoms. Produced on a grand scale, it is his first film in China since he emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States in 1993. Part 1 of the film was released throughout Asia in July 2008, to generally favourable reviews and strong attendance. Part 2 was released in China in January 2009.
John Woo was presented with a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 2010.
He followed Red Cliff with another two-part film, The Crossing, in 2014 and 2015. Featuring an all-star cast, the four-hour epic tells the parallel stories of several characters who all ultimately find themselves passengers on the doomed Taiping steamer, which sank in 1949 en route from mainland China to Taiwan and has been described as "China's Titanic".
Following the box-office disappointment of The Crossing, Woo and producer Terence Chang disbanded Lion Rock Productions.