Sunday, June 19, 2005

It's Okay, They're Weasels

A lot of Chinese people die in John Woo's The Killer. It's not the most extreme example of his frantic cinema of bloody death (that title probably goes to A Better Tomorrow II) but there's no question a lot of Chinese people are filmed getting killed, their bodies bursting apart in slow-motion.

Most of these people die because of a lack of trust. The characters in John Woo's world are pretty straightforwardly divided; there are those who keep their word, and those who do not. Those who do not are forever scheming to destroy those who do, to blot out all evidence of honesty and honour, as though the mere existence of such traits made their own position untenable.

There's a saying Chris gave me once when I was complaining about a message board that had gotten overrun by annoying Internet goofs: "The munchkins always win."

Indeed. I adapted that to a more general phrasing:

The weasels always win.

It seems depressing and hopeless, and in a sense it is. Once the weasels get in, once they start spreading their cowardly, selfish practices around, the fight is over.

The weasels get into Hong Kong in The Killer. Young Johnny Weng distrusts everyone around him, and he amasses power and wealth as a result. And destroys everything our heroes care about in the process. By the end of the film, there is nothing left for the heroes to preserve but their own dignity and self-worth, and even that is in danger of falling apart.

But the film is too vibrant, too spasmodically energetic to allow a reading of hopelessness. Too many people die in the course of this fable for it to simply breathe a quiet sigh and collapse into entropy. Woo gives the struggle by the heroes to fend off the weasels too much weight, too much glamour and sex appeal for that. In the end, the bad guys are overcome, their schemes undone by the willingness of the heroes to pay any price, to inflict any amount of death, in order to stand for what they believe in.

Ah Jong and Inspector Li and good old Sidney believe in something. They believe a man stands by his word, and all the violence they pour out on the world around them is guided by that faith. In contrast to them stands Johnny, out to acquire money and power by any means. All of these are violent people who kill without remorse, who accept casualties in their war, but whereas Johnny is trying to create something that doesn't exist, our heroes are trying to preserve something they value. Something that exists only in themselves.

Johnny is the external desire, the need for status and comfort. Ah Jong, Li and Sidney are the internal desire, the desire to BE a certain kind of person, regardless of the external conditions. When Sidney goes to Johnny to get Ah Jong's money, he doesn't do so because the money is important; Ah Jong himself says it doesn't matter. He goes because if he doesn't, he becomes a weasel.

The weasels always win, it's true. But you don't have to become one. John Woo's great films (of which The Killer is, I believe, one) show us that we can be lions, even in a world overrun by the weasels. We may not change anything in the world, but if we stand our ground and deliver courage and honesty, we can retain our pride, and maybe even help others, those who have lost faith, learn to stand against the weasels.

Not because you can defeat them, because you can't. But you CAN refuse to be defeated, and that's even more important.