Beijing: John Woo Talks U.S.-China Collaboration, Hollywood Lessons, Next Two Films (Q&A)

Clifford Coonan
John Woo

The Hong Kong director shares his views on contemporary Chinese cinema, how he feels about the press calling his next film "the Chinese Titanic," and why he believes he's yet to make a great movie.

After four years out of the public eye, Hong Kong director John Woo is back with a bang, though perhaps not quite the kind of action that we normally associate with the director of Hard Boiled (1992) and Face/Off (1997). This time, it’s an epic love story rather than a tense two-pistol standoff.

The director is currently in the Chinese capital for the Beijing International Film Festival, where he is chairing the jury to award the festival’s Tiantan Award to one of 14 competing films. In China, he is far better known for his historical epic Red Cliff (2008) than for operatic action films featuring Nicolas Cage or Tom Cruise.

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Woo's fellow judges in Beijing include Spanish producer Andres Vicente Gomez, Chinese directors Lu Chuan and Ning Hao, Italian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta, French filmmaker Philippe Muyl and Indian director Rajkumar Hirani.

And later this year the director of The Killer will mark his return to movie-making after a four-year break, with the epic love story The Crossing. Based on a true story, The Crossing is a grand romantic saga about three couples fleeing China for Taiwan on a steamer during the 1949 revolution. The ship sank after colliding with a freighter, claiming about 1,000 lives. If this sounds vaguely familiar, the film has indeed already been dubbed "China's Titanic." It's expected to screen in 3D, in two parts, in China.

Woo sat down with THR at the Beijing film fest to discuss his next two films, the lessons he's learned in Hollywood and why he feels a sense of duty about bringing American and Chinese filmmakers and actors together. 

How do you view the development of the Chinese film industry going forward?

Chinese filmmakers are pretty good and all people love to watch movies, but I think we're just not making enough good films. The audiences have increasing demands. The films can’t keep up with the trend. We need to work on producing more quality films. Besides watching entertainment films, the audiences also want to see some movies with high technology effects and other films that are balanced between the artistic and the commercial. And that's something I encourage.

STORY: John Woo Returns to Filmmaking in a Big Way With 'The Crossing'

What mutual opportunities do you see for Hollywood and China?

Right now, the Chinese film industry is booming, but it's a bit chaotic. Everybody is investing in the same type of films. I hope there will be some films with different themes. Hollywood has always done things well, but they also need to develop. They will invest more and more to produce their films in China.

There is a good opportunity for Chinese to learn from Hollywood. There are some Chinese filmmakers who always say they can catch up with Hollywood, but I think China is still way far behind.

Hollywood has lots to teach us -- managing the market, the variety of film themes, and respect for talent and how to foster that talent. Hollywood has its own way. Among peers in the same industry, they respect each other. Others are happy for you if you have a successful action movie. Everybody claps if someone wins a prize. Everybody makes different films, but they all walk on the same red carpet. So this united industry spirit is something worth learning. The variety of productions is also worth paying attention to. Besides learning from each other, it also gives an opportunity for young Chinese filmmakers to learn and broaden their vision.

You were a pioneer, as one of the first Hong Kong directors to work with great success in Hollywood. What do you think other directors can learn from you?

I don't think there's anything special that others can learn from me. I think modesty, nonstop learning and being good to people and making more friends is what creates opportunities. After many years in Hollywood, there's a lot I've gained other than practical experience. What's more precious than friendship?

STORY: John Woo's 'Flying Tigers' to Be Released in Two Versions

People are calling The Crossing "the Chinese Titanic." How do you feel about that, and what made you want to make a movie about this subject?

I have always wanted to make a film about cross-straits relations between the mainland and Taiwan. Although people fled China [in 1949], some still have the feelings of missing home. Secondly, I have always wanted to make a love story, like David Lean's Doctor Zhivago. The Crossing tells three touching love stories that occur after the KMT Nationalists lost the Civil War and then had to leave China and go to Taiwan. What appealed to me is the love story and the opportunity to show that period. That’s why I chose this theme. Also, this is my first love film, so I'm quite excited about it. 

You are known as a director of thrillers with tense action scenes -- this is what established your reputation. Did you want to show that you had a broader range?

I think my filmmaking is not limited to action and violence. I think I can also make an outstanding romantic film. Also, David Lean is my idol, and I really wanted to make a film to commemorate him, dedicated to him. Even though I have been making films for a long time and the audience quite liked many of them, I still don’t think I've made a truly successful film. I am pursuing a higher level and this is the start of that. This is what every filmmaker is pursuing.

You also are working on a movie about the Flying Tigers, which tells the story of U.S. fighter pilots in WWII China. What inspires you about that project?

Flying Tigers is a story about the friendship between China and America. People from the two countries once enjoyed very cooperative relations, not only working hard together and influencing each other, but also they developed a very deep friendship during the war. This is what I am interested in most. Since I've been able to make films in Hollywood, I believe I should act as a bridge and express Sino-American culture and spirit through a film, so that we can learn to better accept one another and work together. Back then, the Americans really contributed a lot to China, which is worth commemorating. A group of young Americans made huge sacrifices, which really helped China's war effort. Also, as Hollywood looks to China to cooperate and looks for suitable themes, I think this subject is really appropriate. In this film, there will be Chinese and Western stars. It's a wonderful thing that they can act together. Flying Tigers is a work in progress, but we have found an American writer to rewrite the script.

After shooting The Crossing, I will start Flying Tigers. As we are still writing the script, it doesn’t take too much of my time yet. I can still handle the workload.

Your movies appeal to ordinary audiences and cinema theorists and critics alike. What sort of audience do you envision when you begin a film?

If something moves me, then I make it. Perhaps it's like a painter who chooses the colors based on their feeling. I make films on the basis of my feelings. My thinking is close to the thinking of most people. If it can move me, then most other people will be moved as well.