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Ballad of Narayama

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30 Minutes on: "The Killer"

The following is the inaugural installment of "30 Minutes On," a new feature at the MZS blog wherein the author spends exactly 30 minutes writing about a movie, then hits publish.

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Every relationship in "The Killer" is love relationship, and some are more romantic than others.

The heart of John Woo's 1989 international breakout is a love triangle. It consists of a world-weary hitman named Ah Jong, known as "Jeff" in some subtitled prints (Chow Yun-Fat); Jennie (Sally Yeh), the singer Jeff accidentally blinds during a nightclub gunfight, then guiltily adores and protects, and Hong Kong police detective Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee), who's obsessed with capturing or killing Jeff but ends up...well, I was about to write "befriending" him; but for all the talk of manly honor and duty packed into almost every scene, Li and Jeff's story is a great (if unconsummated) obsessional love story, one that pushes right up to the edge of "21 Jump Street"-level homoerotic spoofing without going full "Brokeback."

In the end, this is really Jeff and Li's story, just as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (another inspiration) was really about Butch and Sundance expressing their affection for each other by tear-assing around the American West and South America with Katherine Ross's Etta Place. We see Jeff cradling Jennie at various points, but theirs is mostly a chaste love, with overtones that feel capital-C Christian—not just because Woo keeps cutting from closeups of Chow's anguished face to closeups of crucifixes (Li's own torments are matched to shots of Buddha statues), but also because the killer's story is essentially that of a devil shattered by remorse, refashioning himself as a Christlike protector of innocents (mainly women, who are presented here as collateral damage from male ego wars), redeeming himself by killing instead of healing, and repeatedly being shot down only to rise again and be shot yet again, shells tearing his flesh like centurions' nails. Li's adoration of Jeff has aspects of religious worship as well. He gazes upon him as a pilgrim or acolyte might gaze upon a saint. And when Jeff springs into action and dispatches a dozen foes with eerie grace, or lingers at the edge of a scene only to vanish (like many an Eastwoodian wraith-like antihero) when foreground objects "wipe" him away, it feels as if Li is witnessing a miracle. (He is: both Woo's filmmaking and Chow's grace are miraculous.)

Thousands of bullets are expelled in this film, acres of glass shattered, dozens of bodies perforated and pulped and roasted in gasoline explosions. But upon revisiting Woo's first masterpiece for the first time in maybe 20 years, I was struck by how serene it feels, and how tenderly it presents the emotions flowing between its three main characters—mainly via long, close-up exchanges, in which Jeff and Li stare into each other's eyes as Lowell Lo's Ennio Morricone-lite score sighs and flutters its lashes. If "The Killer" is partly a romantic comedy—and it pretty much fesses up to that when Li interrupts Jeff and Jennie at Jennie's apartment, and the boys Fletch their way out of awkwardness while brandishing pistols that the blind woman can't see—Chow is the movie's Julia Roberts: a glamour god, an It-Boy, striding through restaurants, parking garages, churches and apartment hallways in slow-motion, often armed and dangerous, jaw set, hair flowing. He's in Woo's spotlight from start to finish, worshipped by Woo's gliding camera to the point where it seems to be counting every bead of sweat on his face. And when he's not onscreen, everybody's talking about him: Where's Jeff? What will Jeff do? I hope Jeff is okay.

And yet, like all of Woo's best work—and a lot of the films I seem to adore, come to think of it!—"The Killer" is jokey but never entirely kidding, and ultimately committed to the primal feelings it summons. There are points where aren't quite sure how seriously you're supposed to take any of it. But by the time you arrive at the climax in the church, with Jeff and Li standing tall against white-jumpsuited goons who are trying to murder Jeff for assassinating a crime boss, it becomes pretty clear that Woo expects you to groove on all the signifiers of operatic excess (blood jets, flickering candles, fluttering doves, bullet-riddled bodies pinwheeling through doors and windows), and that the goofy banter and the moments where the characters almost wink at you are, perhaps, a form of protective coloration—a way of letting Woo channel Sergio Leone and Brian de Palma and other melodrama specialists whose characters often seem perilously close to launching into an aria. Officially, the only two musicians in the film are Jennie and Jeff—whose "Once Upon a Time in the West" harmonica habit is introduced in a Mel Brooksian joke, with a door opening to reveal that it's Jeff blowing a mournful tune, not the soundtrack—but really, the whole thing has the feel of a musical: the gliding crane shots; the phalanxes of gunmen bursting into frame like members of a chorus line, then leaping and diving and rolling and doing a sort of electrical tap dance as lead tears into them. That's entertainment.

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