Not only is Manhunt John Woo’s first Netflix film, it marks his return to classic action films after nearly a decade of crafting epic wuxia and period dramas. Quite a bit has changed in action cinema during that time, but, then again, Woo’s films always felt light years ahead of their time in their radical tonal shifts, their irreverence for genre, and their relative disinterest in physical and spatial continuity. Time has not really caught up with Woo either, since even by today’s standards this is a remarkably freeform action film, revelling in absurdity and implausibility while somehow managing to craft a compelling narrative and series of characters as well. That said, the narrative becomes more a matter of ambience than discrete events as the film proceeds, revolving around a few flashpoints – a fugitive framed for a crime he didn’t commit, a disenchanted police officer, a shady pharmaceutical company, human testing of a new drug – rather than developing in any discernibly direct or linear manner. Adding to the mild sense of disorientation is the fact that the majority of the film is set Japan, and is partly dubbed in English, although this still very much feels like a Chinese feature. Indeed, for the most part the film doesn’t seem to take place in any real place, but instead occupies a transnational Chinese ambience that is as confident of its capacity to bridge countries as the Netflix model is confident of its ability to bridge markets.
From the very outset, then, there’s a synergy between Woo’s Chinese diaspora and the Netflix address that gives Manhunt a sufficient drive and propulsion to encompass a startling number of different tones and atmospheres. While the film may be anchored in action, Woo moves between genres with an insatiable and promiscuous taste for spectacle, abruptly cutting away from scenes before they can settle or stabilise into one register, and frequently cutting or fading within scenes to create pauses and ellipses that prevent any one character or situation holding sway. Neither the film, nor any of its scenes, aim for self-contained or stand-alone spectacle, with the result that Manhunt often approaches the quotidian, quasi-comic vibe of television crime procedural. While its characters may play as types, they’re the lived-in types of televisual procedural as well, too cursory and off-the-cuff in their charisma to aspire to individuality, or a naturalistic approach to emotional “depth.”
Perhaps that’s why so much of Manhunt involves characters pushing or jamming their way through crowds, as Woo evokes an urban mass that is both too big to form a single spectacle in itself, but also too big to be compelled by a single spectacle either. Once again, it feels as if it is the sheer mass of the Chinese urban diaspora we are witnessing here, rather than any one city, thanks in part to Woo’s dizzying aerial shots, which start off as establishing shots but quickly become disorienting, seeming to deconstruct and reconstruct the urban landscape anew each time. In one of the most breathless early chases, a character emerges from the subway system in a neighborhood that doesn’t yet exist (“This place is not on the map,” “It’s still under construction”), conjuring up an city sprawling so rapidly that it has outpaced the capacity of even digital geolocative devices to properly represent it.
Within that strange zone, most of the action feels loosely grounded in martial arts, just as all the key players feel like digital riffs on the martial artists of an older and purer form of Chinese action cinema. As with most martial arts films, engaging in combative action involves communing with a deeply subjective experience of time, and then using that to shape time around the adversary. Unlike most martial arts films, however, Woo is quite indiscriminate about whose subjective, or martial, experience of time he focuses upon, moving rapidly between kinetic montage and slow motion, or even including both in the same shot, to produce action sequences that are impossible to parse from one temporal angle. Time and again, the start and end of action trajectories – bullets, swords, lunges – feel quite dissociated from each other, while Woo’s trademark doves encapsulate this strangely subjectified time more flamboyantly than ever before, forming a locus of motion that seems sped-up and slowed-down in different frames, or even within the same frame.
In other words, there is never really any sense of a stable temporal continuum between the characters here – an doubly disorienting prospect in a fugitive film, which typically proceeds by way of minute increments of real time. Not is there any clear distinction between action time and “regular” time, since while there are certainly some sustained set pieces, for the most part Woo’s bursts of action tend to intrude and then recede before you can properly process them. Even the most placid moments have a weird submerged energy, while even the most kinetic moments are displaced by a looming calm, producing a visual messiness that’s only enhanced by the occasional serene Japanese backdrop that intrudes upon Woo’s mise-en-scenes. To make things even more sublimely atonal, Woo doesn’t even treat this kinetic incoherence as an assault to the senses, or an avant-garde gesture, since if anything his constant recourse to slow-sped motion makes it feel as if an inspirational montage sequence is never too far away. Whether it’s his cheesy saxophone score, or his moments of sudden sentimentality, or his weird bursts of hokey humour, this is post-continuity as a feel-good effect, and a vehicle for nostalgic cinematic classicism – an appropriate and irreverent gesture from a director who was post-continuous years before American action directors.
Yet that feel-good element is just atonal enough to never quite feel good either, exuding an assurance of normality and order that becomes more unsettling as the film reaches its conclusion. In these final scenes, Woo’s divergent aesthetic becomes more emphatic still, until it feels as if several equally climactic scenes are happening at once, and several characters are facing equally climactic scenarios, but the camera can’t fully commit to any of them, divesting the film of any single or sustained point of focus just as it’s supposed to be wrapping things up. At first, it seems as if a plot point is going to provide that focus, as we get the big reveal that the corporation in question has created a drug that turns humans into avatars, removing their fear but also their control, and allowing them to be remotely programmed by those administering the drug. Yet this revelation just makes it harder to locate a discrete point of focus or agency, as one character after another finds themselves remote controlled, or else struggling to overcome the drug that is remote controlling them.
In these final moments, all the indiscriminate chaos and spectacle of Manhunt coalesces on the gamification of everyday life in the Chinese diaspora, evoking a world in which it’s necessary to treat every spectacle you encounter as a game in order to avoid being gamed yourself. Being gamed and being framed therefore converge over the course of this odd fugitive narrative, which often seems to inhabit the simultaneous surveillance, or social surveillance – whatever you call it – that is starting to creep into every facet of Chinese private life. Whereas American surveillance thrillers of the 1970s were fixated on the austerity of public spaces watched over by video cameras, in Woo’s world that austerity has been replaced by a picaresque combination of surveillance, and sousveillance, observation from above and observation from all around. This omniveillance, as it might be called, can no longer be eluded, but only gamed from within, forcing the film’s characters to appropriate and remediate as much spectacle as possible in order to avoid becoming the victims of spectacle themselves. By the end, the relation between Woo and Manhunt feels closer to that between a gamer and a LetsPlay video than a director and a film, just as the “film” itself feels like an instance of exactly the gaming accessory that its characters seem to crave, a “super drug designed for the battlefield” that testifies to the eeriness of this emergent China, and its claims to the future, which forecloses with every frame of this film.