John Woo - The Killer (1989)

[chow yun fat] The lead characters in John Woo's The Killer oscillate between searches for atonement and affect (the ability to do something that makes a permanent, tangible difference). John (Chow Yun-Fat) seeks (self-endowed) forgiveness for the wrong he has done Jenny (Sally Yeh), the taking of her eyesight. Li (Danny Lee) seeks a similar sort of self-endowed redemption for what he has done to John (bringing Tony Weng's men against him). The two, as John tells Li, are in a sense one another. John is a hitman still following the old code of honor; Li is a cop who breaks the rules when they conflict with his methods.

Sight is a running motif in The Killer. Jenny has lost her eyesight at the movie's opening, after an action sequence in which John kills a nightclub full of armed bodyguards. With the loss of her sight the viewer gains an awareness, the first evidence of John's code; John covers her eyes, both tending her wound and hiding her lack of sight from the audience's line of sight. John will continually conceal Jenny's increasing blindness, but from Jenny, not the audience (who upon recognizing John as compassionate come to identify with him). He lies when she asks him why the world has suddenly grown so dark, making excuses that he and the audience (and Li) all know to be lies.

Two such instances occur. The first is in John's apartment, after Li catches up to him for the first time and confronts him with gun and the potential of arrest. John tells Jenny that Li and he are old football buddies, loaded guns at arms' length. Jenny behaves towards them as if they truly were old friends, and Li a guest, offering him tea.

The second is in the church, the moment of total reconciliation between Li and John, in a siege scene strikingly similar in setup to the one performed by Chow and Lee in Ringo Lam's City on Fire (in which Lee plays the killer and Chow the cop out to bust him). But whereas Lam's inspector was an undercover agent wracked with the guilt of betraying his friend, Li has been open with John (though when we first see him he is on his way to an undercover assignment). Jenny claims everything has gone black; Li and John wave candles by her face to confirm.

Jenny's claim that all is black coincides not only with John and Li's union, but with Li's promise to John that if he dies his corneas will be saved for Jenny. At this point Li becomes, for the first time, concerned with the bystander in a way that has defined John's personality from the beginning. Li, when confronted by police officials for giving a nearby woman a heart attack while gunning down a fleeing cop killer, claims he doesn't give a damn about the woman, and that all that sort of concern does is make his job difficult. Li has come to embody what good is in John and lacking in himself, shortly after John did the same. John tells Jenny he had once thought the men he killed deserved to die, but now knows everyone has a right to live, a philosophy more in line with the one Li presents to John when confronting him outside Sydney's house, just before Weng's men lay siege. It should be noted the first scene occurs at night, the second in broad daylight. The darkness works as a metaphor for indistinction, but also for a sort of hierarchical reification, in which John's world view is held superior, both through its penultimacy and its locale; John becomes Li inside an assassin's house, Li becomes John inside a Catholic church.

Li takes on the role Sydney (Chu Kong) had once held, upon Sydney's redemption and subsequent death. In a single scene he and John kill more people than in all of Woo's American movies combined. John asks for guarantee that Li will uphold his promise twice, once in the heat of battle, once when they have cornered Tony Weng (Wing Cho Ip), who is holding Jenny at gunpoint. Between the two of them (now, at last, one) they sacrifice John's life, but in an ironic twist his eyes as well. John blindly crawls on his stomach, futilely searching for a now blind Jenny, futilely searching for John on her stomach. They pass each other, calling the other's name, until John falls silent and still, Jenny still crying out to him. Li runs Weng down, who is trying to turn himself in to a newly arrived battalion of police, where, in the presence of his superiors, he guns the crimelord down.

Jenny's final blindness is a recognition of John and Li's synthesis (when Li first approaches Jenny she mistakes him for John); John's blindness draws an association between him and Jenny. John has become the wounded bystander, not in his innocence, but in his purity (both operate as a sort of naïveté). John and Sydney, after John's botched attempt on the life of Tony Weng, speak of themselves as outmoded professionals, replaced by a breed of ruthless, codeless assassins who never take "the rules" into account. Li alone remains alive, though facing (extrapolatically) jail time. (Ironically, he catches John by becoming John; John would rather die before going jail, but by becoming Li does both, in the prophesied order.) Li emerges, compiling now all four characters (John and Jenny by association with John, Sydney in occupying his role), the only one not dead, and the only one not crippled at some time in his life. Li is perhaps the solution to the decay of the code, a man who is both investigator and vigilante, both cop and assassin, who both reveres and rejects the law as such.

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