The Killer

9 minutes estimated reading time

The media environment that drove the popularity of The Killer

Before talking about The Killer, it makes sense to talk about the media landscape. The late 1980s and early 1990s was when consumers first started to buy video films rather than only rent them. Retail video sales had been pioneered in the UK by the music labels who sold video albums and recordings of live performances.

The prices of films suddenly became much more accessible. Not cheap, but the price of a couple of CD albums at the time. Consumers were becoming more film literate. Curated series like:

  • Moviedrome
  • The Incredibly Strange Film Show
  • Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show
  • Jonathan Ross Presents for One Week Only

These series were our film studies lecture theatre with Alex Cox and Jonathan Ross as our tutors.

Young people’s expectations and interests expanded. Video companies started to address market needs. At first, video packaging was influenced by the rental market. The rental market needed display cases that would have hundreds of people handling a box. Durability and keeping things hygienic was the primary concern. But companies realised more consumer sales with nicer packaging. Companies like Tartan and Artificial Eye looked to people with niche interests.

The video rights for these films were cheap and there was a ready audience to watch them. These cheap film rights were already well known, fuelling US grindhouse cinema in the 1970s & ’80s. So they were the ideal vanguard to get consumers to build their own video library.

Magazines sprang up to address the need for consumer reviews. this included Anime UK, Empire (seen as the serious film buffs read), Shivers and The Dark Side.

The Killer and I

The Killer was one of a number of videos that I had bought at the time. It sat by my VCR (video cassette recorder) alongside Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow. All three were released on the ‘Made In Hong Kong’ video label. I also had a copy of the Japanese anime opus Akira. My collection was rounded out with a few spaghetti westerns including Keoma The Violent Breed. The westerns were released by Aktiv as part of The Spaghetti Western Collection. These were films that made a real impact on me and that I watched again and again.

I was blown away by the visual experiences that both genres offered.

Over time I have been building up my library of Blu Ray and DVD disks and managed to reacquire a copy of The Killer. Last week I watched The Killer for the first time in a few years.

The perfect confection

A perfect product is a mix of the right ingredients prepared in the right way for the right time. In the mid-to-late 1980s Hong Kong cinema was reaching its cultural peak.

The Killer
The original Hong Kong poster for The Killer

The Killer is made up of layers. These layers were driven by a mix of:

  • Visionary directors
  • The febrile atmosphere in the run-up to re-colonisation by the Chinese communist government
  • A deep bench of talent
  • Hong Kong itself

John Woo – visionary director

Depending whose article you read on John Woo, you will get a number of different influences mentioned with regards to John Woo’s works of this period. This film has all of them on screen at once. John Woo is a Christian, and you see a lot of these motifs in The Killer‘s imagery and settings including the iconic church shootout.

There is a stylistic nod to French new wave films directed by Jean-Pierre Melville like Le Samourai. Gun-fu was influenced by Japanese yakuza films with their honour code and no-holds barred violence. Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity series exemplified this genre. The pacing of his films owe much to Japanese chambara films like The Seven Samurai and classic Chinese novels.

The reality is that the Triads were seldom rule bound or honourable isn’t allowed to get in the way of a good story.

A combination of an appreciation of westerns and the works of Melville, with being in Hong Kong during the late 1960s and early 1970s meant that Woo entered the film world as a young script supervisor for Cathay Studios. He became an assistant directors at Shaw Studios. By the mid-1970s he made kung-fu films with fighting chereographed by Jackie Chan.

In the mid-1980s he had a chance to pivot and take more creative control, which resulted in A Better Tomorrow.

Much is commented on Woo’s use of white doves in The Killer and subsequent films. The dove is a Christian motif; Woo also referenced the white and black crows of the Spy vs. Spy comic strip. Finally pigeons and doves were kept in coops on the top of tenement apartment buildings in Hong Kong such as John Woo would have lived in after the Shek Kip Mei Fire burnt down his first Hong Kong home. They also end up on the menu at some of the city’s restaurants.

Doves were also very much an 1980s cultural moment from Blade Runner‘s climatic rooftop scene to Prince. Though to my knowledge Woo never mentioned either of them as influences.

Less commonly mentioned is the scene where the stray cat enters Jennie’s flat; it signals misfortune for the main characters in the film based on Chinese superstition.

The febrile atmosphere

The Hong Kong of the 1980s was a city with a sell by date. It had become a modern well-run city after reaching a nadir in the early 1970s but all that could be easily done away with. Hong Kongers moved freely around overseas Chinese communities in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Taiwan became media hubs. By the early 1970s, Hong Kong music was being sung in Cantonese around Asia, the films in Asian cinemas and Made in Hong Kong products were shipped around the world.

Prior to 1984, there was a wide range of possibilities from the British muddling through and carrying on running Hong Kong to a Chinese invasion. Generations of Hong Kong emigres moved to the UK, Australia, Canada and America for education or a bolt hole if the worst happened. Post-1984 things became real.

Vancouver’s Hong Kong community expanded during this time as middle class professionals followed the lead of ‘super man’ Li Ka shing and had their families based in the Canadian city while they visited from time to time. It also helped that Vancouver’s inner city core felt like the high density living of Hong Kong, as did the ocean edge.

All this comings and goings meant that Hong Kongers were exposed to a variety of foreign and domestic influences like John Woo, rather than the more pedestrian content available in the UK at the time.

The higher ‘moral’ values of The Killer were a line that connected modern Asia to an ancient Chinese past reassuring stability in a changing world.

Star power – the deep bench of talent.

The Killer was blessed with a strong cast of performers. Chow Yun-Fat had a perfect foil in Danny Lee. Sally Yeh is amazing in her performance as an actress and a musician. Taiwanese Canadian Yeh was already a successful Cantopop artist before acting in The Killer. The depth of talent in Hong Kong was down to the studio system operated by production companies and TV stations. Chow was a product of TVB’s actor training and made his name as a Cantonese television drama heart throb.

Beyond the actors, you had a deep bench of technical talent to draw on such as cinematographer Peter Pau. Pau came up through the conveyor line approach to Hong Kong filmmaking and The Killer was his sixth film. Things needed to be done right first time, because films had very little shooting time in comparison to their western counterparts.

People like Mr Pau are responsible for the professionalisation of the mainland Chinese film industry. The mainland-Hong Kong collaborations which snuffed out the Hong Kong film industry acted as a technical finishing school by Hong Kong filmmakers for their Chinese counterparts. In the same way that coercive technology transfer saw multinational companies train up their competitors.

Hong Kong itself

The Killer is one of the things that inspired me to move half way around the world. Hong Kong’s mix of claustrophobic yet homely flats in composite buildings, neon signage and the constant buzz of the city are something you won’t see anywhere else.

the killer

This contrasts with the small town feel of the islands. The Killer managed to shoot in locations like the busy Causeway Bay shopping district, which was done in just three hours.

Just across the border mainland China feels too chaotic. Singapore too neat and ordered. Hong Kong got the mix just right, which is the reason why the anime Ghost In The Shell borrowed so much from the city’s mid-century architecture.

All four elements come together to make a perfect confection:

  • Visionary directors
  • The febrile atmosphere in the run-up to re-colonisation by the Chinese communist government
  • A deep bench of talent
  • Hong Kong itself


The Killer‘s reception in the Hong Kong market was lukewarm at first, due the June 4th incident in Beijing. But by the end of the year it was a respectable 9th in Hong Kong box office earnings. What happened in the international markets was unprecedented for the time. The Killer was shown on the international festival circuit and became much more critically acclaimed outside of Hong Kong than within the city itself.

If you’ve watched a Luc Besson film, you’ve seen a film influenced by The Killer, as have most Hollywood action directors making films in the mid-to-late 1990s like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… sampled the living daylights out of The Killer.

Three decades on, The Killer still moves me. Given changes that have gone on in Hong Kong, we won’t see its like again.