Between the Bullets: The Spiritual Cinema of John Woo – Michael Bliss

Written by:
David Fear
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If you’ve found yourself left breathless by the breakneck pace of Hollywood’s recent action thrillers, you probably have one man to thank: John Woo. It was Woo who almost single-handedly opened the eyes of the West to the hyper-kinetic cinema flourishing in the East, and it was acceptance in the Hollywood mainstream that laid the groundwork for the eventual takeover of the Asian action aesthetic that fills Cineplex screens today. Films like the traitor-and-triad classic A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989) put Hong Kong cinema back on the map, taking age-old policiers and turning them into Wagnerian shoot-outs with insanely high bullet and body counts. It wasn’t that his cop-vs.-thug epics reinvented the action film in the ‘80s and ‘90s so much as they revitalized it, blending influences as far-reaching as pulp crime drama and French New Wave panache into a whirling dervish of sound and fury.

Bring up John Woo’s name to any group of film lovers, however, and the topic of conversation will immediately turn to the director’s propensity for violence. Indeed, his chaos is choreographed with such precision and flair that the term "balletic" is usually applied without hesitation; his name is often invoked in the same breath with Sam Peckinpah, the grand master of lead-filled operatics, as one of the few directors who can make gun battles seem beautiful. What usually isn’t mentioned is the strong spiritual bent present in most of his films. A devout Christian, Woo’s tales of firepower and brimstone are filled with both overt allusions (churches, crosses and the presence of "holy spirit" snow-white pigeons abound in the director’s mise-en-scene) and subtle hints regarding his strong religious background. Yet, more often than not, the focus lies squarely on the spectacle rather than the spiritual; with all those bullets flying and adrenaline coursing, most meditative aspects are buried beneath the waves of exhilaration.

The few books penned on Woo haven’t helped matters much, as they tend to focus either on listing biographical facts (an unfulfilling apprenticeship with the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest Studios, a friendship with Tsui Hark that lead to his Tomorrow breakthrough, the eventual crossover success) or the sensationalistic aspects of his bullet-ridden set pieces. A new book now seeks to balance the scales somewhat, though whether it really helps or hinders the argument that Woo belongs in the company of Bresson and Bergman is uncertain. Between The Bullets: The Spiritual Cinema of John Woo, penned by the aptly named Michael Bliss, has no interest in mounting a comprehensive history or analysis of the filmmaker’s oeuvre in a mere 100 pages–Bliss admits as much in the book’s introduction. Rather, it seeks to put all that onscreen mayhem in its proper context by defending the notion that underneath the noise and movement pervading his work lies a deep sense of Christian values and ideology. Anyone willing to look past the destruction can certainly pick up a hint of divinity lurking about; whether the book’s author really defends that thesis successfully or not is another matter entirely.

Certainly, there’s much evidence to support the idea that there’s more to Woo’s films than meets the jaded eye, and Bliss, who’s written similar studies of Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese, seems interested in delving beneath the surface. Besides noting the aforementioned motifs of churches and birds, Bliss makes much of Woo’s fascination with sacrifices and dopplegangers, both essential parts of Christian faith that seek to balance the darkness with the light. Jesus Christ and Satan, the redeemer and the fallen one forever locked in a Mexican stand-off…it would make for a great Woo scene. Combing through the director’s post Tomorrow Hong Kong work and his later tenure in Hollywood, Bliss finds ethical crises of a faith-based nature and the presence of spiritual advisors in various forms within most of the director’s films. Woo himself shows up as one in HardBoiled, citing his strength of character to "the man upstairs." And the author’s comparison of Woo to Flannery O’Connor, a writer with a strong Christian bent and a fascination with society’s baser instincts, goes a long way towards linking Woo with a long lineage of artists who’ve used nihilism and violence to explore the moral dilemma facing those who seek grace within an evil, brutal world.

Yet even die-hard Woo fans, the choir to whom Bliss is preaching Woo’s exemplary skills, will find themselves frustrated that their patron saint isn’t being properly canonized. Bliss’s central conceit regarding Woo’s status as a religious director, besides the visual iconography, is that the director tells stories full of "hope, sacrifice, and redemption." It’s a point paraded forth and repeated enough times to make most astute readers wonder: Aren’t those elements present in the majority of films? Does this mean that a filmmaker like Tony Scott, who’s tread down that narrative path several times over, a spiritual filmmaker? The story of a hero who must overcome an inner darkness or a character flaw to achieve a rebirth of sorts, redeeming himself for the benefit of a better world…it’s not so much a Christian value so as a central trope in most linear storytelling. To suggest that the presence of those elements alone makes Woo a religious filmmaker barely constitutes a thesis, and yet Bliss offers little else besides such vague generalizations.

One can even forgive Bliss’s lapses into banal writing ("John Woo is a man of contradictions.") or even hyperbole ("He’s the Hong Kong auteur who made the Hollywood system listen to the first truly ethical voice since the heyday of Griffith and Stroheim." Really?). Yet some of his readings of Woo’s films seem so forced that they strain both his credibility and the reader’s good will (a two-frame sequence featuring background shapes "forming a star-like pattern" translates into the hero "fighting for the American spirit"), while others are simply laugh-out-loud ludicrous (A gag in Hard-Boiled featuring flammable pants and a urinating baby is apparently meant to "suggest that children represent a softening of [the hero’s] burning rage…" What!?!). Even after getting Woo to agree in a brief interview at the book’s end that, yes, he is a religious filmmaker, one still feels unconvinced that the notion has been proven.

In the end, the action film junkies and cultural critics that have long thought of Woo as more than the "bullet ballet" guy will view Bullets as the definition of a mixed blessing. Surely, a filmmaker who’s managed to blend the personal and professional in a genre that usually values little more than amusement park thrills deserves a well-written study that does examine his striving for a higher moral ground. He has yet to get that book, however, and the best thing to be said about Bliss’s labor of love is that it makes one want to re-view Woo’s output immediately. The thought that this slim volume should be taken as gospel, however, is simply too heavy a cross to bear.

– David Fear

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