Film Review: Dip huet seung hung (The Killer) (1989)

Hong Kong, 1989, dir. John Woo
Hong Kong, 1989, dir. John Woo

A few nights ago, I decided to re-watch John Woo’s 1989 masterpiece, The Killer. Of all the action films I’ve seen, it’s still my top pick. It’s beautiful, poignant, lyrical, painful, and ruthless in its raw visual grandeur. I found it just as visceral and overpowering an experience as it was when I first saw it seven years ago.

At that time, I was a junior in college, and I was taking my first formal film studies class. All I knew of John Woo at that time was his Hollywood fare (e.g. Face Off and Mission Impossible 2). I wasn’t ready for something as physically exhausting and emotionally draining as The Killer, which Woo wrote and directed while he was still in Hong Kong.

The influence of American Westerns is readily apparent. This is a story of isolated loners: there’s “Jeffrey” (Chow Yun-Fat), an assassin for hire who abides by a strict moral code, and Li (Danny Lee), the honest cop who’s trying to capture him. John Woo goes to great lengths to reinforce the psychic connection between the two, both verbally and visually. And the relationship between them gets more complex and intricate as the film progresses. They’re brought together when Jeffrey is hired to kill a corrupt businessman that Li has been assigned (against his will) to protect. The results draw the ire of Hong Kong’s criminal underground, and soon, both Jeffrey and Li are on the same side, fighting for their lives.

Danny Lee and Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo's The Killer

A word like “stylish” seems tame in describing the highly sensationalized, conspicuously choreographed shootout scenes. I can’t blame someone if they complain of their artificiality and sheer lack of plausibility, but the best I can do is say that in the context of the film, style is everything. The violence, religious symbolism, and melodrama are so over-the-top that it would be ridiculous to think the film is trying for anything less.

Personally, I love stories like this, because they involve characters that believe in honor and trust, even in the darkest and most corrupt of circumstances, where embrace of honor and trust invites danger and makes one not only vulnerable, but outmoded and archaic. It’s easy for us to identify with Jeffrey and Li, because friendship is more important to them than material wealth, but at the same time, we know that they’re willingly setting themselves up for disappointment and failure. They know they are alone.

It’s so much like the story of the dying cowboy, the slow extinction of the mythic frontier figure that abides by a code and an etiquette that has no place or application in modern urbanized society.

Kind of interesting, considering Hollywood has since artlessly adopted Woo’s style into the cookie-cutter, hyperactive, sensory overload of today’s typical action feature. It’d be nice if they went back and looked at The Killer, in which every action scene serves a narrative purpose, either advancing the plot or building character development.

And besides all this, many of the images are breathtaking in and of themselves. I leave you with a few:

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1 comment so far

  1. Amanda on

    The screenshots you gathered are really helpful for me. The film is really impressive, but very quick — and you gather these moments with a ripped butterfly net when you’re watching.

    Of course, I’m influenced by the action movies that followed, and many of _The Killer’s_ scenes did seem typical. I wish I would have seen this before every Transporter-Gone in Sixty Seconds-Rush Hour crap interpretation.


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