Gun Fu and Hong Kong Cinema Essay

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Bonding Over Bullets: Gun Fu is the Way to a Better Tomorrow

John Woo redefined the action film genre with his 1986 Hong Kong film A Better Tomorrow. Staring the Asian TV star Chow Yun Fat and movie star Ti Lung, the film transcended the action genre already well-established in the West by using the various tropes of the genre (gangsters, the conflicted family, brother-against-brother, friend-in-peril, reformed hood, betrayal, and so on), mixing in elements of melodrama and morality (both Buddhism and Christianity appear in the film), and layering it with stylized gun violence -- gunplay like swordplay -- in a manner that had never before been seen. The film played, in certain moments, like a dance -- bullets being used like rain to wash away all the problems and issues that otherwise could not be resolved. For both Chinese and Western audiences, the film was something new: it appealed to both Asian and Western cultural influences and tapped into a universal sense of art and meaning while never really defying the underlying absurdities of the action film genre itself. In other words it gave all action film audiences exactly what they wanted while simultaneously artistically offering the genre in a spruced up but slowed-down and somewhat thoughtful delivery. This paper will show how in A Better Tomorrow Woo both reinforces and undermines the conventions of the action genre by bringing to it a balladic style of violence (gun fu) while maintaining the stereotypical superficialities of the genre; it will also show how this style went on to influence Hong Kong and Western cinema.

Counterfeiting USD is one of the main crimes perpetrated in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow -- a film that melodramatically depicts brothers and friends torn by love, honor, and hatred, past sins and the struggle to forgive. In its basic make-up, the film is a simple tale about friendship and forgiveness -- but in order to entertain and dazzle its audience, Woo counterfeits Western action cinema as well. For example, everything is thrown into the film's egregious finale: the endless stream of bad guys for the heroes to shoot and blow up; the nonsensically contrived showdown in which all the characters are brought together in one place -- a dock -- where reconciliations can take place over a spray of bullets. True to the gun fu form that Woo essentially founded in this film (Shields), nothing brings people together like violence -- and in A Better Tomorrow, the violent shootout improbably fulfills Mark's desire for revenge, Ho's desire for peace, and Kit's desire for justice.

These three characters, who seemed isolated and separated by such strong emotions just ten minutes earlier in the film, have a kind of American memory loss -- that is, everything is forgotten as they get back to basics, forget the things that separated them, and re-bond over bullets. At least that is the best way to characterize Mark's feelings; upon slaying a whole line of bad guys, he stops from the action to force feed a lecture down Kit's throat, fully sentimentalizing the moment that is true to the film's melodramatic core. He is gunned down in the middle of his impassioned speech -- which gives Kit and Ho a chance to bond one-on-one over more bullets, picking up the revenge motif that Mark fumbles in his last minutes on earth. The ways in which Woo's Better Tomorrow weaves revenge, love, forgiveness and violence together like a forged note is really what enables the film to have such strong appeal to both Asian and Western audiences: it passes itself off as both a conventional action flick and an art house film (with scenes inspired by such auteurs as Martin Scorsese) (Murray). The end result is that Woo's film is a stylized work of gun fu that, under scrutiny, comes up short of high art but still manages to be a respectable example of a genre blend.

Indeed, the way it blends kung fu and gunplay is what makes the film stand out. Its impact on Hong Kong cinema has been undeniable as a result. As Jillian Sandell puts it, "if you've ever wished for a violent action film with the style and elegance of an MGM musical, Hong Kong cinema is the place to look." Were it not for Woo's Better Tomorrow, the "contemporary Hong Kong gangster film" genre would never truly have come along -- and, as a result, auteurs like Tarantino would have had far less to build on in their own careers (Sandell). A Better Tomorrow spawned two sequels and a number of knock-offs.
Woo himself kept upping the ante with each gun fu film that followed: The Killer, Hard Boiled, and City on Fire all replete with stylized action and sentimentality -- all dripping with blood and morality. That was Woo's contribution to Hong Kong cinema: the taking of the action genre's mindless shoot-'em-ups and blending it with the kung fu genre's insistence on the discipline and morality of its protagonist, while throwing in some melodramatic, sentimental, moralistic tones inspired by Chinese culture's deep religious and philosophical traditions. It made for a fine and elegant slop that only the most visionary of directors, like Woo, could pull off. So many threads to keep together at once is not easily achieved -- and over-indulgence in any one thread line would yield less than stellar results, as Woo's ill-advised Paycheck showed. The glue that could keep them all together, of course, was bullets -- lots and lots of bullets: the one ingredient that any modern action film needed. With Woo's trademark gun fu delivery, the bullets were sure to keep flying -- and, as A Better Tomorrow showed, there was no time like shootout time for characters to come to grips with themselves and finally understand their fellow man.

Additionally, Better Tomorrow's climax is one of the ways that Woo's film, and much of Hong Kong cinema, mimics the West with easy solutions to complex and dramatic problems. Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, for example, is an homage to Hollywood, with references to Kubrick's Shining, to the noir films of the 20th century, to The Three Stooges and so on. Jackie Chan's films drew inspiration from Buster Keaton, and Woo likewise drew inspiration from Western cinema -- from filmmakers like Hitchcock and Scorsese (Pierce). All of these filmmakers likewise had an impact on the West -- Woo especially, whose Better Tomorrow and its introduction of gun fu into the action genre inspired Western filmmakers from Robert Rodriguez to Oliver Stone to Quentin Tarantino to the Wachowskis ("John Woo's Influence on American Films").

A look at some of the films that were inspired by Woo's gun fu style that first hit the screen in Better Tomorrow include: Robert Rodriguez's Desperado (1995) about a loner guitar player seeking revenge on bad guys in Mexico. The hero of the film, played by Antonio Banderas, uses gun fu (a gun in both hands, arms fully extended, in shootouts where he alone is pitted against a slew of enemies) to accomplish his heroics. Keenan Ivory Wayans imitates Mark Gor directly in A Low Down Dirty Shame when he dons a black trench coat and sunglasses -- a look that the Wachowskis would pilfer for The Matrix as well. In the movies, everyone pilfers from everyone when a trend hits and audiences respond to it -- and that is certainly what happened with Better Tomorrow: Hong Kong audiences made it a box office smash, and Western movie lovers were quick to take note of the John Woo gun fu style that was revamping the action genre. In this manner, the flow between the East and the West was made that much more meaningful as both movie industries -- Western and Hong Kong -- were seen to be watching one another and taking inspiration from what the other was doing. Stone's Natural Born Killers modeled its shootout scenes on Woo's gun fu style. Tarantino took Woo's gun fu and brought it to American audiences in Reservoir Dogs. Even James Bond got in on the gun fu style of action in Tomorrow Never Dies -- the title of which could be read as a direct reference to Woo's very first gun fu film with Chow Yun Fat ("John Woo's Influence on American Films").

Indeed, part of Better Tomorrow's enormous appeal was breakout star Chow Yun Fat's performance as Mark Gor: dynamic, handsome, fearless, cool, and sexy, Mark waltzed and winced, smiled and gritted his teeth across the screen like an Asian Cary Grant kind of gun slinger. Chow Yun Fat exuded the cool confidence that made Americans fall in love with Grant in the first half of the 20th century. What Grant did for American cinema, Yun Fat did for Hong Kong action cinema. His appeal would spread across the Pacific as well: Yun Fat would go on to….....

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Works Cited

Gong, Wenxiang. "The Legacy of Confucian Culture in Maoist China." The Social Science Journal, vol. 26, no. 4 (1989): 363-374

"John Woo: Filmography." IMDB. Web. 16 June 2017.

"John Woo's Influence on American Films." Hong Kong Film, 2016. Web. 16 June 2017.

Mast, Gerald; Kawin, Bruce. A Short History of the Movies. NY: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.

Morris, Meaghan. "Transnational imagination in action cinema: Hong Kong and the making of a global popular culture." Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 5, no. 2 (2004): 181-199.

Murray, Darren. "The Better Tomorrow Series -- An Appraisal." Screen Anarchy, 2016. Web. 16 June 2017. -- an-appraisal-contrib.html

Pierce, Nev. "Getting Direct with Directors." BBC, 2014. Web. 16 June 2016.

Rahman, Abid. "When John Woo's 'A Better Tomorrow' Introduced 'Gun Fu'." The Hollywood Reporter, 2016. Web. 6 June 2017.

Sandell, Jillian. "A Better Tomorrow? American Masochism and Hong Kong Action Films." Bright Lights, 2001. Web. 16 June 2017.

Shields, Meg. "The Surprising Legacy of John Wick's Gun Fu." Film School Rejects, 2017. Web. 16 June 2017.

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