The Killer: Modern Shakespeare

Chow Yun Fat and Hamlet have so very much in common.William Shakespeare wrote some of the most popular and widely accepted tragedies of all time. His plays have been adapted time and again by playwrights and filmmakers alike, ranging from Broadway showings to Kenneth Branaugh’s films to the awful Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the late 1990s. Additionally, many of his traditional themes and philosophies have found their ways into more modern forums. One of the best translations of Shakespeare’s style into today’s entertainment, as odd as it sounds, is the genre of Hong Kong action theater films. While most of these stories are considered merely bad action flicks, they definitely have some Shakespeare parallels, which I plan to outline using the example of John Woo’s The Killer, starring Chow Yun Fat.

The Killer, considered by many to be one of the quintessential Hong Kong action films, tells the story of Jeffrey, an assassin for hire who is the best in the business. He secretly loves a singer named Jennie, who one day gets accidentally involved in a firefight between Jeff and one of his victims and has a gun fired right next to her face, which blinds her. The remainder of the story follows along Jeffrey’s attempt to secure a cornea transplant for Jennie so that she may have an operation and see again. In the midst of this, a police officer, Inspector Li, attempts to capture the killer with a heart of gold. Thanks to a double-crossing employer, Jeffrey finds his life in danger. He fights alongside the police officer with the goal of dying and giving his eyes to Jennifer. Alas, his eyes are shot out, and he dies without getting the chance of helping Jenny.

So what does this film that features a thousand empty bullet casings have to do with Shakespeare? Several important things, actually.

First, like all Shakespearian tragedies, it deals with large and emotionally intangible issues. Famous tragedies such as Hamlet and King Lear deal with such themes as the nature of reality and sanity, and The Killer deals with a similar emotional theme, questioning the nature of love and ethics. Can a hired murderer still have a saving grace? Is one who is capable of committing such vile acts also capable of truly loving someone? The audience watches both Jeff and Inspector Li deal with these ethical dilemmas in the same manner that they watch Hamlet struggle with the fine lines of scheming and sanity. Like Shakespeare’s protagonists, neither of the lead characters can claim to exist on one side of the moral spectrum or the other: while Jeffrey is a murderer, he does care about those who do not deserve it. And while Inspector Li upholds the law, he has a deep respect for Jeff to the point that he is willing to aid him in the end despite the fact that common sense and his line of duty dictate a different course of action. The film focuses very much on ambiguity and indecision in the same manner as Shakespeare’s classic tragedies.

Secondly, The Killer follows the Levinasean concept of physical pain being on the same level as emotional pain. Just as King Lear presents the horrors of the storm and the torture that many of the characters must endure on the same level as the decaying sanity of the protagonist, so does The Killer show Jenny’s suffering and inability to see to be as significant and all-consuming as Jeffrey’s struggle to live a good life despite his profession. In fact, such suffering is seen as worse than Jeff’s emotional turmoil, causing Jeff to be willing to sacrifice his life just so she can see.

Thirdly, Jeffrey shows the traditional tragic flaw of any Shakespearian protagonist: the inability to change in the proper frame of time. Shakespeare’s protagonists tend to rise up against their adversity and change into better human beings, but such changes always come too late in tragedies. Had Hamlet acted when necessary, he could have killed Claudius without losing his mother and dying himself. Had Lear not been so arrogant at the beginning of the play, Cordelia would have grown to an old age and been a wise and benevolent ruler. And had Jeffrey not shown such hesitation in changing his profession, he would not have died and Jennifer would have been able to see again.

Fourthly and lastly, The Killer has the traditional secondary surviving character to tell the tale later. Just as with Horatio in Hamlet, the survivor, Inspector Li, is the only one to be able to look back on matters and learn a lesson. And, as usual, such a lesson comes too late to make a change in the fates of the main characters.

The Killer is almost universally accepted as the quintessential Hong Kong action film. While it seems that Shakespeare and John Woo’s films have a world of difference between them, they in fact overlap in several important thematic areas. And, while John Woo probably did not intentionally borrow from Shakespeare, at least he managed to craft a tragedy with some of the emotional complexity and critical thinking of a traditional play from the bard, as opposed to the dumbasses involved in travesties such as Romeo and Juliet and O.

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