It was 11 P.M. at the Sutton Place Hotel in the heart of Vancouver, and John Woo sat in a near-empty restaurant, exhausted following a long day of film editing. "So much to learn," the 49-year-old film maker repeated softly. "So many things to improve."
Mr. Woo -- a slight, shy and surprisingly gentle figure whose rhapsodically violent films from Hong Kong like "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled" have given him cult status among some international critics and film makers -- took a sip of red wine. "I still don't think I'm a success," he said with a shrug.
But after a first painful experience in Hollywood in 1993 with a botched Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, "Hard Target," Mr. Woo has emerged with a big winner, "Broken Arrow," which has been No. 1 at the box office for two weeks and placed him on the A-list of action directors.
"Part of what makes Woo's movies so much fun," wrote Terrence Rafferty in The New Yorker, "is that he never allows anything -- not reality, or narrative coherence, or concern for the audience's ability to absorb non-stop, high-impact thrills -- to slow him down."
Mr. Woo says he is embarrassed by all the attention. "Actually, I hate violence, I hate it," he said, although he has certainly purveyed wholesale murder and dizzying brutality as a ticket to fame and fortune.
But he can claim to understand violence intimately. "I grew up in the slums of Hong Kong and I saw it every day, the crime, the gangs, the knives, the drugs, the prostitutes," he said. "Every day. We were homeless for a while. We lived in shacks. People got killed right in front of our door. I have seen so much violence, so much unfairness."
"I felt we were living in hell," he continued. "I just wanted to fly away from hell. Fly away to another place.
"I had so many fantasies, so many dreams. My mother took me to American movies, to musicals, 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' and 'West Side Story,' to see Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I fell in love with a dream world. Movies became my fantasy."
Seated straight in his chair, his eyes narrowing as he spoke, Mr. Woo seemed intense, tightly wound and thoroughly engaging and eager to please. He wore sneakers, jeans and a cashmere sweater over a blue button-down oxford shirt. He picked at his angel-hair pasta dinner, but soon asked the waitress to wrap it up to take upstairs to his room. He hardly seemed like a film maker whose pre-Hollywood Hong Kong films were almost grandiose in their mix of graphic violence with blatant Chinese and Christian religious symbols and their male-bonding themes of loyalty and honor, whatever the price. (Women are generally irrelevant in most of Mr. Woo's movies.)
The BBC once called him, "The Mozart of mayhem." And his hit movies, like "A Better Tomorrow" (1986), "The Killer" (1988) and "Hard Boiled" (1992), transformed the Chinese action genre from formulaic low-budget kung-fu vehicles into multilayered and apocalyptic shoot-em-ups.
Mr. Woo is fully aware that, despite his formidable reputation, making the leap from Hong Kong to Hollywood is risky. He claims an awareness that violence in his American films must be tempered or, most certainly, less flamboyant.
What he will not adjust is the balletic style of his films -- a style derived from classic movie musicals -- coupled with a vision that reaches far beyond formulaic spectacle into a dark, almost mythic arena. His vision often involves two men, comrades since childhood, whose bond is ripped apart and ends tragically under the weight of greed or a lust for power.
"When I shoot action sequences I think of great dancers, Gene Kelly, Astaire," he said. "In action I feel like I'm creating a ballet, a dance. That's what I like. Even though there's violence, it's a dance. I make it a dance.
"I always use music. In all the camera sequences I use music to help the scene, I use music to get inspiration for a scene. An explosion is like a happy drum beating. I like to see everything on the move. If an actor isn't moving, my camera moves. Music creates fantasy."
In his current fantasy, "Broken Arrow," Mr. Woo took the risk of casting John Travolta as a thoroughly bad but quite compelling Air Force commander with a serious streak of lunacy. Mr. Travolta is pitted against Christian Slater, a good-guy pilot, in a race to prevent a nuclear weapon from destroying an American city.
"I wanted this bad guy to be like a bad guy from the neighborhood, a charming guy, a guy who's always smiling," said Mr. Woo, who speaks imperfect but fluid English.
Not only does the movie have Mr. Woo's trademark stylized violence and hyperventilated editing, but there's also a B-3 Stealth bomber crash, an underground nuclear explosion and an eight-minute or so finale on a speeding train that took six weeks to film. Some of the film's plot makes no sense at all -- and Mr. Woo knows it. But he also knows that audiences showing up at this film aren't expecting to see "Sense and Sensibility," either.
"In the Hong Kong movies, my hero usually has a heart of chivalry," Mr. Woo said. "He always cares about his friends. He fights against evil. He plays with his own destiny, and at the end he usually dies. He usually sacrifices, but at the end he does something good, something honorable. And then he dies."
Generally, American movie heroes don't die. And this is one of the numerous compromises Mr. Woo has made since moving to Hollywood -- he brought his wife and three children to live in Los Angeles in 1992. Why did he move? There was Hong Kong's uncertain future after China takes possession in 1997, as well as his frustration over the limits placed on him there by studios to stick to the action genre. Oliver Stone was the first American director to urge Mr. Woo to try his hand in Hollywood. So did Martin Scorsese. Then, the studios offered him piles of money.
Mr. Woo is in Vancouver for five weeks to make a television pilot for Fox Television, based on one of his comedies, "Once a Thief," a caper comedy about two art thieves in love with the same beautiful woman. (Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto are often used for filming by Hollywood studios because of the cheaper dollar.) After this, he will direct a film for Paramount called "Face Off," a story about a cop and a criminal who exchange identities that will probably star Mr. Travolta, as well as projects at 20th Century Fox, which produced "Broken Arrow," and at New Line Cinema.
Mr. Woo said that as far back as he can remember he has yearned to make movies. Born in 1946 with the name Wu Yusen in China's Guangdong Province, Mr. Woo endured a childhood that seems Dickensian. His family moved to Hong Kong, but his father, a teacher, fell ill with tuberculosis and became too sick to work. His mother worked at menial jobs. The family lived in a shack in the slums. When a fire destroyed their shack, they lived on the streets for several months. They had no money to educate the boy.
A Christian family from the United States eventually sponsored him and paid for his early education, an act of generosity for which Mr. Woo says he is "eternally grateful." Mr. Woo said his lawyer in Los Angeles hired a detective to try to find the family, whose address was lost in the fire.
While his father remained in the hospital for more than a decade, the boy accompanied his mother to movies (children went free) and developed what he called an obsession with making movies. He experimented with Super-8 and 16-millimeter movies, stole books on film theory from stores and libraries, studied the films of Sam Peckinpah, Frederico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Arthur Penn and Elia Kazan and got his first job as a production assistant in 1969 at Cathay Studios in Hong Kong. He then worked for the Shaw Brothers studio there, a major Asian studio, and made his first film, "The Young Dragons," in 1973.
His maiden voyage into Hollywood was a painful one. Not only were there battles with the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board over violence in "Hard Target," but the studio, Universal, also wanted less, not more, of Mr. Woo's visual poetry. And Mr. Van Damme dominated just about everything.
"I'm not used to the system," Mr. Woo said. "So many people get involved in a script. The star has so much power over the script and the casting. And so many meetings. Meetings and meetings. Repeating things over and over again. I wasted so much time at those meetings."
On the other hand, Mr. Woo said, his experience on "Broken Arrow," a $60 million film, was far more pleasant. (His Hong Kong films cost $3 million to $5 million.) "Enormous pressure," he said, almost shuddering. "Pressure. Pressure. Much money. And shooting in the middle of the desert in Montana and Utah. Not fun. But Fox supported me. And the actors were wonderful. And I made it a chase movie. Like 'North by Northwest.' A chase movie about betrayal, about friendship." Seeming very tired now, Mr. Woo drained his glass of wine. He picked up his pasta, wrapped in a paper bag. He smiled and said, "What I want to do, what I will do, is a love story one day."