Asian invasion

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

The Hong Kong industry was on a roll in the '80s; despite a population of under seven million, the colony was home to the third (after the United States and India) most prolific movie industry in the world. While American films dominated the box office in every other country in the world, Hong Kong and India preferred their local products. And unlike Indian movies, which seldom transcend the local culture, many Hong Kong films have played well throughout Asia.

But the boom started to crumble at the start of the '90s. Star salaries skyrocketed, while organized crime figures, seeing the opportunity for big profits and access to glamour, became strikingly involved in the industry. The mob's taste for quick profit drained the industry of capital, while its iron-fisted intimidation of stars caused some of the biggest ones to leave for America.

As the influence of Hong Kong movies spread in the United States, Hollywood films began incorporating Hong Kong-style thrills; films such as Speed and The Fifth Element gave Hong Kong audiences the kind of action they loved, but on a larger scale and with international stars. While as recently as 1992, homegrown productions outgrossed foreign films in Hong Kong theaters by four to one, 1997 saw imports (mostly American) beating out the locals for the first time in nearly two decades.

Simultaneously, the transfer of sovereignty to China, after more than a century of British rule, had already created an atmosphere of uncertainty in the film industry.

But by far the biggest factor in the decline was mob-controlled video piracy, which thrives in Hong Kong on a scale undreamed-of here. In Hong Kong, you can find whatever you want at the Temple Street market in the Yaumatei district of Kowloon, where a legion of entrepreneurs spread their goods out on folding tables. Not only has the piracy cut severely into video income, but it has made theatrical revenues drop sharply.

Because of all these problems, the number of films made annually in the former British colony has dropped from well over 200 titles in 1993 to just 60 in 1998--the second-best inducement for top stars to look to America.

Even without a crisis at home, filmmakers from all over the world yearn to work in Hollywood, and the reasons are obvious: bigger paydays, bigger budgets, superior technical facilities, a huge pool of professional talent, and the world's most effective distribution system. Also, as succinctly stated by producer Edward R. Pressman (who has worked with foreigners like R.W. Fassbinder, Wolfgang Petersen, and Fred Schepisi), "American film is the only film that is international."

Ever since World War I disrupted European film production and consolidated Hollywood's status as the world's movie capital, foreign directors have sought refuge, fame, and fortune in the L.A. film community. But if Hollywood has long been open to Europeans and European colonial transplants (such as Australians and New Zealanders), it has been less hospitable to Asians. For decades, Asians, much like blacks, were used mostly as burlesque figures in American movies: Stepin Fetchit, meet the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. For a while, in the silent era, Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa was a star, sometimes even a romantic lead, but he was the great exception.

Although the war put Asian culture even more in the back seat of America, the postwar period was such a great era for Japanese film that Akira Kurosawa (particularly in Western-derived films such as The Seven Samurai) and other directors gained respect in Europe and the States.

But it wasn't until the Bruce Lee phenomenon during the early '70s that a huge portion of the public--particularly the trendsetting youth market--was turned on. Lee's one genuine American blockbuster, Enter the Dragon, was a remarkably savvy bit of audience targeting, mixing the novelty of Asian martial arts with the style and tone of blaxploitation. After Lee's death, Hollywood employed a new generation of martial artists for relatively low-budget action films that catered to adolescent males.

In the late '80s, Asian movies--mostly from mainland China--began to make a splash in art houses. While such works as Ju Dou, The Girl from Hunan, Farewell My Concubine, and Red Sorghum--from young directors like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Xie Fei--were dazzling, they were also limited by the precarious political and financial considerations that define artistic freedom in China.

For the most part, these were relentlessly serious films, examining important social problems, or more often one important social problem--the oppression of women in the days before the revolution--which seemed to be the only subject on which the Western-influenced filmmakers and the defensive, aging bureaucracy could agree. It was a subject that importers and distributors thought likely to engage Western audiences. In 1990, Ju Dou became the first Chinese-language movie nominated for the best-foreign-film Oscar; five more films from China and Taiwan were nominated over the next five years.

Things changed in the early '90s as art houses began to book commercial cinema from Hong Kong. These movies had always been around--playing in Chinatown theaters in most major North American cities for Asian-Americans and diehard Bruce Lee-era kung fu fans. But that audience started to change after festival programmers in Toronto, Chicago, and Vancouver began booking the works of Hong Kong's so-called "New Wave." Ecstatic critics returned home from festivals, spreading the word, and a new generation of fans began to develop around the films. Hollywood execs started to focus on Hong Kong talent--talent that had long been over there.

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