'Windtalkers' captures the drama of war
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
But John Woo hasn't let his resume of ultraviolent Hong Kong action films define or confine him as a director and screenwriter.
Critics have called him a risk-taker, an artist even a cinematic genius.
Because, at the core of his films, somewhere amid the whizzing bullets and rhythmic fighting, stands a hero, someone with character and depth, with a sense of purpose, setting Woo's films apart from other savagely graphic action films that lack meaning.
"Some people see me as simply an action director," Woo said in an interview by telephone from New York. "But my kind of movies are not just about action. There's something about humanity. They usually have a strong emotional drama. But the concern is always humanity."
Capturing that humanity was central in his latest film, "Windtalkers," which opens Friday.
Partly shot in Hawai'i, "Windtalkers" is an action drama set in the Pacific during World War II. Built on the true story of Navajo soldiers who used their unwritten language to protect and transmit Allied secrets, the story focuses on an unlikely friendship between Marine Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) and Navajo code talker Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach).
Without even seeing a script, Woo agreed to direct the movie, sold by a storyline that balanced action and drama, strung together with the kind of humanity he likes to incorporate in his films. But above all, Woo thought, it was a story that needed to be told.
"I was so amazed by the code talkers; they were brave and clever and very loyal," said Woo, his enthusiasm for the project obvious in his quick speech, slowed only by a heavy Cantonese accent. "They gave all they had for their country. That really moved me."
What touched him most, he said, were the relationships between the Marines and code talkers, especially during a time of unapologetic racism.
"The whole story about the friendship really amazed me," Woo said. "That really created the real drama and emotion. That's why I loved doing it."
The cultural conflict between characters, both finding a way to understand each other, is a theme Woo wants to explore more.
His next project, "Man of Destiny," focuses on Chinese and Irish immigrants building the transcontinental railroad in 19th-century America. Cage, who also starred in Woo's "Face/Off," and frequent Hong Kong collaborator Chow Yun-Fat have been named as co-stars. Woo said he hopes to start production this fall.
"I've always seen myself as a bridge," Woo said. "I've always wanted to do something to try to bring in good things from the East and from the West, to let us understand each other more. That's why I love making movies like 'Windtalkers.' "
His sensitivity to cultural differences is apparent in "Windtalkers." From its opening scene, with ethereal clouds moving across an Arizona desert, to the unforgettable sounds of a haunting Navajo flute, to the disturbingly realistic battlefield violence, Woo carefully choreographed each scene to capture an emotion in a very show-not-tell approach.
No extreme slow motion, no flying warriors. Woo left his bag of cinematic tricks, which have made him a cult icon, clasped shut.
"I tried to capture the realism of war," Woo said, adding he used a lot of hand-held cameras for a more realistic and intimate feel. "I tried to make the audience more involved, inside the battlefield, make them care about the characters."
He wants moviegoers to care as much as he does, to feel the sadness and senselessness of war.
(In fact, the movie may have been too realistic at the time of its originally scheduled release in November 2001, when the nation braced itself for possible additional terrorist attacks and war.)
"I wanted to show that war is hell," said the 56-year-old devout Christian and father of three. "I tried to capture that feeling, tried to get the chaos and confusion, the danger, the life and death, the blood and tears, that kind of feeling. I think that would give the audience more impact, make them realize war is horrible, that it's not good for anybody. Only friendship is forever."
There are no John Waynes, no blockbuster heroes, no unflawed characters in the movie.
"There were just ordinary people," Woo said.
Though it includes explicit scenes of war and violence, the heart of this movie isn't the heroism of the soldiers or the cleverness of the code. Throughout, Woo emphasizes spiritualism and a deeper meaning in life.
There are scenes of prayer and rituals, and scenes that embody the faith and fear of the Navajo characters, who are serving a country that had never accepted them.
"The most important thing was to send the message that two different kind of people, who come from different cultures, could learn how to work together," Woo said. "I wanted to educate people about the (Navajo) image ...ÊIn Hollywood movies, you never see them laugh or cry. That's what I wanted to change."
They had families, told jokes, played cards. They were courageous, faithful and loyal. And it was Woo's mission to bring their fullness of character to the screen.
Woo pays careful attention to those kinds of details. On his sets, everything has a purpose, from clinking dog tags to a blue bottle of sake to the direction cigarette smoke moves.
It can be hard to believe that Woo started his moviemaking career directing comedies.
It took a series of inspired Hong Kong gangster dramas in the late '80s and early '90s, including "The Killer" (1989) and "Hard Boiled" (1992), to establish Woo as a master of action flicks. He made the leap into American cinema with "Broken Arrow" (1995) and "Face/Off" (1997), and became a household name. Other directors, such as Quentin Tarantino, became cult fans, influenced by Woo's penchant for elegant violence.
Hiroshi Mori, who attended a preview screening of "Windtalkers" in Honolulu last week along with a crowd of other Hawai'i actors who had parts in the film, was a huge fan of Woo's films, even before landing a speaking part in "Windtalkers."
"Just to see him, to be around him, a world-class director, that was something," said the 36-year-old digital animator from Hawai'i Kai, who played a Japanese radio operator in the movie. "He seemed very down-to-earth. You would think action directors would be really arrogant. But he wasn't like that."
Brian Kasai was impressed by how personable Woo was on the set and especially at the wrap party in October 2000 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Kasai even received a signed Christmas card from the director.
"He was so good to us," said the 46-year-old from Halawa, who played an intelligence officer. "I don't think this many extras would turn out (to the film screening last week) if he wasn't."
Woo had a reputation for being unapproachable on the set, a result of his quiet, almost shy demeanor.
But he has warmed up over the years, softened some say, wanting a more friendly, family-style atmosphere on his sets.
Of course, being in Hawai'i helped.
"We really love Hawai'i," he raved, despite unexpected rain during the filming of "Windtalkers" that prolonged production, costing time and money. "The people were very nice. I just loved the crew over there. ... The people were very warm, very honest ..."