John Woo is a Hong Kong cinematic master who rose to global prominence on the strength of his distinct artistic flourishes in perfecting the gun-fu genre, which modernized the traditional kung-fu film to include hails of bullets. Born in Guangzhou, China, in 1946, Woo grew up destitute in the Hong Kong slum district of Shek Kip Mei. His family received support from the Lutheran Church, including funds for his education. To show his gratitude, he considered entering the clergy, but his ministers, recognizing a special affinity, advised him to stick to the arts. We can perhaps consider this an act of divine intervention.
Many of the influences on glorious display in one of Woo’s most pivotal early works, the martial-arts film Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979), can be traced back to his meteoric rise through Hong Kong’s studio system. At the age of twenty-three, he began as a production assistant at Cathay, before moving on to become assistant director and script supervisor to Chang Cheh at Shaw Brothers. Chang, one of Hong Kong’s most successful directors of all time, had become famous for masculinizing the previously female-centered wuxia pian (the fantastical sword-fighting film genre); in contrast, his colleague King Hu preferred to continue the genre’s traditional practice of featuring nuxia (female knights) as protagonists. At one point, Woo’s colleagues attempted to shift him into acting, but Chang vetoed the move, stating that Woo’s future lay in directing. This gave him the self-confidence to develop his craft—and Chang’s mentorship proved crucial to the films that Woo would soon make, not least Last Hurrah for Chivalry.
In 1973, at the age of twenty-seven, Woo made his first feature film, the independently produced The Young Dragons; later that same year, Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest hired him as a contract director (eventually also agreeing to release The Young Dragons). This made Woo a Young Turk, since one typically had to wait until one’s forties to direct within the Hong Kong studio system. Chow recognized, appreciated, and supported Woo’s ability to transform, rather than merely replicate, film genres. At Golden Harvest, Woo quickly established a track record of box-office success and creative risk-taking. Wanting to break with the standard approach to film comedy, the most profitable genre at that time, Woo chose to create a humorous cinematic version of a Beijing-opera classic with Princess Chang Ping (1976), and to take a hyperbolic approach to comedy with Money Crazy (1977).
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