Beautiful Violence – The John Woo Connection

Although I want to write about violence and video games (as I have done two times previously), I need to preface my thoughts with a discussion of film. Forgive me the indulgence, but this will all make sense in the end. I promise!

I really, really like John Woo films.

I imagine you might have guessed as such, seeing my glowing examination of Max Payne 2, but there’s a deeper reason why it resonates with me, I think.

Part of it is the stylish violence, as just about anyone can guess and understand. Heck, I have to say it’s cool-looking; that’s what John Woo does best. What’s interesting, however, is the indifferent attitude of everyone around John Woo. Apparently, Chow Yun-Fat (pictured above in iconic gunplay splendor) hates the sounds of guns and is something of a pacifist himself. Most everyone on set hates the sound of gun fire, but Mr. Woo never wears headphones – he just loves the sound of it. That’s really, really weird stuff.

There’s a way that he frames the action that provides the impact that it does. Most directors don’t understand what makes Hong Kong action cinema works – it isn’t in excessive action or craziness, but pacing and tension. Sure, Woo’s films take place in a hyper-reality where things take a slightly unrealistic vibe, but audiences accept it outright. In American films, you tend to receive the “bouncy camera”, supposedly conveying intensity but mostly engendering confusion and nausea. Woo’s films, however, never shy away from the violence and death – they make it clear as day as bad things happen and many, many people die. Between those, however, are periods of character development and conversations. In fact, there’s many lull periods for a filmmaker who’s best known working involves people hurting each other in myriad ways. Without it, though, who would care what happened to the heroes onscreen, and what would these action scenes be other than exercises in sadistic heroic bloodshed?

That doesn’t mean they don’t look incredibly interesting and cool. Woo displays a sense of aesthetics that is uniquely Chinese. You can see it in the obvious metaphorical and symbolic use of doves, or in using white powder on red blood, or the fact that you can actually see what’s happening without having to pause your DVD player. Everything make sense (at least in the logic of film reality), and nothing’s censored. He manages to draw beautiful images on the canvass of film, even if that canvass contains the absolute best and worst of human nature all at the same time. Why did John Woo direct Mission Impossible 2, for example? He wouldn’t have if not for this:

 In the first one, your character, he was a little too cold-I want to see you smile, I want to see you charming, I want to see you in tears. If you make a better story, with more humanity, more romance, then I’ll take it.

This doesn’t make any sense from a director known for stylized action-violence, right? Not to say that particular movie showed any of those qualities (frankly, who remembers Tom Cruise crying in the movie?), but it’s obvious Woo wants to create characters first and fights seconds. The fighting just completely overshadows the characters, most times – whether or not that’s a bad thing is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. Woo crafts the action sequences in his mind first, and then inserts the movie on top. Still, that doesn’t automatically mean he doesn’t care about the rest of the picture; in making his first American film, Hard Target, studio executive forced the film to become one-dimensional precisely because they feared having too much “drama” in an action film. Of course, said drama is necessary for any good action film, but that’s how the cookie crumbles. Woo’s first forte was comedy and musicals; you can see the fun little jokes and incredible gift for tempo came from these earlier experiences.

It’s made all the more remarkable when you understand that John Woo’s a devout Lutheran, and has remained so for his entire life. The symbolism, the framing, the way everything look – nothing is there simply to be there. As he says in an interview with the now-defunct Premiere Magazine:

I love doves. I am a Christian. Doves represent the purity of love, beauty. They’re spiritual. Also the dove is a messenger between people and God. When I was in high school and I used to draw posters for the church, I would draw a picture of a dove. When I shot The Killer, these two men, the killer and the cop, they work in different ways, but their souls are pure, because they do the right thing. In the church scene, I wanted to bring them together. I wanted to use a metaphor of the heart. I came up with doves-they’re white. When the men die, I cut to the dove flying-it’s the soul, rescued and safe, and also pure of heart. So the dove became one of my habits: I used it in Hard-boiled, Face/Off, and in [M:I-2], at the end of the movie.

It’s a stretch to say Woo’s films try to minister to non-Christians or some such ideas, but the belief system certainly works itself out in all of his films. Each person has both good and bad qualities – everyone does horrible things, makes mistakes and generally makes a huge mess out of a bad situation. Everyone’s equally fallen and in need of redemption. Characters face moral dilemmas and their own sins throughout – their choice of profession (cops and robbers) becomes a burden, even as they realize how good they are at taking human life. Woo doesn’t resolve this dilemmas in simple ways – he leaves them hanging, much like in real life. They must rise above their circumstance and resist the base urge to kill for the sake of killing. He even says this himself:

I use that moment when the guns point at each other to say they’re equal. In my mind, everyone is the same. The bad guy sometimes has a good quality; the good guy sometimes has a weakness. It’s like the comic in Mad magazine, Spy Vs. Spy. They’re against each other, but they’re actually friends. I was educated from Jesus: Love your enemy, love your neighbor, love everyone.

Human hatred turns people against each other. It’s why the final scene in “The Killer” takes place in a church with doves flying around. In a Salon interview, he says:

Yes, I started that idea with “The Killer,” to try to say that people’s hatred, and fighting against each other, turns heaven into hell. The church’s peace and harmony symbolize understanding and redemption, and everyone, whether you’re good or bad, can find salvation in the church.

In some sense, this make a rather ironic and hilarious situation here: violent gun-fighting and murder with the love of Jesus Christ. I would imagine anyone who is a Christian in any way, shape, or form would say the complete opposite. Like a painter using his canvass of the film frame, however, I think you can get an inkling of what he wants to show in the movie, not encourage in real life. Even the Matrix films only take the parts that “look cool” and jam it into some amoral, philosophical fight sequences that supposedly represent “ideas”, but just as much exist for their own sake. Woo’s action scenes have purpose:

Many Christians have problems with the very genre of the violent action picture, but Mr. Woo insists that his movies bolster his own strong family values. His heroes are “always reaching out a helping hand,” he points out, “even sometimes sacrific[ing] himself for the others.” Though Mr. Woo’s vocation lies in making movies that are primarily exciting, rather than theological, he demonstrates the value of saving pennies to send overseas.

Heck, the guy even wanted to be a minister at some point:

When I was a kid growing up in Hong Kong, our family was so poor, and an American family sent money to the Lutheran church and supported me going to school for six years, and also my brother and sister. And I was grateful to the church because, without their help, I might have become a different person. I had great parents, but at that time I was so scared, and so lonely, and I had to fight so hard, because I had to deal with gangs almost every day. So you can see how rough it was — I felt like I was living in hell, and the church became my shelter. I felt safe and happy and comfortable in the church. When I was 16, I really wanted to be a minister, to pay back the people who gave me help, and help other people.

I am not trying to be an apologist for violent film-making or action; I’m simply here to show that violence CAN be used in a positive, life-affirming way. How bizarrely contradictory. But, then again, Christ’s Gospel is transformative and subversive: why should we expect anything less from entertainment media? Honestly, I was as surprised as you to find out John Woo’s a Lutheran and a Christian; it’s clear to me that it comes through in his films. What he does becomes relevant in our times precisely because we can understand this imagery clearly and crisply, especially in an international audience.

What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

 – Ecclesiates 3

Everything is beautiful in its time – so, too, can violence become as such if used in a constructive fashion. So what does this have to do with video games? The problems lies in their interactivity – does the violence contribute or detract from the experience? Does it have an inner beauty that represents ideas, thoughts, metaphors, or does it exist to satisfy our base instincts for carnage and violence?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.