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On Film: John Woo hits Chicago

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Two-fisted gunslingers, Mexican standoffs, and slow-motion bloodbaths are his stock-in-trade, but when he received the 1998 MTV Movie Award for best action sequence John Woo confessed, "The two things I'm most afraid of are accepting awards and talking in front of people."

This weekend the Hong Kong auteur turned Hollywood player will have to confront his fears again when he's presented with the Gene Siskel Film Center's inaugural Visionary Award for Innovation in Filmmaking at the center's annual gala.

The most successful filmmaker to emerge from the revitalized Hong Kong cinema of the late 80s and early 90s, Woo updated the grammar of the gangster flick. He had already directed 17 features before his 1986 breakout hit A Better Tomorrow, in which he blended moody reflections on honor, loyalty, faith, and redemption with gleefully explosive action sequences.

Barbara Scharres, the Film Center's director of programming, was so taken with the movie when she saw it in Toronto in 1988 she booked it in Chicago the following year. A few months later she met Woo's producer, Terence Chang, who helped her get leading man Chow Yun-fat to town when The Killer premiered here in 1990.

Courtesy and a near-baffling modesty define Woo's demeanor. He claims to be surprised that the Film Center picked him: "The first thing in my mind was that I don't deserve it," he said. "I haven't done enough yet. I haven't made any great movie yet." Asked about the heady days when he first crossed over into the American market, he replied, "To be honest, I was working in Hong Kong so I never noticed any reaction, and hadn't seen any reviews because the production company never let me know how the movies were working overseas. [Later] I couldn't believe how many people liked my movies, especially The Killer, which was doing OK in Hong Kong, but not a big hit."

Woo will discuss his work--including Spy Hunter, which he's currently developing for the Rock--on Saturday, June 12, in a talk facilitated by Scharres, Chang, and actor and producer Bob Balaban. It's at 7:30 in the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan (enter on Columbus). Tickets are $35 for the discussion alone; tickets to the dinner and award ceremony that follow start at $300. Call 312-846-2072.

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