Asian invasion

As the Hong Kong movie industry collapses, scads of Chinese filmmakers and actors are landing big jobs in Hollywood

Nearly everyone--certainly every film buff--who saw the last James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, came away excited, though the film was certainly no match for Goldfinger or From Russia With Love. Audiences were buzzing, not about the gadgets or about Pierce Brosnan, but about Michelle Yeoh--the Hong Kong actress who played the first really kick-ass Bond girl in the franchise's 37 years and 18 episodes.

And, in last summer's Lethal Weapon 4--again, a trusty, movie-industry war-horse whose designers are aware of the need for fresh ideas--two new elements were brought into the series' familiar mix: Chris Rock and Jet Li. Rock did a passable job, but it was Li, Asia's biggest martial arts star next to Jackie Chan, who galvanized every scene he was in. Even before the film was released, advance word of his searing performance sparked a seven-figure offer for him to star in The Art of War for Universal. Before the ink was dry, Warner Brothers (which released Lethal Weapon 4) stepped in and exercised an option for Li to star in Joel Silver's Romeo Must Die for $3 million. The Universal project had to be delayed.

Yeoh and Li and many other Hong Kong stars bring to American screens a kind of dazzling kinetic art that hasn't existed in Hollywood since the days of Buster Keaton or Douglas Fairbanks Sr. But, along with Jackie Chan and director John Woo, they represent the tip of the iceberg--the most visible advance guard of an ever-increasing wave of Chinese talent pumping new blood into American movies.

These Chinese actors and directors (most of them from Hong Kong) could particularly revitalize the bloated American action film genre, whose status as a reliable moneymaker took a drubbing this summer with the less-than-anticipated box-office business of Armageddon and Godzilla. For many people not familiar with Jackie Chan movies, their first big taste of Hong Kong-style action was Yeoh's big fight scene two-thirds through Tomorrow Never Dies. Until then, the film had teased us with just a few shots involving Yeoh's physical talents. Suddenly, in the sequence where she's trapped in a shack by some villains, the film bursts to life, as Yeoh leaps, spins, kicks, and grabs whatever's handy to defend herself. For roughly two minutes, the Bond film catapults into another universe--a kind of purely visual cinema that has more in common with Gene Kelly's athletic "Singin' in the Rain" number (difference in tone aside) than with all the explosions and computer-generated images of Armageddon.

Jackie Chan is, of course, the highest-profile of the new arrivals. It's been about three years since he hit the United States amid a firestorm of publicity. As Rumble in the Bronx (his first big American release in a decade, re-edited and dubbed from his Hong Kong hit of a year earlier) opened in the No. 1 spot on box-office charts, Chan appeared on the cover of more than 30 national magazines. His boyish charm, coupled with film clips of his acrobatic stunt work, made him a hit on the talk-show circuit.

Actually, this wasn't Chan's first attempt to break through to American audiences. In the '80s, Golden Harvest Productions, the biggest Hong Kong studio and Chan's home base, seriously attempted to promote him in the States, with The Big Brawl and the two Burt Reynolds/Hal Needham Cannonball Run films in which he played one of the drivers, but nothing came of these admittedly lackluster efforts.

Former Golden Harvest executive Thomas Gray--who was integral to bringing Chan to America--admits that the company handled the situation poorly. "Most of it is our fault," Gray conceded. "We didn't give Jackie the right kind of vehicle."

But Gray soon made up for the mistake. Rim Films, the Golden Harvest subsidiary run by him, promoted Chan's movies through mini-festivals and art-house bookings. The enthusiastic response from critics and audiences led directly to New Line's interest in the action star. "We did our job, which was breaking in Jackie in America," Gray says. "But I have to applaud New Line. They did a terrific job on Rumble."

Yet despite Chan's success in that picture, it seemed last summer that he might prove just a fad to American audiences. None of the subsequent releases of Chan's Hong Kong productions--at least two of which, Supercop and Operation Condor, were superior to Rumble--did nearly as well. His latest Hong Kong smash, Who Am I?, bypassed American theaters and debuted on cable. In two and a half years, his Hollywood film exposure had been limited to a small part in the disastrous satire An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn, in which he appeared with longtime buddy Sylvester Stallone.

But just as the frustrated Chan was rumored to be ready to return to Hong Kong for good, Rush Hour came along and made him the same kind of bankable star in America that he has been for decades in Asia.

While it would have been easy for the biggest Hong Kong star of all time to return home, it would be impossible for almost anybody else. Chan enjoys broad popularity in all Asian markets, but other actors--even Yeoh, Li, and Chow Yun-Fat, the handsome leading man in the best-known John Woo films--are stars only in their homeland, where the local film industry is in shambles.

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