John Woo
Birth Date:
May 1, 1946
Birth Place:
Guangzhou, China
Famous for:
Director od 'A Better Tomorrow' (1986)
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“I'm not a master. I'm just a hard-working filmmaker. I would like everyone to see me as a friend rather than a master.” John Woo

An internationally and critically praised Chinese movie director and producer who is widely recognized for his stylized movies, action sequences and use of slow-motion, John Woo began his filmmaking career as an assistant director to Chang Cheh at Shaw Brothers Studios before embarking on his solo project with the commercially successful “The Young Dragons” (1974). After a series of other martial art movies, he made a name for himself for “The Pilferer' Progress/Money Crazy” (1977). Hailed by action star Jean-Claude Van Damme as “the Martin Scorsese of Asia,” Woo again found success with the 1986 action film “A Better Tomorrow,” which was the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong and won a Hong Kong Film Award for his work in the film, an honor he shared with noted producer/director Tsui Hark. He went on to gain success with “Bullet in the Head” (1990) and “Hard Boiled” (1992), but it was “The Killer” (1989, won a Hong Kong Film Award) that garnered the acclaimed filmmaker his first international recognition. The success of the film in America became his Hollywood calling card. In 1993, he made his American debut with the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle “Hard Target.” After the moderately successful “Broken Arrow” (1996), Woo, who was described by Dave Kehr in The Observer in 2002 as “arguably the most influential director making movies today,” acquired the peak of his fame in American cinema by directing John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in “Face/Off” (1997), which grossed more than $100 million at the box office and brought Woo a Best Director Saturn Award. He also directed “Mission: Impossible 2” (2000), “Windtalkers” (2002) and “Paycheck” (2003). Since making films in the U.S., Woo has started to use doves as a symbol for peace in his movies. He stated, “I like doves. They look so beautiful, like a woman. For me they represent peace and love and purity. And sometimes they're seen as the messengers of God, so they're important to me because I'm a Christian.”

As for his upcoming project, Woo is set to return to Hong Kong film with “The Battle of Red Cliff” (2008).

Outside the spotlight, Woo is the husband of Annie Woo Ngau Chun-lung and has three kids. He mentions “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Seven Samurai” and “Melville's Le Samouraï” as some of favorite movies.

Disastrous Youth

Childhood and Family:

Yusen Wu, who would later be famous as John Woo, was born on September 23, 1946, in Guangzhou, China, to a Christian family. When he was 5, his parents had to deal with persecution that caused them to escape to Hong Kong. During this period, young Woo lived a hard life in the slums at Shek Kip Mei because his father had tuberculosis and was unable to work. It became worse in 1953 when the family became homeless after their house was burned to the ground as part of the renowned HK Shek Kip Mei fire. With help from charities, Woo's family moved to another house, but by this time, a rise of violence and crime was starting to occupy Hong Kong's housing project.

Woo was educated at the Concordia Lutheran School, which led to his decision of becoming a Christian minister as a young boy. Thanks in part to his dismal surroundings, he found local movie theaters a getaway and escaped through musicals like “The Wizard of Oz.” He also enjoyed seeing Western movies, such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

“When I was 11, even though we were poor, my mother was a fan of movies from the west. She used to bring me to the theatre. At that time, a parent could bring a child to the theatre for free. I was fascinated by the musicals. I think they influenced me the most, also a lot of Fred Astaire. I loved movies and I wanted to be a filmmaker some day.” John Woo

Woo has been married to Annie Woo Ngau Chun-lung since 1976. They have three kids.

The Killer


“It was hard to get work in films so I began on the stage. I wanted to be an actor (because) I was really shy. I stuttered and spoke slowly. In acting you train to speak fluently and express your emotions. That was my first purpose. I also overcame my fear of meeting people. When I was on stage I was totally different. At that time I never dreamed about working in movies. I always found my dreams in movies. I was mostly influenced by the French New Wave and French gangster films. After high school, I couldn't afford to continue my education and (at the time) Hong Kong didn't have a film school. So I stole film books from the library; theories on editing and directing, books on technique, art books, philosophy books. So that is how I learned film theory and film as a spiritual art. I also learned by watching many, many movies. Then I joined a group of young people who were crazy about movies. We all made experimental films. At that time, Hong Kong films were really bad. I wanted to make films that looked good. The second inspiration was the French New Wave. The idea of director as auteur, it was revolutionary. The crews were smaller with a single camera and small budgets and they made good movies. This encouraged me by showing me that I didn't need a lot of money or a big crew to make good movies. So I was determined to become a film director. I was twenty.” John Woo

John Woo joined a theater company formed by the Chinese Student Weekly when he was 19 years old. Four years later, Cathay Film Studio recruited him as a script supervisor, but Woo did not receive his first break until he was hired to be an assistant director to the noted filmmaker Chang Cheh at Shaw Brothers Studios. At the time, he was 25. A fan of directors Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah, Woo made his feature directorial debut in 1974 with “The Young Dragons,” which he also wrote and starred in. Choreographed by Jackie Chan, the Kung fu action film featured ever-changing camera work and luxuriant action scenes and went on to score success at the box office. Following this, he was hired by Golden Harvest, another studio and continued to make more martial arts movies, such as “Hand of Death/Countdown to Kung Fu” (1976), which starred Woo himself alongside Jackie Chan and future Hong Kong superstar Sammo Hung. In addition to directing, Woo also wrote the script, which at the time was considered an important step in his career.

Woo branched out to comedy with “The Pilferer' Progress/Money Crazy” (1977), which starred Hong Kong comedian Ricky Hui. It was a massive hit and subsequently established the director as the new comedy king of Hong Kong. While enjoying victory with comedies, by the early 1980s, Woo grew tired with the genre. He worked secretly under numerous aliases with Dean Shek's small studio Cinema City in Taiwan.

Thanks to the famous director/producer Tsui Hark, who provided the funding for Woo to helm a project titled “A Better Tomorrow” (1986), the director was placed in the limelight again. Adapted from the 1960 movie “True Colors of a Hero,” this groundbreaking project starred veteran actor Ti Lung as Ho, a man who earns a living by working for the Triad, the “Asian Mafia,” as a counterfeiter. Hong Kong action film icon Chow Yun-Fat also acted in the movie as Ho's best friend Mark Gor. “A Better Tomorrow” became the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong history. Woo jointly nabbed a Hong Kong Film for Best Picture and was also nominated for Best Director at the same occasion. He also helmed the popular sequel “A Better Tomorrow II” (1987).

With leading man Chow Yun-Fat, Woo again had a victory in his hands with “The Killer” (1989), which was hailed as the best Hong Kong movie ever made. Widely congratulated by critics and fans for its action sequences, acting and cinematography, the film brought Woo a Hong Kong Film for Best Director and a nomination for Best Screenplay and became the most triumphant Hong Kong film in America since Bruce Lee's “Enter the Dragon” (1973). As a result, Woo became a cult favorite and established a reputation for himself as an international filmmaker with the Triad film movement. He produced another masterpiece a year later with “Bullet in the Head” (1990), which won Woo a 1991 Hong Kong Film for Best Film Editing. Unlike its predecessors, however, the film, which starred Jacky Cheung, was a major box office flop.

Woo made his last Hong Kong film to date in 1992 with “Hard Boiled,” which again won him a Hong Kong Film for Best Editing, before cracking into Hollywood cinema the following year with Universal Studios' “Hard Target,” an action/thriller starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. It took three years for Woo to make his next American effort. “Broken Arrow” (1996), starring John Travolta and Christian Slater, which was a modest box office hit.

Thanks to Paramount Pictures, Woo finally scored his American breakthrough with “Face/Off” (1997), starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. A complex story, the movie was released to critical acclaim and earned Woo a Saturn for Best Director and a Jury Grand Prize at the Sweden Fantastic Film Festival. It performed well at the box office, grossing over $100 million in the United States alone. The success made Woo the first Asian filmmaker to hit mainstream. Many critics and fans count “Face/Off” as his best American film.

Woo confirmed his Hollywood status by directing superstar Tom Cruise in the hit “Mission: Impossible II” (2000), where Cruise reprised his role as secret agent Ethan Hunt. He reunited with Nicolas Cage for the WW II drama “Windtalkers” (2002) and returned the next year with the thriller “Paycheck” (2003), which starred Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman.

More recently, in 2007, Woo developed a videogame called “Stranglehold.” It is an installment to his 1992 film, “Hard Boiled.” He will return to Hong Kong cinema for the highly anticipated “The Battle of Red Cliff” (2008), based on a historical epic battle. Chow Yun-Fat is scheduled to appear in the film. Other stars include Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Shido Nakamura.


  • DVD Exclusive: DVD Premiere, Best Internet Video Premiere, “Hostage,” 2003

  • World Stunt: Action Movie Director, 2001

  • Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films: Saturn, Best Director, “Face/Off,” 1998

  • Sweden Fantastic Film Festival: Jury Grand Prize, “Face/Off,” 1997

  • Hong Kong Film: Best Film Editing, “Lat sau san taam/Hard-Boiled,” 1993

  • Hong Kong Film: Best Film Editing, “Die xue jie tou/Bullet in the Head,” 1991

  • Hong Kong Film: Best Director, “Dip huet seung hung/The Killer,” 1990

  • Hong Kong Film: Best Picture, “Ying hung boon sik/A Better Tomorrow,” 1987 (shared with Hark Tsui)

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