Style as Substance: The Killer – Love is Seeing, Death is Blind

"I always save the last bullet, either to kill someone else or kill myself."

Not the first Heroic Bloodshed film, but one which helped define the genre.

An assassin fires a shot which blinds an innocent women, and his subsequent attraction to this woman makes him begin to question the morality of his occupation. I love the sentimentality of Woo's stylistic flourishes: his films often play out as romantic and occasionally homoerotic melodramas with the action tropes thrown on top (i.e. the action can be removed from the narrative without losing the sense of the themes; the action scenes are essentially sex scenes). As a result, I tend to over-extrapolate silly readings based on his visual direction, so reader beware.

The fact that going blind is presented as more tragic than death reflects John Woo's filmmaking sensibilities. He is first and foremost a visual director, and (like Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Scott) he uses stylistic cinematic excess to communicate his characters’ dramatic emotional excess in their most intense moments of unease. He engraves his characters emotions directly onto the celluloid. Step printing slows time to express the killer's distress, and quick editing compresses the action to communicate his desire for redemption. Woo uses film form to convey impossible desires the characters can't. Also, doves.

The Killer also functions as a sort of allegorical character study about the effects of remorse while reflecting back on a life of crime. Even the antagonists here seem to stand in as psychological externalizations of the killer's guilt. The two forces oppose him and want to punish him for his actions: on the one hand, the police want to arrest him for the crimes he committed; on the other, the men that hired him want him killed for being spotted during a hit. These are two halves of a guilty conscience; regret both for what he did and for getting caught doing it, as if they are agents of his superego attacking him for his moral misdeeds. And, as with most Heroic Bloodshed movies, the superego reigns supreme.

What's fascinating about the romantic angle is the multiple ways in which it can be read. The movie presents itself as a romance between the killer and the woman he almost blinded. However, beneath this traditional heteronormative connection, there’s a tale of a more tragic love story between the killer and his pursuers. The feelings between the killer and his almost-victim are ones based on guilt and regret (his for what he did to her), and for that reason are much less convincing than those between him and the two other male leads. His manager, forced against his will to hunt his closest friend; and the cop, obsessed with the killer because of their prolonged pursuit. These more closely resemble loving relationships (fraught with much deeper emotions) than anything the killer and victim felt for each other.

In this sense, the excessive dimension of the visual style communicates the excessive dimension of these characters' desires for each other. The killer and the cop dance together endlessly, their guns drawn, feeling the infinite tension of each other's presence. Beyond something so cliched as love lost, they yearn for that impossible connection between any two human beings, the ability to truly know another person—or, since the visual is so primary for Woo, to truly see another person.

My favorite Woo so far.

Favorite Films from My Favorite Directors
John Woo | Hong Kong