His signature style is unmistakable: the two guns, the balletic action movements, the doves. There have been imitators all over the world, but his latest movie proves that no one does John Woo quite like the director himself. After making two big-budget period epics on the Chinese mainland and overcoming serious illness, the father of the heroic bloodshed genre returns to his roots with Manhunt.
‘I wanted to go back to something I excelled in,’ says Woo, who defined his style with Hong Kong films A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Bullet in the Head, and went on to Hollywood to make blockbusters like Broken Arrow and Face/Off. ‘I was so moved when I picked up a gun again. It’s been a long time.’
Based on a Japanese novel by Juko Nishimura, Manhunt tells the story of a lawyer (Zhang Hanyu) on the run for a murder he didn’t commit. Japanese superstar Masaharu Fukuyama (Like Father, Like Son) co-stars as the detective tasked to catch him. It’s the type of narrative Woo has always been drawn to: ‘I really like stories of two male heroes building mutual understanding and respect – how they influence each other while forming a kind of kinship.’
Woo wanted to shoot the film in Tokyo, where the original story was set, but ran into too many difficulties getting permits to film gun fights and car chases on its streets. He turned to Osaka, Japan’s second city, where the government welcomed Woo with open arms. ‘Osaka is a city of businesspeople who are experienced with working and travelling abroad, so the local culture is very genuine, very straight-talking,’ Woo says. ‘This cultural difference made it easier to get things done in Osaka.’
Even though Manhunt is a nostalgic throwback to Woo’s own classics, the director also wanted the genre to change with the times. For example, he has finally put those guns in the hands of women – groundbreaking for a director who spent his entire career making men with guns look cool. ‘This is the first time I’ve put female assassins in a film,’ says Woo, referring to characters played by his daughter Angeles Woo and South Korean actor Ha Ji-won. ‘People have said that it is pretty refreshing and surprising to see.’
But what about the doves? Don’t worry, the white birds play an important role in one action sequence. ‘I didn’t want to put in doves at first. But ever since the film was announced, people kept asking me if I’ll put in the doves,’ he says. ‘Since everyone wanted to see it, I put them in to make everyone happy.’
Welcome back, Mr Woo. You’ve been sorely missed.