John Woo to receive the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement

The ceremony awarding John Woo the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement of the 67th Venice International Film Festival will take place on the Lido Friday 3 September at 9:30 PM in the Sala Grande (Palazzo del Cinema).

As an introductory screening to the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement evening, on Thursday 2 two films will be screened: one of John Woo’s masterpieces, The Killer (1989) in the restored version by Weinstein Company, and Mujeokja, the Korean remake of his masterpiece A Better Tomorrow (1985), which is being finished in these days in Seoul by Hae-sung Song, starring the national superstars Jin-mo Joo, Seung-hun Song, Kang Woo Kim, Han Sun Jo.

The award ceremony on Friday 3rd will be followed by the world premiere gala screening, Out of Competition of Jianyu (Reign of Assassins), the film by Su Chao-Pin, produced by Terence Chang, and co-directed by John Woo. Jianyu (Reign of Assassins) boasts a cast including the queen of Asian action films Michelle Yeoh, the Korean superstar Jung Woo Sung, Chinese and Taiwanese stars Barbie Hsu, Wang Xueqi, Kelly Lin, and Angeles Woo.

In the Catalogue of the 2010 Venice Film Festival Marco Mueller has written: “When watching one of his films, you have to forget about judging the quality of the written page – the stylised sets and the shots have contradicted it and burned it forever. Woo is not interested in the translation of a sequence into images or the mere description of an action: he is interested in the rhythm and the cadences, searching for the exact syllable on which the accent falls in order to render the lyricism (…). And yet, even if he knows better than anyone how to choreograph death and destruction, the characters in Woo’s films react morally from the outset to the conclusion of the story, and his filmmaking ethic is manifest: in every important film, he chooses to transcend the initial material with a precise moral adhesion to the reality of the set; the production thus becomes the test of how much truth is contained within that project”.

An epic martial arts thriller, Jianyu (Reign of Assassins) is set in ancient China, with the expert swordswoman Michelle Yeoh on a mission to bring the remains of a Buddhist monk to their place of eternal rest. Legend has it that the corpse of the holy monk has secret powers. Along the way, the protagonist falls in love with Jiang, whose father was killed by the sect the girl belongs to. Love blossoms between the two, though the girl does not know that Jiang too is an expert in martial arts. Soon however the tension rises between the two, when the truth about the girl’s past begins to emerge. A lethal triangle begins to form between her, Jiang and the band of assassins that is looking for the remains of the monk. Jianyu (Reign of Assassins) is distributed internationally by Fortissimo Films.

A Taiwanese director with versatile talent, Su Chao-Pin won early success as a screenwriter. The Cabbie (2000) won a nomination for best screenplay at the Golden Horse Awards that year, whereas Double Vision (Shuang tong, 2002) was the biggest hit among Chinese-language films in 2002. The episode written by Su in Three: Going Home (Saam gaang 2002), produced and directed by Peter Chan, won great public acclaim throughout Asia. In 2002 Su Chao-Pin wrote and directed his first film Better than Sex (Aiqing Lingyao, 2002), a comedy with a peculiar style, encompassing elements of humour, imagination and fantasy. The film captured the interest of the public and became the fourth greatest success of all time in Taiwanese film. In 2005, Su Chao-Pin directed his second film, Silk (Guisi), which he also wrote, and which brought together the creative talents of the best actors and producers in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong. Both Tunneling and Silk (Guisi, 2005) won the award for Best Screenplay from the Office of Information, Taiwan’s “Ministry of Culture”.

The Killer (Die xue shuang siong, 1989), a revisitation of the neo-noir films by Jean-Pierre Melville, crosses the stylized hyperbole of violence and a dizzying pace of production with melancholy and melodramatic atmospheres, action-painting with psychological investigation. The film is considered a masterpiece of action film, and the first summa of the poetic filmmaking of its director, John Woo. The film tells the story of a hit-man (played by Yun-Fat Chow, the director’s icon-actor), overcome by feelings of guilt after accidentally injuring young singer Jennie during a gunfight. Jong accepts his last commission as a killer in order to earn the money that Jennie needs for surgery. But the commission is extremely arduous and will lead the protagonist into a journey of no return; between acts of betrayal and redemption, it reaches its climax in a final gunfight with a tragic outcome. A milestone for the international distribution of Hong Kong cinema, The Killer owes its well-deserved fame to the innovative action sequences, which have produced countless attempts at imitation. In them, the revolutionary use of editing allows the hyper-realistic violence of the gunfights to be choreographed with the elegance and grace of a ballet.

“Since the success of Diphuet seunghung/The Killer – the Venice Film Festival Director has also written – John Woo has contributed more than anyone to changing the international image of Hong Kong cinema, which has managed to garner the enduring attention of international audiences and critics (…) becoming in turn a reference figure for the continually renewed trends of genre cinema in Hong Kong and South Korea at the end of the 1980s”.

This bond never ended: in this weeks the post-production of Mujeokja, the Korean remake of Yinghung boonsik/A Better Tomorrow (1985), directed by Hae-sung Song is being completed.

Hyuk and Chul are two brothers who have been separated since childhood. Hyuk, the older one, has now become a weapon smuggling gang boss, while Chul has become a policeman. Hyuk and Young-chun share 10 years of friendship while leading the gang as two aces, but their tight friendship becomes damaged because of a dirty trick played by Tae-min, one of the gangsters, while Hyuk wants to escape from the band of gangs. 

Chul wants to get rid of the gangs. Young-chun wants to reestablish himself. Their relationship gets tangled with deep wounds and misunderstanding. With Tae-min’s plot to take hold of everything, their destiny heads for an unexpected ending.

Mujeokja (2010) is an International coproduction of Korea, Thailand, Japan and Hong Kong, produced by Fingerprint Pictures (South-Korea) with Hong Kong’s Fortune Star Entertainment and Thailand’s Zuzac. Fingerprint will distribute the film in Asia (excluding China and Japan) and CJ Entertainment will distribute the film for the rest of the world, including China.

Biographical Notes

John Woo

John Woo’s career began in the Seventies in Hong Kong, where for two decades he remained at the centre of its flourishing film industry, directing twenty-six feature-length films. Known primarily as a specialist in comedy until the mid-Eighties, he later earned recognition for a series of inspired gangster dramas that unexpectedly shattered all box-office records, and brought him international fame.

Wu Yusen (John Woo) was born on May 1 1946 in Guangzhou, China, to a very poor family that moved to Hong Kong when he was only four years old. His father grew ill with tuberculosis and his mother had to support the family in a shantytown. Today Woo states that he owes her everything. Thanks to the help of an American family, who adopted him long distance, he was educated at the Lutheran Matteo Ricci College. But he also grew up “thriving” on Western film: first musicals, then the films of Peckinpah, Melville, Truffaut, Leone, Scorsese, and the beloved Kurosawa.

Following his irresistible passion, he soon wound up at the court of Zhang Che (Chang Cheh), the master of martial arts films.  He trained in the field as a screenwriter and director (he first worked at Cathay Film as supervisor of screenplays, then at Shaw Brothers as assistant director), and in 1967 created an association that not only produced amateur films, but also organized seminars and discussion groups, thereby contributing to the formation of the new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers, a creative workshop where Asia and the West contaminated one another.

He made his debut in 1973 at the age of twenty-six (he was the youngest director in Hong Kong), with Farewell Buddy, a martial arts films that the stylization of the violence – experimented with from the start in its most radical forms, and brought to a level of paroxysm – condemned to be held up by censorship for two years (it was cut and re-edited in 1975  for release under the name The Young Dragons).

Woo then shifted towards musical films and comedy, where he refined his choreographic conception of production with the Cantonese opera film Princess Chang Ping (1975), followed by Follow the Star, a tribute to the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and the farce Money Crazy (both filmed in 1977). In the years following, he alternated comedies and martial arts films, with incursions into fantasy films. He is the “internal” director for series productions, where he proved to be a genius at mixing and mastering different film genres.

He came out of it when Tsui Hark, an established director and producer (who got his first job in a studio – the Golden Harvest Studio – thanks to Woo), returned the favour by financing an ambitious project in 1985, a sort of family saga similar to The Godfather: the gangster film A Better Tomorrow (with Chow Yun-fat, who has been Woo’s iconic actor in Hong Kong ever since) was a box-office hit and Woo defined his highly personal style, melodramatic and violent, paroxysmal and at the same time poignant and romantic.

In 1987, in A Better Tomorrow II, the director succeeded in exceeding the previous film: the long (20’) final sequence is a textbook case, similar to the scene in The Wild Bunch by Sam Peckinpah, one of the directors he idolizes.

Woo’s style was now mature in terms of expressive power. In 1989, he filmed The Killer, a revisitation of the neo-noir films by Jean-Pierre Melville, which crosses the stylized hyperbole of violence and a dizzying pace of production with melancholy and melodramatic atmospheres, action-painting with psychological investigation. His next film, Bullet in the Head (1990), is his “cursed” masterpiece, a war film set during the war in Vietnam, which the censorship by the British colony, and by the action film market itself, would cut by at least one third. 

After yet another success – in Hong Kong and on the international markets – Hard Boiled (1991) became a cult film for all the “Cormanesque” filmmakers who have contributed to changing American film (all of them, from Jonathan Demme to John Landis, are unconditional admirers of the director), Woo left Hong Kong (in 1992) and moved to Hollywood. There, in 1993, he filmed Hard Target, an action film with Jean-Claude Van Damme, considered halfway between an arthouse and a commercial film. But a number of cuts and changes were made to the film, which Woo was forced to accept during post-production.

The theft of two nuclear warheads was the subject of Broken Arrow (1996), with John Travolta and Christian Slater, where Woo retrieves his personal style and pays tribute to the directors of his “canon”, Sergio Leone first and foremost, with “a work for art lovers, for aesthetes, not even for the most hardcore of film lovers: this way or nothing” (Enrico Ghezzi).

But it was above all his masterpiece Face/Off (1997), a spectacular variation on the theme of the double – starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage – that consecrated the international triumph of his stylistic and thematic universe: the constant play of mirrors in the battle between good and evil, the nostalgia for lost affections, the fear of loneliness.

After the extraordinary success of Face/Off, John Woo was chosen by producer/actor Tom Cruise to direct the sequel to Mission:Impossible. In Mission:Impossible 2 (2000), overwhelming in its incredible sequence of frames, Woo succeeded in humanizing the spy Ethan Hunt, given the adventure greater breadth beyond the action.

In 2002 Woo brought Windtalkers to the big screen: starring Nicolas Cage, it was set during the battle of Saipan, focusing on yet another of his most personal themes: the friendship and the conflict/relationship between two men who are profoundly different in character and life choices.

In 2003, for Paramount, he filmed the science fiction thriller Paycheck (2003), with Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. Based on a story by Philip K.Dick, the film is also a tribute to Hitchcock (it recalls the atmospheres of North by Northwest).

In 2006, he made Song Song and Little Cat, which was part of the film in episodes All the Invisible Children, presented Out of Competition at the Venice Film Festival.

After so many action films, Woo moved into the world of videogames and animation, bringing with him his unmistakable visual style. His first videogame, Stranglehold (modeled after Hard Boiled) was an instant success. He also produced the “anime” Ex Machina, part of the Appleseed saga. In addition to animation and videogames, Woo worked with Virgin Comics to produce his first series of comic books, 7 Brothers, published in 2007.

Starting in the early 2000s, Woo traveled more and more frequently to China, until he felt ready to tackle the colossal project Red Cliff (2008), his first great production in his native land, a martial saga that sought to reinterpret ancient political history to find elements that help to understand more recent history. This was the most expensive film – 80 million dollars – ever made in China, a superb approach to spectacular art film (but not “à la Zhang Yimou”), which the director from Hong Kong elaborates into a complex, refined and cerebral film, creating a saga drawn from history and classical literature. The story is set in the year 208 A.D., the era of the Warring States and is based on a series of intrigues and plots that the Emperor Han Xiandi will repress in bloodshed, thus unifying the Middle Kingdom.

Woo’s most recent effort is the co-direction and production of Jianyu jianghu (Rain of Swords), a cloak and dagger film starring Michelle Yeoh and Angeles Woo (the director’s younger daughter), which is currently being filmed in the studios at Hengdian, the largest production facility in the world. With producer Terence Chang (his accomplice throughout most of his career), he runs his production company Lion Rock (from the name of a mountain in Hong Kong), which has offices in Los Angeles, Beijing and Hong Kong. This year at the 67th Venice International Film Festival he will present, Out of Competition, Jianyu (Reign of Assassins), co-directed with Su Chao-Pin.