The plot features an FBI agent (John Travolta) who switches identities with a terrorist (Nicholas Cage) by shearing the man's face off and transplanting it onto his own. The style in which it shot, however, is one that transformed the Hong Kong movie industry and first turned Woo into a cult director in the West.
After the relative disappointment of his previous efforts in the US, most notably Broken Arrow, which succeeded at the box office but left his fans much dissatisfied. Face/Off returns to the form he showed in Hong Kong in the mid-Eighties. Taking the director's old interplay of hunter and hunted to its logical end, Face/Off "seems much more like a John Woo-esque movie", according to Roger Garcia, a film producer and former director of the Hong Kong Film Festival. It has the stylised violence that has influenced other Hollywood directors: in one scene, a four- year-old child watches a shoot-out to the tune of "Somewhere over the Rainbow".
Woo has paved the way for other Chinese directors and stars. Five years after he went to the US, and days before Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule, the sons and daughters of the colony are making themselves felt in Hollywood and in Canada. In Hong Kong, the industry that was so alive in the Eighties and early Nineties is at a crossroads. Tales of Triad influence, foreign competition and fear of censorship, state or self-imposed, have seen revenue slump. And some of the best talent has gone overseas.
Hollywood's new poster child is English-educated Bond girl Michelle Yeoh, fresh from her role as a Chinese security chief opposite Jackie Chan, the 40-something veteran of Hong Kong action movies, in Supercop.United Artists is so pleased with her work in the Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, that it has already offered her another picture, and two other studios have come courting.
The hallmarks of Hong Kong's film industry - slick but troubled hitmen, crazy antics with guns, and male bonding amid fusillades of bullets - now crop up repeatedly in American films. Quentin Tarantino unabashedly borrowed from Woo. The difference now is that most of Hong Kong's big names have crossed the Pacific.
Chow Yun-Fat, Woo's long-time leading man and one of Asia's biggest box-office draws, has just finished The Replacement Killers, his Hollywood debut. Opposite the Oscar-winning Mira Sorvino, he plays, predictably enough, a hitman, and will undoubtedly help Columbia Studios reach the vast Asian market.
Peter Chen, who at 34 has seven films behind him and whose speciality is romance and drama rather than action, moved to Los Angeles early this year. He is developing a remake of a gender-bending comedy he made in Hong Kong, He's a Woman, She's a Man, reading scripts and meeting studio executives.He sees his options limited in a shrinking Hong Kong industry, and is concerned at the impact of the handover.
"Directors in Hong Kong and China have had a tough time dealing with Chinese censorship," said Terence Chang, Woo's producer and partner, who moved with him. He cites a mainland Chinese director whose film about a psychopathic teacher was approved in script form by Peking censors, but banned when it came to the screen, because no teacher could be a psychopath.
"It's tough to make films in Hong Kong now; the film market has hit a real low - I think the Triads moved off because there is no money in it," he said jokingly. "Most of the Hong Kong films can't even sell to Taiwan. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, they are watching American films."