The first Asian filmmaker to helm a major Hollywood feature, John Woo initially emerged as the leading light of the Hong Kong action renaissance of the late '80s. Celebrated for his unique, much-imitated style -- a Molotov cocktail of graceful slow-motion sequences, staccato edits, freeze-frames, and dissolves -- Woo brought a new depth of emotion and visual beauty to the action genre, perfecting an operatic, highly stylized brand of mayhem laced with melodrama, savage wit, and homoerotic undercurrents.
Woo was born Wu Yu Sen on May 1, 1946, in the Guangzhou Canton Province of China, his parents relocating the family to Hong Kong three years later to escape life under communism. The Woos were quite poor, and were homeless for several years. His father, a philosopher, was later hospitalized with tuberculosis for over a decade. It was his mother who introduced Woo to the cinema, where he fell under the sway of American musicals and the films of the French New Wave, with Jean-Pierre Melville emerging as his greatest influence. After the death of his father, Woo was forced to leave school at the age of 16. He took a job at a newspaper called the Chinese Student Weekly, learning film theory by stealing books on motion pictures from area libraries and shops.
Influenced by Western cinema, Woo grew increasingly dissatisfied with the Hong Kong production industry, and decided to begin making his own films in 1968. Over the next two years he made a number of shorts in 8 mm and 16 mm, most of which were later lost. By the close of the decade he was employed as a production assistant and script supervisor at Cathay film studios. By the early '70s, Woo had been elevated to the position of assistant director under the aegis of the prolific Shaw Brothers Studios. At the same time he drew great inspiration from the new breed of American filmmakers including Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick, the hypnotic violence of their work leaving a profound effect.
At Shaw Brothers, Woo began working under martial arts director Chang Che, whose expressive, emotional brand of action filmmaking left an indelible mark on his protegé. After assisting Chang on several films, including Four Riders and Boxer From Shantung, Woo was finally tapped by the rival Golden Harvest Studios to direct his own feature, 1973's The Young Dragons. An innumerable string of low-budget efforts followed, ranging from chop-socky pictures like 1974's The Dragon Tamers and 1975's Hand of Death (Jackie Chan's first major star turn) to the 1975 Chinese opera Princess Chang Ping. In 1977, he directed The Pilferer's Progress, a comedy starring Ricky Hui. The tremendous success of the film established Woo as a comic filmmaker, and of the many features he subsequently helmed, including 1978's Last Hurrah for Chivalry, 1979's From Riches to Rags, and 1982's Plain Jane to the Rescue, the majority were comedies.
By the mid-'80s, Woo's career had largely come to a halt. His later films, including a pair of efforts shot in Taiwan (1984's The Time You Need a Friend and 1985's Run Tiger Run), had all failed miserably at the box office. With the aid of producer Tsui Hark, Woo was able to mount his longtime pet project, A Better Tomorrow, a fusion of the themes of traditional martial arts tales with the kind of ambivalent protagonists and graphic violence found in Western action films. Released in 1986, the film was Woo's commercial and critical breakthrough, becoming Hong Kong's top box-office attraction of the year and launching stars Chow Yun Fat and Leslie Cheung into the upper echelon of Eastern film talent. A Better Tomorrow marked the true emergence of Woo's balletic action style, an aesthetic he continued to hone in films like 1987's A Better Tomorrow II and 1989's masterful The Killer, which became his American breakthrough when released in the U.S. a few years later. The Vietnam war drama Bullet in the Head followed in 1990, and after the success of 1992's Hard-Boiled, Hollywood came calling.
With star Jean-Claude Van Damme in the lead, Woo took the helm for 1993's Hard Target. An updating of The Most Dangerous Game, Hard Target ultimately fell victim to overzealous editing after it was stamped with the dreaded "NC-17" rating by the MPAA. Additionally, the film was inexplicably deemed "too Chinese" by the studio and by the time the film reached stateside theaters it was an little more than an anemic ghost of prime Woo. In its original, uncensored form (which was the form it was released in overseas), the film stands alongside many of Woo's most entertaining Hong Kong efforts.
In the years to come, Woo would remain active in the American film industry, but he never seemed to recapture the magic of his Hong Kong productions. While a few of his Hollywood projects scored comercial success despite critical scorn (like 1996's Broken Arrow), many of Woo's English language films were flat out disappointments for critics and audiences alike (like 1999's Mission: Impossible II), and still others would prove to be so bonkers and strange, they became cult favorits (like 1997's Face/Off). Interestingly, when Woo returned to his roots with period pieces about Chinese history like the Mandarin language war epic Red Cliff, he seemed to regain considerable credability, adding yet a new and fascinating phase to the legendary filmmaker's already storied career.