Toronto: John Woo on Why ‘Manhunt’ Is a Return to His Roots

John Woo
Courtesy of Media Asia

John Woo, the director who helped define the style of Hong Kong films before applying his style to Hollywood and then China, returns to action with “Manhunt,” a reworking of a Japanese film that was the first foreign movie to be shown in post-Cultural Revolution China. The new film unspooled at the Venice Film Festival before moving on the the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. Woo spoke to Variety’s Patrick Frater about the film.

You have recently said that that you wanted to go back to smaller films, in particular the style of “The Killer.” Do you see “Manhunt” as a return to basics?  If so, why?

I wish to go back to smaller films because, as the budget gets larger, the pressure gets bigger too. This pressure makes it difficult for me to enjoy the creative process. We are being controlled by the numbers during the entire process, or decide how to shoot a scene because of the budget, not inspiration. Film markets care more about how many tickets you can sell, the quality of our work is decided by whether it is blockbuster. This is an unhealthy atmosphere, with more and more pain. Therefore, I want to go back to the past, and start making some small films, in a way that I will have a relatively free creative environment, and truly enjoy the movie-making process. I like ‘Manhunt’ very much myself, it is very close to my previous style.

And yet “Manhunt” is a still big-budget film, with major Asian stars

It is considered a big-budget film in China. Moviemaking costs are much more expensive compared to the old times, and some of the big scenes required substantial cost. But the theme and the content of the story is very much close to my previous interests. It’s a small and simple story about brotherhood, justice and a little romance. In Hollywood, it would be considered a medium-budget production.

Are you still planning to direct other movies after this? 

Yes, I will be shooting a Hollywood picture after this.

Why did the 1978 “Manhunt” story need to be revisited and updated?

I’ve always loved [Japanese star] Ken Takakura’s films and adored his image. His way of acting had a great influence on me when designing characters for my films. For example, Chow Yun-Fat in “A Better Tomorrow” is a quasi-embodiment of Ken Takakura. When learning that Ken Takakura passed away, I was very sad. Therefore, I wanted to shoot a movie or remake his previous films to pay tribute to him.

Another reason is that I love the Japanese gang films of the 1960s. When Media Asia invited me to re-shoot “Manhunt,” I was very happy and agreed without asking anything. In addition, this story tells about a wronged good man who finds out the truth through his courage and wisdom. Such a story is very inspirational.

What is the significance of telling the story at this time with a Chinese protagonist against the Japanese justice system? 

There is no special meaning relate to that aspect, the story simply tells how a framed Chinese man is seeking the truth. It could happen in any country. It’s a story about friendship. Such plots have always been the main theme of my work. Of course, there are also love stories between the hero and heroine.

How did you find directing your daughter Angeles Woo in a major role?
I treated her the same like any other actors, my relationship with actors are like friends, I gave them a simple instruction and give them enough freedom during acting. I didn’t give her any special care. This is my way of showing respect to her.

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