Of the film pairs I’ve chosen to lasso together for these “Double Feature” posts, this is one of the more improbable. At first glance, the link between these movies is laughably tenuous. One is a silent comedy from 1931 Hollywood, made by a man steeped in the traditions of vaudeville. The other is a bloody, fast-paced action movie from 1989 Hong Kong, made by a man influenced by the crime films of America and France. At least in the way they handle guns, Charlie Chaplin in City Lights and Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer couldn’t possibly be more different. Do these movies have anything in common beyond the fact that each has a blind female character?
Well, for starters, let’s be more specific. In each film, the main character encounters a young lady while going about his business. She changes his life; out of love, he chooses to do whatever it takes to earn the money for an operation to restore the woman’s sight. Meanwhile, he keeps his true identity hidden from her. That’s still a pretty thin connection. We can also say that the man meets another man who will play a major role in his fate, but there’s really no comparison between the millionaire and the police detective. These are wildly different stories — different tones, different milieus, different resolutions. But the filmmakers’ attitude toward the shared conceit is the same, and from there blossoms a romantic approach to storytelling that’s unmistakable. Chaplin and The Killer writer-director John Woo boldly put their hearts on their sleeves with these films, and the finely calibrated results can be entertaining and devastating in the span of a single scene. To put these films together is to see, on one side, the cinema of flowers by the curb, and on the other side, the cinema of candles snuffed out by a dove’s wings. Extravagant expression is the unifying quality.
The physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin is notable for combining elegance and earthiness. His Little Tramp persona always has an air of gentility despite his poverty. City Lights represents the filmmaker’s most successful hybrid of gags and pathos. Every time the tenderness of a scene reaches its zenith, Chaplin will deflate the moment with a bucket of water to the face or a potted plant to the cranium. These jokes are in no way cynical or embarrassed by emotion. Chaplin loves the emotions he can evoke, every single one of them. He just knows he can’t linger on one for too long or it will go stale. John Woo’s approach to action in The Killer is actually quite similar. The beautiful choreography and camera work always coexist with a sobering amount of bloodshed. The action weaves from spectacular coolness to heart-stopping danger to shocking collateral damage. Any one of these notes could have been overplayed, but they balance each other. The squib symphony of the film’s finale is a textbook example, with clearly delineated movements that keep the barrage of gunfire from feeling endless.
As a larger strategy, each film starts by promising uncomplicated fun (although The Killer opens with a church scene that foreshadows a metaphysical crisis for the main character) only to smuggle in deeper emotional resonance by the end. The Tramp’s journey in City Lights could be compared to a seesaw ride in which the positive and negative swings grow more and more pronounced. He’s in the same place at the end as he was at the beginning, but once the hope of a better life is introduced, its loss becomes crushing. Even before the ecstatic final moments, the closing scene has immense power, rendering the most famous character in movie history almost unrecognizable in his despondence. The trajectory of the assassin Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) in The Killer is more like a downward spiral, subtle enough that he doesn’t recognize it until it’s too late to find a way back up. The “one last job” kicks off a series of double crosses and retaliation. An efficiently run criminal organization suddenly starts to destroy itself. Even though Ah Jong maintains an aura of calm superiority to his enemies, the cracks in his armor start to multiply. These films may have launched from the same place, but ultimately they head in different directions.
The older film ended one era, while the newer film essentially launched another. Chaplin’s defiance of the talkie revolution is legendary, but City Lights actually makes ample use of sound. In fact, some of the most striking techniques in the film are the sound effects, with comedic routines amplified by the presence of a whistle, a piano, or a boxing ring bell. Around this time, Chaplin basically treated synchronized sound as a gimmick on the order of 3-D cinematography. He wasn’t failing to learn new tricks; he just wanted to keep a specific art form alive. Chaplin had unique clout in Hollywood, but not even he could slow the march of change. In a way, City Lights is among the least influential of all masterpieces. By contrast, The Killer played a central role in bringing Hong Kong action cinema to the West, bringing style and energy to the genre that are still being emulated. The image of the gunfighter, a weapon in each hand, sliding backwards on the floor while firing, has become archetypal. The Big Boss, the hordes of cannon-fodder henchmen punctuated by The One Henchman Who Can’t Be Killed (who doesn’t usually have to speak, incidentally; here, he’s basically The Guy With the Sunglasses), the car chases and explosions — it all feels intimately familiar. Ironically enough, Woo might be just as dedicated to honoring traditions as Chaplin was, taking inspiration from the films of Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville. Neither City Lights nor The Killer was so much trailblazing as it was perfecting established forms. Maybe traditions need to travel all the way around the world before they look fresh again. It would have taken a lot more than that to save silent movies, though.
What of the blind women themselves (played by Virginia Cherrill and Sally Yeh)? It can be said that they function more as symbols than flesh-and-blood people. Their problems are compelling, but they are entirely dependent on the heroes to solve them. These women represent innocence, purity, a chance at a fresh start. The Tramp and Ah Jong enjoy thinking of themselves the way the women think of them — a dream that’s more comfortable and less compromised than reality. (Ah Jong also keeps the truth a secret because he was inadvertently responsible for the woman’s blindness in the first place.) At the same time, these men jump at the chance to give the women their sight back. This is what love looks like to Chaplin and Woo. It begins when I feel good in the presence of another person, but it reaches completion when I seek that person’s welfare first, even at the cost of my own happiness. The outcome may be comic or tragic, but the point is to love, no matter what. That’s a message worth spreading.