Asian invasion

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

What caught their eye was that the commercial Hong Kong cinema of the '80s and early '90s combined a hybrid of traditional Chinese folklore with the stylistic flash of Hollywood. These movies employed not so much the current Hollywood fodder but the rambunctious Hollywood of old. The popular genres included the kinds of period epics, "women's" melodramas, and screwball romantic comedies that defined Hollywood in the 1930s. In some cases, Hong Kong altered these old-style Hollywood genres for its audience: Horror films became ghost stories and Westerns became swordplay movies.

The Stateside popularity of the movies also got a big boost when Quentin Tarantino, the poster boy for the independent film revolution, spoke lovingly of his admiration for Hong Kong action. His boutique film-releasing company, Rolling Thunder, made its debut by bringing Wong Kar-Wai's charming Chungking Express to the United States.

The exodus of Asian stars to America was inevitable, but it took them a while to gain a foothold here. The first real breakthrough was the success of Bernardo Bertolucci's multiple-Oscar winner The Last Emperor in 1987, which brought stars John Lone, Joan Chen, and Vivian Wu to the attention of American audiences. The Hong Kong-born Lone had already attracted attention in Ice Man and Year of the Dragon, but it wasn't until the Bertolucci film that he became the first choice for Asian male roles in Hollywood.

But Lone's star has dimmed slightly as Chen's has risen, particularly after her pivotal role in David Lynch's briefly notorious TV series, Twin Peaks. Chen and Wu, both Shanghai natives, found steady work in America, though Wu's best-known role was in the British film The Pillow Book.

While The Last Emperor served these three well, Hollywood insiders at the time considered their popularity a fluke. It wasn't until the early to mid-'90s, with the emergence of director John Woo in Hollywood, that it became clear a mass movement was under way.

Indeed, Woo made it big, but not without the help of a colleague already on the American scene: "I was the luckiest one, because I've got a great partner and friend in Terence Chang (Woo's manager and producer). In Hong Kong, I was always just concentrating on making my movies. And Terence brought my movies to every film festival and introduced me and my work to the whole world. He built a path for me to come to Hollywood."

Woo started by directing Universal's Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target in 1993. But this modest accomplishment was marred when Woo lost control of the editing because of the star's ego and because of problems with the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board, which insisted on an NC-17 rating until the movie was re-edited finally by Universal.

"After Hard Target, I was a little upset," Woo admits. "I didn't want to go back to Hong Kong. I'm a fighter. But I realized that if I wanted to make a real good movie, I had to have control of the script, like I did in Hong Kong. In Hollywood, to do the same thing, you have to have the power."

Woo's third American release, the 1997 Face/Off, was a big enough success to guarantee his continued American career, as well as that of Chang, who has a dozen films in various stages of development these days. (Woo was recently listed in Premiere magazine as the 70th most powerful figure in Hollywood.)

Woo cites his willingness to meet Hollywood halfway as a major reason he has succeeded. "Some people insist on making films here the Hong Kong way, and it doesn't work. Sometimes Western audiences [don't get it]," he says. "I'm proud of the Hong Kong films, but not all about them is good."

Kirk Wong is the most recent director to make the transition. In Hong Kong, he is best known for making gritty police thrillers that are more realistic than Woo's fare. While Organized Crime, Triad Bureau, Gunmen, and Rock and Roll Cop were his best Hong Kong films, it was Crime Story (his one collaboration with Jackie Chan) that brought him to the attention of Hollywood.

Ironically, distributor Miramax ended up sending the film--an uneasy combination of Chan's action and Wong's noirish realism--straight to video. By then, however, Wong had already lined up his first deal--The Big Hit, starring Mark Wahlberg (hot off of his success in Boogie Nights) and Lou Diamond Phillips. The film opened in the No. 1 spot last spring, though it faded quickly.

Wong, who has lived in L.A. for two years (but has visited L.A. and Houston, where he has family, for the past five) agrees that Hollywood and Hong Kong have vastly different styles. "In Hong Kong, you have pretty much total freedom," he says, admitting that his transition was difficult. "I felt like I had to start all over again, as if I'd just graduated from college, was pushing my student film, and was having to start meeting people."

Unlike some others who have found Hollywood stifling to their creativity, Wong says, "I think, in general, Americans are open to new talent--more than anywhere in the world. The door is wide open as long as you're good enough, as long as you've got the juice."

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