John Woo’s 10 Best Chinese Movies, Ranked

John Woo’s 10 Best Chinese Movies, Ranked

Throughout the years, John Woo has become one of the most celebrated action directors in the world. A staple in Hong Kong cinema, Woo first moved to the region in the midst of the Chinese Civil War, as his family was facing persecution during the Communist Revolution. It was in Hong Kong, as a young boy, that Woo became exposed to movies and filmmaking after falling in love with French cinema. By 1969, he was working in the local film industry, getting a job at the Shaw Brothers Studio, which produced some of the most famous wuxia and action movies of the period.

Inspired by the martial arts and action movies Woo had been working on while at the studio, he would make his own debut in 1974, only a couple of years after he had begun working in the industry. His international breakthrough came in 1989 with the release of his movie The Killer, and ever since then, it’s been an upward trajectory for the Hong Kong-based director. Making movies in both English, Cantonese, and Mandarin Chinese, Woo has been one of the few directors who’ve made a career that truly crosses international borders with his movies.

Here are John Woo’s 10 best Chinese movies, ranked.

10 Manhunt (2017)


Release Date
November 19, 2017

Hanyu Zhang , Masaharu Fukuyama , Stephy Qi , Ji-won Ha , Jun Kunimura , Angeles Woo

Released in 2017, Manhunt is not only based on a Japanese novel, but it also incorporates a mixed cast from South Korea, Japan, and China. When a Chinese attorney working in Tokyo receives word from his company that he’s about to be assigned to the United States, he goes to a party and meets a mysterious woman. As it turns out, the company president wants this woman to seduce him in an attempt to keep him in the country. But when she turns up dead, it puts this poor attorney in a tough spot as the prime suspect.

A Perfect Synthesis of Different Cultures

While the many different cultural elements to this film could throw it off, Manhunt does an excellent job synthesizing all of these elements. With a strong cast to anchor its story, it holds together a story that might seem flimsy at times. Stream on Netflix

9 Reign of Assassins (2010)

Reign of Assassins was directed by Woo and Su Chao-pin, making it a work of art shared between the two creatives involved. In this film, Michelle Yeoh stars as Drizzle, a key assassin for a gang who betrays her comrades and steals the mummified remains of a mythical Buddhist monk. After another monk she encounters encourages her to leave behind the life of an assassin, she decides to become a surgeon instead and changes her name — but she’ll soon learn the past never really leaves people behind.

Yeoh Is an Action Star

Not only does Yeoh play into her strengths as an actress in Reign of Assassins, but she has some incredible action scenes throughout the film. This is a highly entertaining movie that packs quite a bit of punch in it, making it worth watching at least once. Stream on Prime Video

8 The Crossing (2014)

2014’s The Crossing has an all-star cast, featuring Zhang Ziyi, Song Hye-kyo, and Takeshi Kaneshiro. With both parts of the movie clocking in at over 250 minutes, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Set in the middle of World War II, when Japan and China are fighting over who gets to control Manchuria, the stories of multiple different people — a Taiwanese conscript for the Japanese army, a Chinese orderly, a wealthy debutante — become intertwined.

Woo’s Foray Into Dramatic Storytelling

The Crossing might have fictional characters, but the storylines contained within it are based on real historical events. Woo’s film, here, is a noble attempt from an action director to make a more drama-based film. Not Currently Available to Stream or Purchase

7 Once a Thief (1991)

Chow Yun-fat as Red Beam Pudding in Once a Thief
Golden Princess Film Production

John Woo came out with Once a Thief in 1991, when he was just entering the peak of his career. Chow Yun-fat, Cherie Chung, and Leslie Cheung all star in the movie. In it, three orphans are brought into the folds of a crime boss’ organization when he decides to take them in, and that introduces them to a life where the only thing they know is how to commit a crime. But when they go to France, one of them goes missing, presumed to be dead, and that completely changes everything.

An Action Romance

Action and romance are the cruxes of Once a Thief. While it might not be considered a groundbreaking movie in the end, it still proves to be quite a cinematic experience that might garner some chuckles here and there. Rent on Prime Video

6 Hard Boiled (1992)

A man out of frame points a gun at a police officer's head, who, in turn, points his gun at Tequila Yuen (played by Chow Yun-fat)
Golden Princess Film Production

Hard Boiled opens with two police inspectors for Hong Kong spying on two gangs getting into a fight, which leaves several dead, including one of the officers. The other officer is then driven by revenge to murder the gangster who killed his partner, and, after getting in trouble for it, he becomes tangled even more with the darker side of town.

Another Great Collaboration with Chow Yun-Fat

Chow Yun-fat is a regular collaborator with John Woo, and the two make excellent movies when working together. Hard Boiled is no exception to this, and, despite how it manages to cram a lot into its run time, still shows how Woo carefully crafts his films. Rent on Prime Video

RELATED: Exclusive: John Woo Discusses His Triumphant Return with Silent Night

5 Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)

Last Hurrah for Chivalry is one of the earlier releases in Woo’s career, put out before he had managed to gain more acclaim all over the world, not just his home country. This movie is set in Ancient China, where two assassins decide to do something out of the kindness of their hearts. They help out a local merchant, who is trying to get revenge for his father.

An Early Sign of Greatness

Last Hurrah for Chivalry has some of Woo’s most iconic trademarks and styles, despite it being an early career movie. While it leans more towards the conventions of martial arts movies, not the gangster film Woo would become famous for later on, there’s still quite a bit to learn from Woo’s movies like this. Stream on The Criterion Channel

4 A Better Tomorrow

A man in sunglasses burns a 100-dollar bill
Film Workshop

Woo’s A Better Tomorrow is one of his most iconic movies, and was immensely successful upon its release in Asia. Ti Lung stars as Sung Tse-Ho, who works in a Hong Kong crime organization. The film opens with him clashing with his younger brother, who wants to become a police officer and convince his brother to get away from the life he’s chosen.

A Groundbreaking John Woo Film

A Better Tomorrow hits all the right thematic notes: it’s emotional, full of action, and has enough grit to be considered a solid John Woo movie. A pioneer in the heroic bloodshed genre, it set a precedent in the film world upon its release.

Related: 10 Underrated Wuxia Movies That Deserve More Love

3 Red Cliff (2008)

Red Cliff is an epic movie to all-new proportions: John Woo’s war movie was split into two different parts because of its length, as both parts clock in at over four hours when watched together. Starring some familiar faces for Woo’s films, the film opens in 208 A.D., when the Eastern Han Dynasty is beginning to collapse. As the imperial army marches toward the south, several warlords are beginning to see their swords met as they try to get more power within the region.

A Historical Epic

Red Cliff might lean away from historical accuracy during a chunk of its run time, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as a historical movie. With over four hours of footage that largely consists of tension and action scenes, one could really learn quite a bit about the period while acknowledging that the film isn’t perfect when it comes to historical accuracy. Stream on Hulu

2 Bullet in the Head (1990)

Two men pull another man out of the water
Golden Princess Film Production

Released in 1990, Bullet in the Head stars Tony Leung in its lead role. Set in the late-60s, three friends join a gang and find themselves embroiled in lives where they rely on crime and petty acts. As they get caught up in more gang violence, it forces them to flee Hong Kong after killing another gang leader, leaving them in a tough spot as the police start searching for them. As they head to Vietnam, they decide what to do next.

Set Against the Vietnam War

Bullet in the Head was originally intended to be a sequel to A Better Tomorrow, which is apparent when it comes to the themes and smaller details of Bullet in the Head. Incorporating the Vietnam War and its impacts adds a unique twist to the movie. Not Currently Available to Stream or Purchase

1 The Killer (1989)

Two men aim their guns at each other
Golden Princess Film Production

In the years since The Killer was released in 1989, it has become one of the most recognized movies in the world, with many considering it a source of inspiration. Chow Yun-fat leads as Ah Jong, an assassin who decides that, after one more job, he’s going to finally retire and live a somewhat normal life. But during that last job, it leads to even more chaos, showing that he can’t really escape this life if he wanted to.

Catapulting Woo to International Stardom

Full of violence, poetry, and philosophy, The Killer shows how tight Woo is when it comes to filmmaking. So many things could go wrong in this movie, but Woo pulled it off, bringing his movies to an international spotlight with The Killer. Not Currently Available to Stream or Purchase


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