Friday, May 7, 2010

The Young Dragons

John Woo has become a depressingly easy director to underrate. Its no secret by now that John Woo’s American career has been, to put it kindly, a disaster. A depressing mélange of missed opportunities, watered down whoring of his talents, and good ole fashion hackery. The entirety of his 15 years wasted in Hollywood yielded one film, that is kind of entertaining despite being a total camp fest (Face Off) and one film that had potential but should have been a whole hell of a lot better (Windtalkers). The rest is too depressing to delve into, I’ll just say that when your second runner up stars Jean Claude Van Dam your career has problems.

Meanwhile outside of Woo’s own doing, his style which started out so refreshing ended up first being subsumed and replicated by hacks ad nauseam, and then cast aside for the Greengrass touch. Either way, he’s awfully easy to discount nowadays.

But this doesn’t wipe out all the great films Woo has made. Bullet In The Head, The Killer, Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow. These films are still legendary among action fans and with good reason. His borderline high camp style, masochistic story lines, and incomparable eye still make him an essential filmmaker. A Frankenstein’s monster, equal parts Douglass Sirk, Bubsy Berkley, Jean Pierre Melville and Sam Peckinpah.

Still, there are signs that Woo’s reputation is back on the rise. Though I haven’t seen Red Cliff yet (I’m waiting for the money to pick up the Blu Ray and refused to see the truncated American cut) I hear it’s a return to form. And Kickass gave him a very generous name check. Turning his films into essential training for the budding young sociopath. Having never seen the film name checked by Big Daddy and Hit Girl, I decided to check out Woo’s first film The Young Dragons.

So famous is he for the Heroic Bloodshed style, that few know that Woo started out as a kung fu director. And a damn good one at that. Depending on the day you ask me, I might say that his Hand Of Death (starring a young Jackie Chan) is my favorite Kung Fu film period.

The Young Dragons, isn’t quite there yet. Woo’s style hadn’t quite crystallized. It’s not a perfect film, but its also one with clear signs of who Woo would become, and is thus worthwhile for any serious fan of the director. A flawed film but a rewarding one.

I’ll admit. I had a hard time following this movie. And I mean that in a very basic way, as in who the characters were half the time, and what their base motives were. Its not like the story is super complex or anything in fact I’m almost embarrassed about it. But there’s a real confusion to the storytelling that makes it plain difficult. Now granted this is not all the movies fault. This film has the classic old foreign film fuck up of printing its subtitles in white before displaying them in front of white backgrounds and costumes. Meaning forty percent of the dialogue is lost. And what dialogue does make it through is atrociously translated (not that I’m complaining per se, The Young Dragons hasn’t been, strictly speaking, released in The US. I was just happy to get my hands on a copy. Beggers can’t be choosers and all that.)

While there are no flying doves, tongues of flame, or rains of bullets, its clear from the beginning that Woo had a talent for action. While there’s nothing quite as batshit insane as say the ending of A Better Tomorrow II, Woo shows a real talent for interesting composition, choreography, and a skill for challenging himself. While most martial arts directors keep the camera stationary to make choreography easier, Woo moves it in sweeping tracking shots, bringing it into the midst of the action while keeping his lucidity. He finds interesting ways to shoot things, perpendicular from how you would expect them. At one point he shoots a battle with the camera pointed directly at the sun, blowing out the frame save for the principles silhouettes. At another he chooses an ultra wide shot, for an impressive cliff dive, rendered even more impressive by the fact that we can clearly see there is no sort of safety net or trickery here.

Woo’s taste for Masochistic Melodrama already in full flower. The movie is clearly a heroic bloodshed movie wherein the heroes just happen to kill each other with their bare hands rather then pistols. Most the heroes die tragic deaths, leaving the survivors to stare at their bloodstained corpses, getting chocked but because of just…how…beautiful they where.

Hey come to think of it that’s more or less an apt metaphor for Woo’s directing career.

No comments: