“Coupez!” is a gift for those who love bad movies, not to scoff at them, but because you always root for them to soon get something right. It was a perfect feature for me to start Fantasia with, a festival that chants “bon cinema!” each time before the lights go down. When you see a movie like “Coupez!” or “One Cut of the Dead” with fellow lovers, their meaning can transcend their constructs right before your eyes.
On Friday night, Fantasia celebrated John Woo, a titan filmmaker that artistic director Mitch Davis deemed “a spiritual father of Fantasia,” given Woo’s influence on the action genre and all movies that find meaning and craft in the extreme. Woo received the festival’s 2022 Career Achievement Award, and introduced his legendary “Hard Boiled” by thanking many people, including his influences: his mother, for taking him to see Chinese films and Hollywood fare, including musicals (his father wrote off movies as “fake”); the directors of the French New Wave, including Truffuat, Melville, and Demy; and the stunt people of his films, who he admires. Woo had recently received his own recent injury off-set—chasing his two-year-old granddaughter—but channeling the same spirit of his movies, he kept going, and he was ready to share his love for cinema. Woo apologized for having a cane and wheelchair, to which the audience, in unison, showered him with words of love and support.
Woo then proceeded to sit down to enjoy the first and third act of his film, which lest we forget features Chow Yun Fat playing a jazz clarinet solo in the opening credits. Needless to say, “Hard Boiled” remains one of the greatest action movies of all time, a genre feat that doesn’t just raise the bar for action spectacle but dared anyone to even look at it (and some of Woo’s best predecessors have). Shown last night on a loved 35mm print, the film has its own magnitude, its grand-guignol-of-grand-guignol hospital sequence roaring all the more like a non-stop apocalyptic thunder storm. The 35mm presentation also made me further appreciate Woo’s slow motion and character-based style—the components that make movies “fake,” but gorgeous and poetic in how they elevate tone and storytelling. It’s about Tony Leung strutting through a library looking for a book with a pistol stored inside, or watching the balletic stunt dives through glass that are so common they become impressionistic.
After the film, Woo spoke in a Q&A about the drive behind “Hard Boiled”—he was angry about the crime in Hong Kong at the time, and wanted to answer to it with what he called “Hong Kong Dirty Harry.” Woo painted a picture of an intense shoot that was held together by family, and because of conditions that would rightly be considered dangerous, did lead to real blood-and-sweat throughout. Tony Leung almost lost his eyesight after a sequence with glass (they couldn’t afford fake glass, said Woo) blinded him for a week. It was also funny to hear Woo talk about getting tired of all the explosions and gunfire of his own movie, as if even the master of these sequences has a breaking point.