chivalry /’shiv(e)lri/ noun

1. the system, spirit, or customs of medieval knighthood.

2. the qualities e.g. courage, integrity, and consideration, of an ideal knight.

3. archaic a. knights. b. mounted men at arms.

John Woo told the Bright Lights film journal why he picked Chow Yun-Fat as the third lead for his comeback film: "When we did the casting for A Better Tomorrow, I had in my mind’s eye what I wanted. I wanted a modern knight. Someone with a real personality and human qualities. I read in the paper that he did a lot of work with orphans. This is what I was looking for. A strong man with a good heart. The image he portrayed to me was one of Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, Alain Delon, or Humphrey Bogart. I can see all of these characteristics in him."

Woo was born in China but moved to Hong Kong at an early age due to illness. His life was reliant on the charity of others; the financial sacrifices his parents made to keep him healthy, cash and clothes from American relations, education by a Lutheran Church, and introduction to alternative European cinema by his college friends. Deciding that filmmaking was his vocation, he wanted to relate his ingrained values of true heroics. For Woo, those who are just and charitable, considerate and spirited, were the protagonists he wanted to portray in his cinema. His only stumbling block was the HK movie industry. The high volume of martial arts and swordplay flicks the city churned out granted him twelve busy years in which to develop his directorial skills, but the genre-specific requirements of the studios allowed him limited creative freedom. It was producer Tsui Hark who allowed him stylistic liberty to remake True Colours of a Hero (1967) as a modern day triad epic. The casting of the two brothers who would give the thriller its emotional depth were set in stone, but Woo was allowed to pick his third lead for the role of the fun loving, unstoppable Mark Gor, and more importantly shift this character’s personality to suit his own thematic concerns. Woo had found his knight.

In 1986 Chow Yun-Fat was allegedly considered box office poison. He was a TV star who had failed to crossover to the big screen. During the 70s he had made a name for himself on the TV show Shanghai Town (1976 onwards) as a romantic lead. Movies, however, proved to be much more difficult: his fame could get them made, but his name couldn’t get the punters to buy tickets. Before his first collaboration with John Woo on A Better Tomorrow, his sole cinematic success had been The Story of Wu Viet (1981). His fortunes were about to change.

Throughout its production, A Better Tomorrow (1986) was considered little more than a comeback vehicle for ageing hero Ti Lung, and a big screen calling card for pop star Leslie Cheung. Chow’s role as Mark, Lung’s ice-cool partner, whose act of vengeance leaves him crippled, was a secondary concern to Hark. Yet from the opening moment, Woo gives this character the most optically potent introduction; waiting alone in the middle of the street like some knight errant awaiting his next crusade, his armour a long grey trench coat, his visor an impenetrable pair of shades. For the film that allegedly invented the Heroic Bloodshed cycle, it is critical that the key actor of "gun-fu" is also the focus of the scene that crystallizes Woo’s stylistic concerns.

Chow gracefully dances through a restaurant with a girl on his arm, the slow motion showing both his patience and his cunning; he is hiding spare automatics in the flowerpots outside the room where the gang he is about to dispatch in a piñata of red mayhem are dining en masse. After Chow looks his opponents in the eye, Woo cranks the camera down to normal speed, and Chow opens fire with two guns. With those few frames action cinema was set on a new course. Woo said he stole this image from Westerns, it being the only practical way he could allow his hero to outdraw a dozen men. It is telling that Woo’s first successful experiment with this composition of carnage was in collaboration with his newfound leading man, Chow Yun Fat.

Encouraged by the critical and commercial success of this partnership, Woo set out to make what was destined to become the masterpiece of the genre, The Killer (1989), starring Chow as the eponymous assassin. Tsui Hark had other plans, deciding to reunite the ensemble of A Better Tomorrow for a sequel, despite the fact that Chow’s character had died in a hail of bullets before the credits rolled. Characterised by a mish-mash of subplots, new characters and extraneous sequences, A Better Tomorrow II (1987) was clearly the work of a creative director with little concentration on the work in hand.

Apart from during his now-trademarked sequences of orchestrated pandemonium, the sequel sees Woo grudgingly marking time. The director only seems to come alive during Chow’s Lazarus-style resurrection. The narrative conceit that facilitates the star’s return is the old "estranged twin brother" routine, but the way in which Woo treats this cliché is the film’s sole moment of directorial invention. We are reminded of Chow’s late incarnation by a series of comic book-esque paintings that recreate the indelible images of him from the original film. We then see the familiar looking Ken who, unlike his doppelganger, is alive and well in New York City. Woo takes the visual grammar of the comic book, a literary form which sees its protagonists coming back to life month after month, and uses it to reintroduce his favourite star in a sequence which manages to be inventive, touching, mythologizing and direct.

Chow, given this new lease of life, proceeds to treat the rest of the film as a kind of long-winded joke, happily laughing through the expositionary dialogue and playing up to the camera. His upstaging antics are matched only by Steve McQueen’s deliciously distracting hat-fiddling in The Magnificent Seven (1960) – perhaps appropriate given the heavy influence of westerns on John Woo’s filmmaking. Woo also steals a motif from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967): Chow’s character episodically assumes items from his dead brother’s wardrobe of shades, trenchcoat and guns as the story progresses, in the same way that The Man With No Name pieces together his poncho, cheroot and mule during the progress of his third adventure.

In many ways The Killer, Woo and Chow’s third collaboration, is such an accepted masterpiece there is very little new to added. Woo certainly continues his exploration of Chow’s knightly persona. The narrative is bookended by sequences in a church, giving the whole saga the feeling of a crusade. Chow’s white suit, which becomes stained with blood, almost makes him a standard-bearer in a war of decency. The fact that our hero constantly abandons his mission to help those caught between the crossfire bring Woo’s pet theme of chivalry into sharp contrast with the growing corporate professionalism of the villains. The film was such an international success it led to Chow, and to a lesser extent Woo, being typecast in the years to come.

Continued in Part 2