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Film Club March 2017: THE KILLER (John Woo, 1989)


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Ok, here we go. Our film selection for March is John Woo's 1989 actioner The Killer. Here's IMDB. Here's a few articles:

John Woo's Mesmerizing The Killer Changed Action-Movie History Forever

Here's MZS on The Killer.

Here's a 2000 article on Woo from Senses of Cinema.

And here's our thread on spiritual themes in Woo's films.

I'm looking forward to the discussion, y'all. I've seen very few of Woo's movies, so I'm looking forward to catching The Killer later this week. The movie is streaming on Netflix.


Edited by NBooth
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Some initial observations upon re-viewing this, with SPOILERS:

  • Woo's style is completely unique with his operatic dissolves, zooms, and use of color. This is like a Michael Mann remake of Chaplin's City Lights. With its '80s aesthetic and excessive stylings, it can feel pretty campy, though it never feels anywhere near as quirky or outrageous as Seijun Suzuki's films. This is so primal at times, and certainly romantic as it explores character's obsessive fascinations with each other--Au Jong with Jenny, Li with Au Jong, Fung Sei with Au Jong, etc. Woo takes it all very seriously, which somehow really works here, and *really* doesn't in Mission: Impossible II.
  • Are there different names used in different version of the subtitles? On Netflix, Chow Yun Fat's character is named "Au Jong," but I recall seeing a DVD where he was named "Jeff."
  • This is a very strange, very detailed observation: In some scenes, Danny Lee (Li) has a really long hair growing out of his neck, like he forgot to shave there for 10 years. It's long enough to be noticeable. If you see it, you can't unsee it.
  • The Christian imagery of the church and crucifixes is comes close to being heavy-handed. As MZS writes in the review linked above, Au Jong is a remorseful devil reshaping himself into a Christ figure who protects innocents. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, whether Woo is trying to make an explicit connection with Christian themes of redemption and salvation, or whether it just looks cool to have a bloody shootout in a church with doves and candles.
  • Man, is that ending bleak. The shot of Au Jong and Jenny groping around on the ground, covered in blood, both blinded by bullets and unable to reach each other--that's a depressing image.
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  • 2 weeks later...

Ok, so finally got around to watching this. Or, rather, re-watching it, since it turns out that this is a Woo movie I have seen, though I forgot (it would have been about four years ago). So, initial thoughts:

1. This feels the most Shaw Brothers of any Woo film I've yet watched (and, no, I've not seen Last Hurrah for Chivalry, which apparently came out through Golden Harvest). Obviously we've got the Great Woo Theme of Male Friendship. Tripled, actually--between the two assassins and two cops and then between Chow and Lee. I was reminded while looking over some of the stuff on Senses of Cinema that Woo's mentor was the Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh, he of Crippled Avengers fame. In fact, Woo worked with Chang on Blood Brothers, which totally makes sense. And, of all the Woo flicks I've seen (not many), this one feels the most like it could come out of that training; even the ending, which I'll get to, feels like the sort of thing that would occur in a Chang Cheh movie: big action scene, bloody showdown, and--curtain. The thrills have been had and there's no need to wrap anything up.


2. Agreed on how bleak the ending is. I mean, not only are Ah Jong's eyes presumably ruined, but it seems questionable how well Li will be able to deliver on his promise. And what that means in the context of the whole thing might be worth unpacking a bit, though it does seem to me that bleak endings are part of the genre, here. Apparently the originally planned ending wasn't so bleak, but scheduling got in the way.

3. The religious stuff is interesting, but I need to see some of y'all talk it out a bit. I mean, ok: there's a sense in which Ah Jong is seeking redemption. Fair enough. There's the moment where the Madonna and Child take a bullet for Jenny and everyone stares as if something significant just happened, though they quickly go back to shooting. There's the doves, which I remember reading somewhere betoken a spiritual significance for Woo. According to IMDB, Mean Streets had something to do with the religious themes. Which, fair enough. I'm not convinced that these bits and pieces are nearly as intrinsic as the homosocial bonding--and, then again, perhaps that bonding itself takes on some sort of spiritual dimension if regarded properly. I'd like to hear more on this, though.

4. If I'm going to mention Chang Cheh, it's only fair that I also mention Sergio Leone, whose influence is felt not only in the harmonica but also in the way Ah Jong is, Once Upon a Time in the West-style, the last of a dying breed quickly giving way to both less scrupulous criminals and the police. Then again, this is also a theme from The Seven Samurai, no? --which is a movie Woo has cited as a favorite, iirc.

5. Visually, I really like this one. I mentioned on Facebook that, between Riverdale and John Wick Chapter 2, I'm really loving neon lately, and the first half of this movie in particular has some gorgeous splashes of color. 

6. Speaking of visuals, here's cinematographer Peter Pau on The Killer:


Edited by NBooth
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Finally saw it.

Wow, was that incredibly stylistic. The kinetic energy is intensified by Woo's choppy editing, which made it a heck of roller coaster ride (which I enjoyed).

Not sure what to make of the ending. I appreciate Woo's willingness to go as bleak as he does in a sort of "cost of violence" way, but Li shooting the triad leader seemed to be giving into audience vigilante bloodlust, especially by preceding it with that flashback.

As to the religious imagery, I really don't know how deep any of it is; I'm inclined to say not very. Chow's sanctuary (the church) being destroyed by his violent lifestyle seems to be a very obvious piece of symbolism, as well as him losing his sight, and thus losing the ability to restore the one thing he wanted to for the whole film (Jenny's sight.) The idea of true friendship being willing to lay down one's life for another was subtle enough that I felt it was woven into the film pretty well.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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  • 2 weeks later...

I was able to catch this one before the month was up! Definitely made me think about some of the same things others have: the stylization of violence, spiritual themes, etc.

I didn’t realize that I’d seen a couple John Woo films before. I saw Windtalkers and MI:2 back when I was in high school and was watching whatever was popular, before my taste in film had matured. I think I saw both in the theater, and didn’t think that much of them, even at the time.

I generally don’t like action/shoot-em-up films very much. So the fact that I enjoyed The Killer says something. And while stylized film violence has less of an effect on me than less-stylized violence, it’s really hit or miss with me (usually miss). But it worked in this film. Even without realizing that this film originated many of those stylistic flourishes I’ve seen before, the original felt stranger in a good way. And there were a handful of displays of violence that weren’t stylized and so made an impression more as violence: the open eye of the assassinated crime boss at the boat race; the priest shot at point blank range by the villain crime boss near the end.

This film made me dislike Quentin Tarantino’s films (that I’ve seen) even more than I already did. They’re well-crafted, but Tarantino’s feel even thinner than this, his creative plotting even more empty, and his stylized violence seems practically banal in comparison.

I was most impressed by the film’s style, and OH, is it stylized! That’s what this film is most about, I thought. That fact that it’s short on “substance” felt okay to me, surprisingly so, because the style is the substance. It’s creating a kind of visual nuance. The fact that the film used basically all the predictable tropes (killer with a conscience, taking one last job, lamenting the loss of the “old code,” chases, double crossing, etc.) didn’t make it feel predictable though. It used those conventions to do something more interesting with the style. I could see that the two sidekicks to the leads would probably sacrifice themselves, and I was pretty sure Inspector Li wouldn’t die because he’s the audience’s surrogate in the film for appreciating what a great guy Ah Jong actually is, but I didn’t foresee the ending.

Yes, the ending was bleak. But the sheer unlikeliness of Jennie and Ah Jong both being blinded by gunshots made it feel less affecting to me than it might have. It did seem like obvious symbolism, as did the church getting shredded. I appreciated those points made by others. But that symbolism was somewhat undermined for me by the utterly fantastical nature of the plot and the action. I agree that this suggests that Ah Jong didn’t so much undergo a transformation in the film as that he already had a conscience and he suffered for not listening to it.

That said, as to the film’s spirituality, I appreciated that it was there. When Sei asks Ah Jong in the church at the beginning, “Do you believe in all this?” I really felt like the film was asking that same question, asking us to gauge what follows against the peace of the church that Ah Jong enjoys. Those church shots were some of the loveliest in the film. And there were probably about as many candles lit as shot up bodies by the end of the film! I thought it was significant that when he accepts the final hit job, it’s not at the church. This was all undermined for me somewhat by the final shootout at the church though. Like the film was taking that reverential and meaningful juxtapositions of the cross, the Virgin, the dove, etc. and saying, “yeah, but you know what would be even more awesome than this—a shootout that destroys it!” The statue of the Virgin Mary exploding in slo-mo from a shotgun blast seemed to reveal the films priorities. That said, I still appreciate that the film included all that. Stylized violence with an equally stylized spiritual dimension that offers some meta-commentary on the style itself—better than most films of this genre that I've seen.

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