professional killer

The Killer (1989 film)

The Killer is a 1989 Hong Kong action/crime film written and directed by John Woo and starring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh and Kenneth Tsang. It was a critically acclaimed film production for producer's Tsui Hark's Film Workshop. The story follows Ah Jong (Chow-Yun Fat), the killer who accidentally hurts the eyes of the pop singer Jennie (Sally Yeh). Later, he meets Jennie and finds that she needs an expensive operation due to accident or she will go blind. To get the money for the surgery, Jeff decides to perform one last hit. Insp. Li Ying (Danny Lee), who has been chasing Jeff for a long time, is determined to catch him.

Producer Tsui Hark and his production studio argued with John Woo throughout the production of the film. Changes including the idea of even producing another action film to the market, the music use, and film styles such as slow motion were debated over between Woo and Tsui. On its release the film was not a commercial success in Hong Kong, but a great critical success both overseas and in Hong Kong where it won Best Director and Best Editing at the 9th Hong Kong Film Awards.

Plot summary

The Killer revolves around the character of Ah-Jong (Chow Yun-Fat), a professional killer who has decided to retire. During a hit in the opening act, Ah-Jong accidentally blinds a young nightclub singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh) with the muzzle flash from his pistol. Driven to help the now near-blinded woman by securing money for a sight-saving corneal transplant, he agrees to carry out another hit. During his escape he is pursued by Li Ying (Danny Lee Sau-Yin), a cop who is investigating his crimes. Ah Jong then finds himself being hunted by his employers who want to get rid of him for being seen "on the job".

After witnessing Ah-Jong save a dying girl and learning about Jennie's operation, the cop realizes arresting this hitman would not set things right. Together they fight the Triads through amazing action sequences which ultimately climax in an explosive shootout at an abandoned church. There, Ah-Jong has Li Ying swear to donate the hitman's eyes to Jennie if something were to happen to him.

The ending is tragic, in that Ah-Jong dies, his eyes shot out by the Triad boss, Wong Hoi. Jennie is left crawling for him in the dark, her operation unrealized. The boss flees to police custody, but Li Ying chases after him: Li Ying realizes that the law could never give someone like Ah-Jong justice, so he acts under his own sense of right and wrong and shoots the boss in cold blood.



The film was made under Tsui Hark's production company Film Workshop and was the last collaboration between the Tsui and Woo. After mixed ideas between the two on the film A Better Tomorrow II, Tsui was very indifferent to Woo's suggestions including making The Killer and Once A Thief (1990). Tsui and Woo often disagreed to aspects of the film such as the opening scene where Woo wanted the singer to perform a jazz song and have the killer playing a saxophone. Tsui rejected this idea as he felt that the Hong Kong audiences didn't understand or like jazz that much. Woo stated "I had to change it to a Chinese song, the kind of song they always use in Hong Kong movies." Actress and singer of the song in the film Sally Yeh also didn't find the song suitable for the film. Tsui also suggested to remove all the slow motion scenes in the movie, which Woo refused to do. To receive more financing for The Killer, Woo borrowed money from the star of the film Chow Yun-Fat. Chow helped convince Golden Princess which he was contracted with to let him be in the film as well, despite that the company was against claiming it was unworthy of Chow and would be no different then any other gangster film made in the wake of A Better Tomorrow.

The Killer was heavily influenced by French director Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 crime film Le Samouraï. Parts of Le Samouraï are borrowed such as the introduction to scene at a nightclub that mimics the same introduction scene in Woo's film. Woo also described influence from crime films from Japan in the 1960s. The friendship/rivalry between Ah Jong and Insp. Li Ying was influenced by the Spy vs. Spy comics from Mad Magazine. Woo recalled "When I was young I was fascinated with the cartoon–I love it very much...the white bird and the black bird are always against each other, but deep in their heart, they are still friendly, and the idea came from that."

Woo's first cut of the film was 142 minutes long, over half an hour longer then most home video versions of the film. Woo cut this version of the film after the initial Hong Kong release of the film, which cut out a sub-plot of Yun-Fat's character's best friend who works in the same triad. Parts of this cut material appears in a Taiwan print of the film. At a 1998 screening of the Taiwan cut of the film, frequent Woo collaborator and film editor David Wu spoke negatively about the cut version saying "I had no idea this version even existed, and if I find out who re-cut this movie without our knowing about it I'm going to kick his butt".

Release and reception

The Killer was released in Hong Kong in 1989. The film was not a financial success in Hong Kong. The film's star Chow Yun-Fat suggested the level of violence in it turned people off while Hong Kong governmental authorities against the filmmakers that the film glorified acted like recruitment campaigns for the Triads as through the 1980s there was a significant rise in the Triads membership. Film producer Terence Chang suggested that the films success around the world made several Hong Kong filmmakers and critics jealous. Terrence stated "It created a certain kind of resentment in the film industry in Hong Kong. One thing I can say for sure, the American European, Japanese, Korean and even the Taiwanese audiences and critics appreciated The Killer a lot more than the people in Hong Kong."

On its release to an English speaking audience, the amount of violence was also noted. In Britain where the film was given an "x-rating" and in American ad campaigns warned of "extreme graphic violence". Woo recalls that "I was really surprised by the reaction some people had to the movie...I think I care too much about romanticism. In the future, [I] have to look deeper into the people." English critics response also noted the homoerotic nature between the two male characters of Danny Lee's character and Chow's character. Woo responded to these comments saying "People will bring their own preconceptions to a movie...If they see something in The Killer that they consider to be homoerotic, then that's their privilege...a lot of things people have pointed out about my work were never intended when I made this film." The Killer very positive critical acclaim with English critics. On the film ratings website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has one of the highest rating for an action film with 100% positive reviews with an 8.9 average based on 29 reviews.

Home video

The Criterion Collection released the film on DVD on April 1, 1998, containing a commentary with Woo and producer Terence Chang, deleted scenes and the American theatrical trailer. Fox Lorber released a second DVD release on October 3, 2000, containing the American film trailers for Hard Boiled and The Killer and a different commentary without producer Terence Chang. Fox Lorber also released The Killer was also released as a double pack with Hard Boiled on the same date as the single disc. Both the Criterion and Fox Lorber DVDs are currently out of print. On November 6, 2007, Dragon Dynasty was to release an two disc DVD of The Killer, The release has been delayed with no information further from Dragon Dynasty.



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