John Woo back in action with female assassins in new film Manhunt

Hong Kong director John Woo returns to action films with his first gun-toting female killers in Manhunt

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Hong Kong film-maker John Woo's latest film Manhunt, and for good reason. It marks his long-awaited return to the genre that made him a cult name: action.

Woo was behind a number of what many consider to be iconic action films in the Hong Kong film canon, from A Better Tomorrow (1986) to The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992).

But in the last decade, the 71-year-old film-maker had turned to making historical epics instead, such as Red Cliff (2008) and The Crossing (2014). And fans missed his trademark dual gun shoot-out scenes and lyrical slow-motion action choreography.

Manhunt will redress that.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur last week, the director says that all his signature action moments are in Manhunt - although he had not initially thought of including them.

He says in Mandarin with a grin: "Anyone who is familiar with my action films will recognise certain aspects about my new movie Manhunt that reflect my old film-making style.

"But I didn't intend to put some of these scenes in at all. It was just that the studio and the crew expected them of me, because that was what they thought a John Woo action movie should have. Producers would come on set and ask me, 'So, when are we doing the dual gun shoot-out?'"

He says the scenes will not just be a reiteration of those in his old films.

"Manhunt has a dual gun shoot-out scene, but it'll feel different from what you've seen me do before. This time, rather than have one man hold two guns, I designed it so that two men are handcuffed together and forced to shoot with their free hands.

"It will feel fresh," he adds.

The idea of updating things applies in more ways than one, he adds, as the film is a remake of the classic 1976 Japanese actioner of the same name.

The original film stars the late Japanese actor Ken Takakura as a man who goes on the run after being falsely accused of corruption.

Woo says: "I signed on to make this movie as a tribute to Ken Takakura because he was one of my favourite actors. When I learnt of his death in 2014, I was very sad.

"His style of acting had a huge influence on me when I was designing characters for my own films, including (Hong Kong star) Chow Yun Fat in A Better Tomorrow.

"So I wanted to do something to commemorate him, but I felt that it was important that my take on his film feels new and modern too."

His version of Manhunt, which opens in Singapore cinemas tomorrow, offers a similar storyline as the original, except that the man on the run - played by Chinese actor Zhang Hanyu - is framed for murder instead of corruption. Hot on his heels is Japanese police detective Yamura, who is played by Masaharu Fukuyama.

Woo also created new characters such as Rain and Dawn, a pair of female assassins played respectively by South Korean actress Ha Ji Won and his daughter Angeles .

He says: "I wanted to add a deeper emotional aspect to the movie and these characters provide that. Rain and Dawn are great friends, so there is a level of intimacy between them.

"Rain is hired to kill the main guy, but she is torn because she starts to develop feelings for him. There is a sense of tragedy there."

This is the first time he has included gun-toting female killers in his films. But lest anyone think that he demands less of his actresses in action scenes, he says with a grin: "I treated Ha Ji Won like she was Chow Yun Fat. And she really delivered."

Given the international cast, the question of language problems on set arises. But Woo says the cast members did not need to speak much with one another to work well together.

 
 

"There were a few interpreters on set, but they were never necessary. I think the actors understood their characters as well as the script so well, they just went straight to work.

"I don't believe in having rehearsals because I prefer to just go ahead and shoot, and they all had no problems giving me exactly what I wanted. They were all true professionals."

Perhaps, little verbal communication was needed also because the observant director was able to take mental notes of each actor's personality.

Before shooting began, he had dinner with the main cast members and quietly watched them eat.

"I wanted to see the expressions in their eyes, the way their hands moved and how long their fingers were, so that I could determine the type of guns they would use in the film.

"I care about all my cast members very much, so I won't want them to look bad. We're shooting an action movie, but it can be stylish too, right?"

• Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

• Manhunt opens in cinemas here tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2017, with the headline 'Female assassins get slice of the action'. Print Edition | Subscribe