“Hard Boiled” director John Woo is developing a historical drama about Chinese American Dean Lung — the valet of Oakland’s first mayor Horace Walpole Carpentier — whose donation helped found Columbia University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. The film has the working title “Dean Lung.”
The university still refers to the letter Lung sent to Columbia president Seth Low in 1901. “I send you here with a deposit check for $12,000 as a contribution to the fund for Chinese learning in your university,” it said. Later, in order to honor him, Carpentier provided additional donations.
“I hope I can make it before I retire. I really want to do it,” Woo told Variety at Fantasia Film Festival in Montréal, where he picked up his Career Achievement Award.
“He was this man’s servant and there were conflicts at the beginning, but later, they started to learn from each other. When he retired, he donated all his savings to the university. His picture still hangs on the wall.”
Woo described the film — whose script is being written, with financing being sought — as “serious drama, but not too serious.”
“It’s a very human story,” he said, also underlining its universal appeal.
“These days, there are so many misunderstandings between the people in the West and the people in the East. I think we need to work on it more, work on understanding each other. I want to make a movie that would serve as a bridge between two different cultures. We can be friends – I really believe that.”
Before that, Woo will stretch his action muscles with Joel Kinnaman starrer “Silent Night,” already hailed as his comeback.
“It’s a pretty unique film, even though it’s a common story: a son gets killed and a father tries to avenge him. But there is no dialogue – it’s completely visual,” he said.
“It was very challenging. I had to make sure the audience understands the story and accepts it, and accepts this character’s emotions. I am so lucky to have found an actor like Joel. He delivered a great performance and he was so happy to do it, too. After all, he didn’t have to talk!”
Always interested in dramatic storylines and high stakes, with his characters looking for redemption or fighting for their honor, Woo partly attributes it to his Christian upbringing.
“I guess that’s where it comes from. When I was younger, I just loved the church. When I decided to make films, I automatically started to put a lot of Christian imagery in them. Concepts of redemption and love for people, spirituality. I never wanted to lecture about religion. I just wanted people to feel this atmosphere.”
Still, despite all the drama, humor is always the key, he said, which is something he misses in new action spectacles.
“It’s all about action, action, action and special effects. They are missing a sense of humor. But it helps, in real life as well,” he said.
“Humor brings meaning to our relationships. When I was still shooting films in Hong Kong, we always liked to make people laugh.”
While the instant recognizability of his work might have eventually hurt his international career, he admitted, he grew to appreciate people’s love for some of his famed visual motifs, such as white doves flying around in slow-motion.
“The funny thing is that sometimes, I didn’t want to use these things in my films. I would go: ‘It’s too much, let’s do something different.’ And then the whole crew would rebel! ‘John, please, put some birds in there somewhere!,’” he said with a laugh.
“But I am so grateful. After all these years, people still love my movies. I was so amazed, seeing all these people [at Fantasia] who care for me and support me. It’s very encouraging.”
Some of his stars also continue to reach out, including his “Face/Off” leads.
“Nic Cage always says nice things about me in public. The truth is, I don’t talk too much with my actors. They are busy, I am busy. And I am not very social! But some keep sending me Christmas cards, they keep celebrating my birthday. Especially John Travolta.”
“He has been sending me cards every year!”